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Author: Ian Twombly (page 1 of 7)

What’s in a name?

AgustaWestland is no more. Well, it still exists, but we’ve been told to now call it Finmeccanica Helicopters. This is a bit of a “me too” moment after the announcement last year that Eurocopter parent Airbus would be naming all its machines Airbus Helicopters. To be fair, the Finmeccanica transition has been in place for some time, and the name change is one part of a larger plan to realign the business units.

It’s AOPA’s policy to identify aircraft via the preference of the current type certificate holder. It’s something we spend too much time thinking about. Cessna’s recent acquistion of Beechcraft is a good example. Do we call it Cessna-Beechcraft, Textron Aviation, or just stick with Cessna? The folks at Textron (or is it Cessna?) don’t make it much easier. In ads you’re seeing Textron Aviation, but they want individual products refered to as Cessnas and Beechcraft. While confusing, the reasoning is sound. The names Cessna and Beechcraft carry weight, and dropping them would mean dropping a century worth of credibility, history, and maybe even a little romance. Meanwhile, keeping them and bringing in Textron gives the feeling there is more to it. Even if you don’t know what Textron is, you sense there’s a bigger presence there somewhere, which is exactly what they are going for.

Then there’s Airbus and Finmeccanica. Both decided to drop their longstanding brands and go straight to the parent company. With Airbus we lost Eurocopter and a few other notable brands, and replaced it with the decidedly boring bus in the sky. If you set out to kill the romance of aviation, inserting “bus” is an effective way to do it. While the name change does offer the benefit of cleaning up what had become a really confusing nomenclature (the Dauphin will be replaced by the H160, for example) buying or flying an “Airbus” just isn’t as thrilling as  Eurocopter, Aerospatiale, and so on.

With Finmeccanica the challenge is a little more subtle. The company had already inserted itself into the AgustaWestland name by tagging on “a Finmeccanica company.” This worked well. You got the idea there was more to AW, but you kept the 90-year history of Agusta and 50-year history of Westland. It was a modern marriage that flowed off the tongue nicely. No more. The parent has spoken, and we’ll now have the Finmeccanica 189, 139, and others. Although, the website still calls them the AW189, AW139, respectively. I guess that means we’ll have to call them the Finmeccanica AW189, AW obviously short for AgustaWestland.

Interestingly, Lockheed Martin chose to take a meshed approach when it acquired Sikorsky last year by ditching Sikorsky’s winged S logo and replacing it with Lockheed Martin’s star. They also added the tagline “A Lockheed Martin company.” Given recent history, it may only be a matter of time before we have the Lockheed Martin S-76 though.

The need for speed

There was news from AgustaWestland last week that the company’s forthcoming AW609 Tiltrotor broke a speed record from Yeovil, England to Samarate, Italy. The entire 627 nautical miles took two hours and 18 minutes, resulting in an average speed of about 273 knots. That’s a pretty impressive clip.

With the Tiltrotor expected to be in the $30 million range, not to mention a few thousand an hour to operate, the time savings has to be seriously compelling to justify the expense.

Although this flight went between two AgustaWestland facilities, it could just have easily been two customer factories, or a CEO’s home and weekend estate. So it’s as good as any to use as a case study. Alternative modes of getting to the airport would have been required on both ends;  let’s look at how that would work.

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Yeovil is served by either Bristol or Bournemouth. Let’s give our alternate method the best chance and say we base a Citation X out of Bournemouth. We bought it used, so we had a bit left over for an Agusta AW109 that we keep at our office. It’s a best-case scenario of helicopter to fastest business jet in the world. We’ll also assume both the jet and helicopter are primed and ready to go.

We can ballpark the flight between Yeovil and Bournemouth at about 130 nautical miles. That would take about 15 minutes. Add in some ground time with the jet and we’re off U.K. soil in about 30 minutes total.

The destination helps traditional airplane travel because the facility is only a few miles from an airport. And given that the Citation X can make this trip in a little over an hour (call it an 70 minutes with a direct routing), things are looking good for jet travel, indeed.

After landing in Milan we have another 15 minutes on the ground before getting in the car for the 15-minute drive to the AgustaWestland facility–our final destination.

A bit of scratch-pad math puts this form of trip at one hour and 55 minutes. Of course, that’s with the world’s fastest business jet, a helicopter, a direct routing, and a destination only 15 minutes from an airport large enough to handle our jet.

No doubt a more traditional trip would involve an hour drive to the airport on the front end (Yeovil to Bournemouth), a slightly slower jet, some diversions in flight, and a longer drive on the back end. In all, it probably takes AW executives more like three hours or more to make that trip.

