(March 2011) — As an icy wind whipped from the Hudson River and buffeted the heliport's aluminum chain-link fence with an unrelenting ferocity, settling into the cockpit of a Sikorsky S-76 instead of some lesser machine made me stop and appreciate the size and power of one of the best-selling helicopters of all time.
"I'm a strong swimmer and might make it back to dry land," said the S-76 captain buckling in beside me, "but I doubt you could."
Those were the discomforting words offered as simple statement of fact masquerading as a "safety briefing" just in case we ended up in the frigid water on takeoff. I was about to get a demonstration of a new helicopter terrain and obstacle warning system in an older S-76B model, and the pilot was teasing, wasn't he?
Perfect, I thought.
Thank goodness for good, old-fashioned Pratt & Whitney reliability and the stellar safety record of the S-76, which rates significantly better than most other turbine-powered helicopters. Combine this with a roomy cabin, comfortable ride and 155-knot maximum cruising speed, and it's no wonder the model has succeeded as a mainstay of corporate, offshore oil and medevac fleets for more than three decades.
What Sikorsky designers didn't realize when they were developing the S-76 in the mid-1970s, of course, is that the model would still be a top choice of helicopter buyers more than 30 years later, thanks to a long list of improvements that have boosted the model's gross weight, useful load and range while bringing incremental advances to the cockpit and passenger compartment.
Now, with the introduction of the S-76D, featuring an all-glass integrated avionics suite (based on the one in the Airbus A380 super jumbo jet), dual-speed composite main rotor, additional fuel capacity, icing certification (a first for an S-76) and 1,077 shp Pratt & Whitney Canada PW210S turboshaft engines, Sikorsky appears on the verge of guaranteeing that the helicopter will remain relevant for decades to come.
First, though, the S-76D design team will need to cross the certification goal line. Development setbacks have delayed the helicopter's first delivery by four years to 2012. Sikorsky blames the wait on supply chain issues and unspecified design changes. The protracted development and lingering economic downturn have conspired to put the brakes on production of the current S-76, the C++ model, production of which stands at less than half of what it normally should be.
Sikorsky announced the S-76D in 2005 after completing an 18-month market study that uncovered a laundry list of design improvements customers said they wanted — many of which Sikorsky's competitors were already offering in their helicopters. The S-76D's launch also came two months after Sikorsky bought Keystone Helicopter, an engineering and completion specialist in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, the site of the S-76D final assembly line. The former Keystone operation is now fully integrated into the new Sikorsky Global Helicopters, but getting there took longer than expected, the company acknowledged.
Aero Vodochody of the Czech Republic — a former builder of military jet trainers and a longtime Sikorsky partner that has produced more than 250 S-76 airframes — is being tasked with manufacturing S-76D fuselages and delivering them to the Coatesville factory, where the rotors, engines and gearboxes will be fitted before customer completions and acceptance test flights. The first production S-76D fuselage arrived in Coatesville last November. That completed helicopter now joins two prototypes for the certification program, which is taking place at Sikorsky's flight test center in West Palm Beach, Florida, and in Coatesville. This triumvirate is forming the core of an accelerated test program expected to culminate with FAA certification by the end of the year. Assuming all goes according to plan, the first new helicopter will be delivered shortly afterward to Falcon Aviation Services, an air charter operator based in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, that has snapped up the first two S-76D delivery positions.
Sikorsky has completed more than 300 hours of flight tests since the S-76D's first trip aloft in February 2009. The development program will involve about 800 hours of flying before the helicopter — and a massive amount of test data — are handed over to the FAA for validation flight-testing this summer.
While the S-76D sports a new look with the redesign of the helicopter's engine air inlet and aft cowls, the really big differences come from a compendium of new technologies packed into the model, all of it centered on improving performance, boosting efficiency, reducing noise and giving S-76D pilots better tools in the cockpit.