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Sunday, October 1, 2006

Operations: More Science, Less Bling

Operators of Fortune 500 helicopters want more capability in the front and less extravagance in the back.

When a prominent Fortune 500 company recently put out bids for completion of its “green” AgustaWestland AW139, the medium-twin that will replace its S-76B by the end of next year, quietness took precedence over the opulence often associated with big business.

“We’re shooting for dB numbers in the 70s,” said the company’s chief helicopter pilot, who asked that neither he nor the company be identified. An executive interior typically achieves noise levels in the mid-80s.

Sikorsky Aircraft’s newest version of the S-76, the D model, will incorporate the cabin and gearbox noisedampening features of the S-76C++, as well as a tail rotor to reduce noise and make the aircraft a more friendly neighbor around heliports when it enters service in 2009.

Helicopter

Key desires of corporate operators include ice-protection systems, such as that being developed for the AW139, and more comfortable and functional interiors.

Helicopter interior
More serene cabins are among several trends that completion centers, operators and helicopter manufacturers are observing from the Fortune 500 companies. Others include more comfortable cabin seats and better in-flight entertainment and connectivity choices. For the cockpit, GPS units capable of meshing with the FAA ’s Wide-Area Augmentation System, the latest safety features and capabilities for flight into known icing for corporations in the Northeast corridor are the rage.

Of course, “rage” is probably too strong a word given the limited numbers of such aircraft. According to Ken Green, an analyst with JetNet (formerly AvData), there were 149 helicopters belonging to Fortune 1000 companies in the U.S. in 2004, the most recent survey. As of July this year, there were 19,400 helicopters flown by 9,516 operators worldwide and 6,683 flown by 3,571 in the United States. The 2004 Fortune 1000 numbers were slightly down from the 156 helicopters in the sector in 2003.

The most recent tally of helicopters for Fortune 500 companies by JetNet came in 2002, when there were 154. JetNet has yet to decide whether it will analyze the sector for 2005. Among the Fortune 1000 companies, those with the most helicopters in 2004 included the energy companies Chevron, El Paso Corp. and Exxon, with 30, 18, and 11, respectively. The survey did not distinguish between utility and executive uses of them.

Growth in twin-engine U.S.-made rotorcraft in 2005 might suggest a growth in Fortune 500 helicopters, but the evidence is anecdotal. Data compiled by the U.S. Aerospace Industries Assn. listed 50 deliveries for Sikorsky in 2005, up from 35 in 2004. The difference was attributed mainly to the ramp-up of the S-92—the company delivered 29 S-76s and four S-92s in 2004 and 30 S-76s and 19 S-92s last year. Deliveries for Bell’s twin-engine helicopters (the most likely corporate ships are the 412, 427, 430) totaled 46 in 2005 and 44 last year.

Larry Roberts, vice president, commercial affairs for American Eurocopter, is keenly interested in what’s happening with the upper corporate echelon given that Eurocopter, by far the majority seller in the overall helicopter market, has yet to scratch the surface of the Fortune 500 segment. “It’s been a Sikorsky market with the S-76,” Roberts said. “The issue with big Fortune 500 companies is that they don’t switch (helicopter manufacturers) often,” he said. “It takes a big change in technology or requirements for them to switch.”

Whether or not they’ll ultimately decide to switch, Roberts said, he is seeing “a lot of companies shopping” and “making some decisions in the next couple of years to replace aircraft.” What they’re looking for are advanced technologies like health and usage monitoring systems (HUMS) and glass cockpits with integrated avionics, along with rotorcraft that are quieter inside and outside. “Execs want quiet,” said Roberts. “They want to work without headsets.”

Coming up with ways to give the customer a quieter interior is keeping completion center engineers busy. At Sikorsky subsidiary Keystone Helicopter, there are 60 engineers (out of total of 500 employees) working on the various completion and refurbishment projects under way. The Pennsylvania- based company, which also runs a Part 135 service, completes about three green S-76s and S-92s a month and 3-4 green aircraft from other manufacturers a year. Keystone also refurbishes as many as six helicopters a year, according to Steven Schofield, sales manager for completions and refurbishments.