Thirty million is a big price to pay for saving an hour, but we shouldn’t underestimate people’s needs for aircraft that fit unique mission profiles. The sweet spot for the Tiltrotor is pretty small. The mission has to be long enough that traditional rotorcraft can’t compete, and short enough that a jet won’t blow it away. AW says the Tiltrotor offers rotorcraft capabilities with turboprop speeds. That’s pretty cool. But they also say that executives are the aircraft’s primary target customer, and said executive can buy a jet and a traditional helicopter for a lot less money.

Despite all this there are approximately 60 orders for the aircraft thus far, and barring significant missteps, I think that will increase. Once people see these operating in and out of downtown heliports, factories, and airports, their appeal will grow. I was on an airline flight last week out of Washington National and a V-22 Osprey flew down the Potomac River. People who had moments before been buried in their morning paper took notice. They pointed and made comments. There’s no denying the technology is enticing, and for that reason alone people will buy them. I know I would love to fly it!

Putting the auto in autorotate

Three seconds. That’s all you the time you have to get the collective buried on an R22—give or take a tenth or two. Now a new company thinks it has an innovative solution that will help keep the air flowing through those rotor blades.

HeliTrak is developing a collective pull down, a simple system that automatically drops the collective in half a second once the low rotor light and horn go off. Much like a stick pusher in a fixed-wing stall, the collective pull down overrides the feeble human brain and uses a motor and a cable to quickly yank it down.

In the event it’s not a true emergency and the pilot elects to figure things out, he can manually override it by doing a bit of tug-of-war. The system is designed to give up and let the human win after about three seconds, the logic being by that point the pilot has figured out it’s not a true emergency and wants to keep flying.

Even if he goes the safe route, lets the system win, and then later realizes it’s ok to keep flying, the system is engineered to let go and allow the pilot to fly again.

I bench tested the collective pull down (meaning it was in a display box on a table at EAA Airventure) and was really impressed. The pull is dramatic, but clearly easy to override in a tense moment. In fact, the whole thing is so simple, so obvious, it’s a short conversation. Seems cool, should be certified, little downside.

HeliTrak hopes to get the STC in the next few months. Initially it will be available for the R22, but the R44, Enstroms, and JetRanger could come soon after. At fewer than two pounds, and a modest three or so hours to install, the initial numbers look good.

The K-Max returns

There’s good news from Bloomfield, Connecticut-based Kaman Corporation. The company announced recently it plans to restart production of the heavy-lift K-Max. An initial conservative plan includes building 10 helicopters, primarily for international buyers. Deliveries are planned for early 2017.

Known for its unusual twin intermesh rotor system, the K-Max is capable of lifting an external load of 6,000 pounds. That gives it the distinction of also being able to lift more than it weighs. Empty weight is 5,145 pounds and max gross takeoff weight is 12,000 pounds. It’s purpose-built external load roots are clear in the bubble side windows and relatively small, single-seat cockpit.

Fewer than 40 aircraft were built during the production run from the early 90s to when the line was shut down in 2003. Of those the Marines have two they use as unmanned cargo aircraft (photo below). Kaman launched that project in cooperation with Lockheed Martin, and it was nominated for the Collier Trophy.

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Hiller returns

Few manufacturers are making personal helicopters these days, and those that are have to charge a hefty price to make up for the relatively small volume. (One could argue that Robinson’s R22 is reasonably priced, but the per-hour cost is steep). That’s why United Helicopter‘s work with old Hiller airframes is so enticing.

United is taking Hiller’s ubiquitous UH-12B and C models and completely restoring them from the canopy to tail rotor, a process that takes 1,500 hours of labor. The company restores all components, provides custom paint and interior choices, and sells it for roughly $159,000. Prices vary depending on options, such as doors, aux fuel tank, ground handling wheels, and so on. Donor airframes can be either supplied by the customer or rolled in to the purchase price. An employee at Sun ‘n Fun said they have around half a dozen ready to go, and that many more are in barns and hangars scattered around the country.

Hiller’s UH-12 is one of the great early helicopter designs. First developed in the late 1940s, it went through a number of airframe and engine changes over the years. That it was used as a primary trainer for the Army should speak to its robustness. The B and C models, which United focuses on, are powered by Franklin engines. The employee said they work on those two because parts are easy to find and they offer the best mix of performance and value. Both have a rotor system with an extremely high amount of inertia. Perhaps best of all, the tail rotor is the only time limited component. Only four components are life limited–the tail rotor rod, blade, and yoke assemblies, and the tail rotor tension torsion bar. Each has to be pulled at 2,500 hours. The Franklin engine is a bit of a sticking point in that it has a lower 1,200 hour overhaul interval.

Ignoring the life limited components for a bit, the per hour operating cost is around $150, including insurance and annual. That assumes 100 hours of flying. Throw in those components and the price goes up a bit, but still well below other competitors. And since its able to carry 600 pounds of people with full fuel across three seats, there are lots of cabin options as well. That’s pretty impressive coming from a guy who designed his first helicopter before most kids graduate high school.

