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Thursday, July 3, 2014

Wheels Up: A Recap of HeliRussia 2014

By Lee Benson

I just returned from attending HeliRussia 2014. This was the sixth year in a row that I have attended. Think of HeliRussia as a one-third scale version of Heli-Expo. Some of the main differences would be a lot more helicopters with counter-rotating main rotor systems and some ugly helicopters. Now when I say ugly, I don’t mean ugly like the MBB BO105 that I used to fly, which is maybe not as appealing as, say, a Sikorsky S-76. No folks, we are talking UGLY. I would call them coyote ugly but why give coyotes a bad name? On the other hand, two recent Russian-designed helicopters are very nice looking – the Mil Mi-38 and the Kamov Ka-62. I particularly appreciate that both of these aircraft have wheels under them big enough to take out into the field and make a living doing purposeful work, such as seismic survey, geological survey or firefighting.

This is opposed to most modern wheeled helicopters that look like if you dared land them on anything besides a runway or an oil platform, the wheel would fall into the nearest gopher hole. The Ka-62 even gets the wheel location correct with two wheels in front and a single tail wheel. Note to engineers: I know you where taught in school that tail dragger airplanes had less than admirable landing characteristics. But really? These are helicopters, we don’t normally land at 80 mph. Try disembarking passengers on the side of a mountain too steep to put all three wheels on the ground with a single front wheeled helicopter, versus the same maneuver with two wheels in front. The latter is a much more stable situation.

Another difference between Heli-Expo and HeliRussia is that while walk-in traffic at Heli-Expo can lead to very worthwhile business opportunities, almost all of the significant interactions with customers at HeliRussia are preplanned meetings set weeks or months in advance. I would suggest that trying to make significant inroads to the Russian commercial helicopter business without some form of in-country representation would be very difficult indeed. Attendance at this year’s HeliRussia saw some significant cancellations, including Sikorsky and HAI, due to the Ukraine situation. In spite of these cancellations, the show set records for both attendance and booth space. The whole Ukraine issue is sad to me personally, first of all because of the death and suffering of the Ukraine people, but also because it interferes with trade conduct between the commercial Russian helicopter companies and the West. The closer the commercial ties between two nations, the less likely one of the partners is to start trouble. I’ve been privileged to become friends with several people from within the Russian helicopter community and I have the greatest respect for them as individuals.

Other facts about the show include that Moscow traffic makes Los Angeles traffic look like a piece of cake. Never, ever, would I consider getting a rental car in Moscow. The food in Moscow is good – there is a distinct possibility that when Napoleon retreated from Moscow in 1812, most of the approximately 10,000 men he left behind must have been chefs. For a child of the Cold War to sit in a restaurant in Red Square across from Lenin’s tomb is indeed strange.

My last thought on this is that if – and its a big if – Russian Helicopters puts together a sales organization befitting their engineering excellence, western helicopter OEMs better start paying attention. The product is modern, well thought out and in many cases better suited for a utility environment then its western equivalent. On the product support side, my conversations with the folks from Vancouver Island Helicopters about their utilization of the Ka-32 has left them impressed with product support and durability.

Before you dismiss this, I will remind you of the initial reaction amongst American car manufactures when the Japanese car companies showed up. How did that work out?

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