Keystone is bidding the AW139 project for the unnamed Fortune 500 company. To get the required noise reduction, Schofield said, the company proposed blocking off one of the two sliding doors in the cabin and putting the other on hinges in order to add more soundproofing. This fall, Keystone plans to offer its own noise-dampening system, called the Silencer, with the first installation on an S-76C++. The effect will be similar to that of Sikorsky’s “Quiet Zone” gearbox on that aircraft, which reduces the clatter to about 84 dB. Developed with Sikorsky and the University of Delaware, Silencer is made of carbon fiber and constructed in sections.

Of the market in general, Keystone’s Rick Hinkle, vice president of program development and customer support, said he’s seeing “a bit of a tone-down” in executive aircraft. That includes more subdued materials in the cabin.

“There’s less of the bling, less of the bars and refreshments,” he said. Instead, he said customers want aesthetic options like indirect lighting and multi-function entertainment systems with more content. Features in demand include satellite radio and plasma-screen monitors that can show slide presentations.

Hinkle said he’s also seeing greater interest in having closed-circuit cameras installed on the exterior of the aircraft so that officials can monitor the surroundings when it is parked. For instance, AI G’s AW139, which is being completed by Air Concepts International in Teterboro, N.J., is fitted with four onboard cameras, satellite phones and real-time weather uplink. The aircraft includes a Sagem moving map display to accompany the Honeywell Primus Epic integrated avionics suite.

At Bell’s completion subsidiary, Piney Flats, Tenn.-based Edwards and Associates, relaxation, and all it entails, is what corporate customers are wanting. “The biggest thing people want is quiet and comfort, then entertainment, both visual and audio” said Paul Schreuder, vice president of sales and marketing for the company. “They also want the ability to relax and enjoy themselves on a flight, with beverages they can easily get to.” Part of relaxing in this case is connecting. Schreuder said customers want satellite phones, typically through the Iridium satellite network, and that the next trend will be data connectivity so executives can tie into office networks with laptop computers.

Noise reduction is also on a big draw. Schreuder said Edwards’ retrofit soundproofing can cut noise levels in the cabin by 6–8 dBs over manufacturer levels. “You can comfortably have a conversation without using headsets,” he added. However, with the new entertainment systems, headsets are often included to allow passengers to access different audio options between seats.

Schreuder said Edwards will finish 80 completions this year, 70 of them green aircraft. Of the total, he said, 20 percent will be executive interiors, which can cost as much as $700,000 including avionics. The factory interior upgrade for the Bell 430, according to Schreuder, costs about $40,000.

Upgraded avionics typically include GPS systems with moving maps “that will allow you to see down to the street level”, traffic-advisory/ collision avoidance system (TCA S), terrain awareness warning systems (TA WS), weather radar and weather datalink, typically through XM satellite radio. “Execs want the safest environment a helicopter can operate in,” said Schreuder.

And the execs, as the customers, are king. The unnamed Fortune 500 company buying the AW139 has operated S-76s for more than 26 years to transport executives and customers in a corridor from Washington, D.C. in the south to Boston in the north. The department’s single helicopter flies 250–450 hr a year, a range the chief pilot said has held for more than 20 years. Its fourth S-76, the current S-76B, has TCA S, an Enhanced Ground-Proximity Warning System and improved soundproofing.

In addition to its larger passenger compartment, greater speed and range and improved avionics, the chief pilot said his company was keen for the AW139’s potential to earn certification for flight into known icing, possibly some time in 2008. That option is available now on the S-92 and planned for the S-76D when it enters production in 2009. “The time we lose varies year to year,” said the pilot, “but probably 10 percent of our flights are canceled due to icing.”

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