Have you flown a Hiller? Give us your impressions in the comment section.

Goodbye Sikorsky S300

The focus at last week’s Heli-Expo in Orlando was naturally on the larger end of the helicopter market, from the first public display of the AgustaWestland AW609 Tiltrotor to Airbus Helicopters’ snazzy unveil of the H160. But one of the more interesting moments came almost as a footnote at a poorly attended Sikorsky press conference.

“Everyone’s always interested in the lights,” said Dan Hunter, director of Sikorsky’s commercial line. Yet despite that interest, Sikorsky has all but killed the S300 and its derivatives. Hunter said the company won’t take any new orders, focusing instead of filling its very slim backlog that has come from foreign government sales as part of group buys. Hunter said Sikorsky is working hard to firm up the supply chain in order to produce these few orders, and to a certain extent, to fill parts requests.

And therein lies the good news for current S300 operators. What was a dire situation a year or two ago with parts availability and factory support now seems to be something less than an emergency situation. “We’re not there yet, but we’re working to get it done,” Hunter said. The same inventory and support goals for the company’s other products also extend to the S300 and its variants.

On some level, I don’t blame Sikorsky. The aftermarket support brings in about $10 million a year, Hunter said. For sake of comparison, that’s about the cost of a new S-76D. When the bosses are sitting in a board room trying to figure out where to allocate resources it’s hard to justify the expense of establishing an inventory and support staff for a business that brings in the same revenue as one additional airframe sale. Why give a business unit leader a few million bucks and tell her to spend all her time contracting and supporting a supply chain when you can give Jim an expense account and tell him to sell one more helicopter?

Which does open the question of why Sikorsky bought the type certificate in the first place. To that, Hunter says he is convinced that knowing what they knew at the time it was a good buy. Peel back the layers, he says, and problems started to emerge. The manufacturing process wasn’t up to Sikorsky standards, he said. No offense, Elmira.

So, does that mean the S300 and its cousins are destined for a long life of purgatory, existing only on a piece of paper? Maybe not. Hunter hinted many times that Sikorsky could offload the business at the right time. It might work under someone else, he said.

The dawn of the new Jet Ranger

First flights of an aircraft design program are always a big milestone, but when the aircraft is one based on a machine that defined a generation, it becomes a big deal, indeed. Bell’s first flight of the 505 Jet Ranger X last month marks a significant event in the helicopter’s life cycle. The flight lasted only 30 minutes and included basic hover work and a few trips around the pattern at Bell’s Mirabel facility in Quebec, Canada.

Yet despite reaching a big milestone, it was arguably not even the biggest news to come out of the development program last month. What’s been much more fascinating to watch is the speed with which Bell has racked up orders for the next gen Jet Ranger. Officially launched at this year’s Heli-Expo in February, Bell has already signed 300 orders for the aircraft. Some 50 of those are from Chinese company Reignwood Investments. For sake of comparison, Robinson said earlier this year that it has produced 500 R66s since the aircraft was certified a few years ago.

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If we assume the 300 orders for the Jet Ranger stick, it serves to validate the business case for the program. Some might say it shows the market was always there, which may be true. But often it takes an outside pressure, such as the R66, to drive demand for a segment. The fact that it gave Bell the opportunity to refresh the design doesn’t hurt either.

It’s easy to call the new Jet Ranger a clean sheet design, and absent any official definition, I suppose it’s a fair description. But it’s also not wrong to call it a significant refresh of an existing product. By using proven components, such as the drive system, Bell has smartly stuck to what it knows, and has helped to ensure the success of the product.

Expect to see the Jet Ranger certified in 2016, and absent any hiccups with the new plant in Louisiana, see them rolling out the door soon after.

The little helicopter that could

If you’ve ever flown a Mooney you know they are fast, responsive, and a great value in terms of speed for fuel. That the company has fallen and come back time and time again is as much a testament to the product as it is an indictment of the ownership.

Fly an Enstrom and look in to the company’s history and it’s clear it and Mooney are kindred spirits. The Chinese state-owned company that controls Enstrom is only the latest in a long and undulating path that includes everyone from the famous and quirky to the publicly anonymous venture capital firm. Yet, like Mooney, the products have been strong with an equally strong following. Fly one and it’s easy to see why.

The current line-up is much the same as its been for the past 10 years–the turbine 480B, and piston F-28F and 280FX. The F-28F and 280FX are essentially the same helicopter with the exception of the 280FX’s sleeker cockpit. With the infusion of money from the new owner the company has almost doubled the size of its factory and is on an ambitious plan to produce the TH180, a trainer aimed squarely at Sikorsky’s neglected S-300.

