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Monday, February 1, 2010

Rotorcraft Report: Sikorsky Starts S-76D Assembly

By Andrew D. Parker, Managing Editor

Products | Airframes
Assembly of the initial Sikorsky S-76D airframe—s/n 761004—has begun at Aero Vodochody in the Czech Republic. The first production unit is scheduled for an April 2010 transfer to Sikorsky Global Helicopters’ facility in Chester County Airport (MQS) in Coatesville, Pa. for final assembly and completions.

Sikorsky’s S-76D in flight. The manufacturer launched assembly on the first production S-76D at Aero Vodochody in the Czech Republic, with an April 2010 transfer planned to its plant in Coatesville, Pa. Courtesy of Sikorsky
Tim Fox, S-76D program manager, says that the helicopter has gained interest across a broad spectrum of markets, including corporate/VIP, utility and offshore transport. He explains that Aero Vodochody is a longtime Sikorsky partner that currently produces the S-76C++ fuselage, “and in the practical sense, they’re going to be doing the same activities for the D.”

“Essentially, when the aircraft arrives in Coatesville,” Fox continues, “the only items left to put on are things like the engines and the main transmissions, so really it’s only final assembly operations that take place at Coatesville.” While some customers have completions handled through an outside provider, the majority of the aircraft are completed in Coatesville. Fox says that the facility “is very adept at all aspects of aircraft completions, from custom interiors, avionics upgrades and integration, custom painting [and] a wide variety of mechanical systems. It’s a very capable organization.”

Fox notes that one of the most important aspects to the S-76D is the introduction of quiet rotor technology.

“This is one of the real significant advances we’re bringing to the aircraft. Essentially we’ll be operating at two different rotor RPMs, and it will have an automatic transition from one speed to the next, to enable very quiet operations,” says Fox. This feature is especially important in the corporate/VIP market, as well as for operators flying in crowded areas or dense populations, including the EMS role when approaching a hospital. Other advances include a new four-bladed quiet tail rotor (QTR), Pratt & Whitney PW210S engines, Thales avionics and autopilot, and optional rotor ice protection system (RIPS).

“At the phase we’re in now, we’re actively developing and refining the software that goes into the engines, the avionics and autopilot system. So it’s an ongoing, iterative process,” Fox says. He terms a lot of the challenges that arise from working with multiple suppliers and geographical locations as “clarity of communication” issues. It’s important to make sure that requirements are well-defined and clear, he says.

“As we go through flight test, naturally we discover issues that need to be resolved. So then [we have to] work with those same suppliers again to put in corrective actions for things that haven’t worked as planned, and it keeps that dialogue going,” Fox adds. S-76D deliveries are scheduled to begin in 2011, with a production rate of one helicopter per month. Sikorsky plans to ramp up slowly to three helicopters per month in the late 2011/2012 timeframe. “Once we get to the point where the configuration is firmly established and stable, then we’ll press the button to accelerate and meet customer demand,” says Fox.

There is currently a backlog of around 80 S-76Ds on order, and Sikorsky anticipates a demand for around 30 helicopters per year once full production is achieved.

Roger Gibbs, senior manager of strategic marketing, notes that the offshore market “appears to have been the least affected” by the global economic downturn. While Sikorsky is “cautiously optimistic” about 2010, Gibbs says that “offshore oil is already picking up and many of the other segments having high social importance will find funding for helicopters to support security and health needs.” He adds that other market segments such as military, as well as international orders, are helping to make up for losses seen industry-wide in the civil market.

The S-76D program was launched in 2005 and first flight took place in February 2009. Three helicopters are involved in the flight test program—the first-flight aircraft, a second one that’s also currently at Sikorsky’s West Palm Beach facility in Florida, and a third prototype in Coatesville that will move to Florida in first quarter 2010. The fourth S-76D and first production helicopter, s/n 761004, belongs to Dubai’s Falcon Aviation Services (FAS), the global launch customer for the type.

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