Enstrom's upcoming TH180 trainer

Enstrom’s upcoming TH180 trainer

CEO Tracy Biegler says the trainer’s certification program is a warm-up to an expanding line of products, one that probably goes up to bigger turbines. With the right strategy, and assuming the models stay true to Enstrom’s core values, they should see success.

We had the opportunity to fly both the 480B and the F-28F, both of which are quite impressive. The turbine is a bit underpowered, but it flies beautifully, and has enjoyed a great safety record. That focus on safety is part of why the company has won some important foreign military training contracts over the last five years, and what has allowed it to go from producing only five helicopters in 2012 to an anticipated 30 or so this year.

Meanwhile the turbocharged F-28F has power to spare, at least with two on board and a slightly above-standard day. We were shooting up at 1,500 feet a minute at best-climb speed. Both helicopters are rock solid to fly, have benign autorotation characteristics, and are clearly well built.

If Enstrom can stay true to its roots and the owners remain interested, the men and women of Menominee have a bright future.

Oshkosh or bust

I’m forever spoiled. Everyone talks about flying an airplane to EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, but arriving in a helicopter is a far better experience. I’m burdened with knowing this now, thanks to Sporty’s Pilot Shop’s John Zimmerman, my ride to the show this year.

 

John owns a beautiful R44 he flies for fun and the occasional work purpose. Being a gadget geek, his is kitted out with a Garmin 430, a handheld Garmin 496, and that day we were carrying two iPads, and Sporty’s new Iridium Go! satellite hotspot. It also has air conditioning, which is a luxury well worth having. So while many would scoff at the suggestion that a helicopter is a cross-country aircraft, with some nice instrumentation and create comforts, it turns out to be well suited to the task.

 

The trip started with an early morning airline flight to Cincinnati, where I met John. The first two miles were over the eerily quiet Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport. The helicopter proved to be a good vantage point to see the juxtaposition of miles upon miles of runways for the dozen or so regional jets parked at the various terminals.

 

From there it was another 348 miles on to Oshkosh, including two stops. Since helicopters and their pilots are most comfortable at lower altitudes, trips like this are a joy. The world isn’t going by very fast, which leaves that much more time for taking it all in. Lounging around at 75 knots groundspeed, the trip took more than four hours, but it felt like much less.

 

The best part of the trip, and what airplane pilots miss out on, is the arrival to the show. In an airplane there is a mass convergence on one spot southwest of the airport as everyone forms a line and heads in. You have to listen closely to air traffic control, respond quickly, and follow the controller’s directions precisely. The arrival procedures in a helicopter are much more civilized. Simply listen to ATIS, monitor the tower, maintain 1,800 feet, and land. Transients can park at Pioneer field, outside the main show site. From the time we shut down to the time our ride arrived was 10 minutes. There’s no walking, no humping heavy bags. They pulled off the main road and we jumped in and left. Clearly the folks at EAA know helicopter pilots, and the arrival suits them perfectly.

 

With the R44’s fuel-burn rate, and lackluster groundspeed in headwinds, it might not be the most efficient cross-country machine. It is, however, a lot of fun, which is all that matters when you are on your way to Oshkosh.

Tiltrotor completes auto tests

AgustaWestland announced late last month that its AW609 Tiltrotor has completed dual-engine failure autorotation tests. This is a big milestone in the long development process that will result in the world’s only civilian tiltrotor, planned for certification in 2017.

The aircraft’s massive prop rotors make it impossible to land and take off with the engines in airplane mode. Because the aircraft exists in the space somewhere between an airplane and a helicopter, AW had to work with the FAA to determine exactly how it would be tested. The result was a requirement to be able to land safely in the same way a helicopter does after a failure in either mode. For the testing program that meant a demonstrated ability to go from a worst case scenario of full aircraft mode to a safe landing in full helicopter mode.

The few people outside company test pilots who have flown the aircraft praise its automated systems management capability. That is on display during the autorotation, where the aircraft automatically maintains an angle of incidence that results in 100 percent rpm after an engine or drive system failure. As the aircraft descends it must at some point convert fully to helicopter mode, which the company said it does rapidly. The nacelles go to a full aft position of 95 degrees for a run-on landing.

Most interesting about the aircraft is what might lead to a failure. It’s powered by Pratt & Whitney PT6 engines, each with its own gearbox. Both are connected by a common drive shaft, so if one engine fails the other working engine will provide power to both. AW thinks a complete and simultaneous dual failure is highly improbable, and the only time they envision a subsequent failure is with fuel contamination. Either way, more than 70 tests over 10 flight hours appears to prove the aircraft has the ability to handle such a problem.

AW609 demo flight during HAI's 2014 Heli-Expo

AW609 demo flight during HAI’s 2014 Heli-Expo

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