State of the Rotary World

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The 2008 edition of the Helicopter Association International (HAI) Heli-Expo, which took place in Houston in late February, underscored two facts about the helicopter industry. First, the industry is a collection of niches, and second, they're some fabulous niches to be occupying these days.

With the throngs of attendees wandering the aisles wearing every imaginable get-up, from expensive Italian suits to cowboy boots and hats to government-style jumpsuits, the gathering put a real world face on the staggering variety of businesses that rely on helicopters to go about their work. And the show was big. With 17,373 attendees, this year's gathering shattered all previous records; the 523 exhibitors with booth space also set a mark. And there were helicopters everywhere. The event site, Houston's 250,000-plus-square-foot George R. Brown Convention Center, was chock-a-block with full-sized helicopters, on display at booths and in an indoor static section, as well.

Indeed, despite signs of a pending global recession, the future of rotary flight has never looked better. Honeywell, in its 10th annual Civil Helicopter Outlook, predicted sales of 4,500 helicopters over the next five years and sales of 10,000 helicopters over the next decade. The forecast is based on surveys of over 1,000 operators, on whose expectations the report is primarily based. According to the outlook, all sectors of the industry will remain strong, with the corporate and offshore oil operators driving a great deal of the demand and with international markets becoming even more lucrative over time. Next year's Heli-Expo will take place in Anaheim from February 22-24, 2009.

Some of the HAI highlights this year...

• Sikorsky unveiled its X2 technology demonstrator, a sleek, diminutive two-place helicopter with contra-rotating coaxial rotors and a six-blade aircraft-style pusher propeller in place of a tail rotor. The X2, which Sikorsky planned to fly for the first time shortly after the show, is expected to be capable of speeds approaching 250 knots. The key to that kind of performance is an automatic blade-speed control, which transfers power from the blades to the prop in the rear, keeping the blades subsonic to prevent damage to them from vibration effects at very high speeds. Sikorsky expects the X2 technology to be "fully scalable," allowing the company someday to produce much larger helicopters capable of higher forward speeds than today's conventional designs.

• A great addition to the fixed-wing world, WAAS is being looked at by helicopter operators as a game-changing technology. The FAA approved WAAS procedures for establishing helicopter approaches earlier this year, but not long after the ink was dry there are already several approaches in use in the United States. The approaches give LPV minimums as low as 200 feet above the touchdown zone without any of the physical infrastructure of an ILS approach.

• Robinson founder and CEO Frank Robinson gave a progress report on the turbine model, the R66, that his company is developing. Reminiscent of the piston R44, the R66 will be powered by a new-development Rolls-Royce RR300 engine. Robinson isn't taking orders for the R66 yet, nor has it named a price. It is, however, predicting certification for it in between 12 and 24 months.

• AgustaWestland was showing off a Versace-designed executive interior for its popular executive-class AW139. The design, according to Versace CEO Giancarlo Di Risio, incorporates "elements of classicism" combined with "a very modern approach to elegance and comfort." AgustaWestland stressed that the interior met the "highest standards of functionality and safety."

** • The design of its EC175 now frozen, Eurocopter had its "conforming" mock-up on display. At the unveiling, 16 orange-jumpsuit-clad workers emerged from the helicopter, showing off the capability that's driving strong sales. The medium twin is scheduled for certification in 2011, and Eurocopter says that development is on track. With its range of better than 200 nm, the EC175 is expected to be popular in the offshore oil and gas industry, which is reaching further out from shore to tap new reserves. Eurocopter took 111 orders for the helicopter at the show alone.**

** • The Bell/Agusta 609 corporate tiltrotor is on schedule for certification in 2011, according to the company, and it claims it has around 80 firm orders for the airplane/helicopter hybrid. Bell/Agusta says that it will announce the price of the hybrid around two years before certification.**

• Bell's intermediate twin, the 429, is progressing well, said the company, and it expects the helicopter to earn FAA certification by the end of this year. Three production prototypes are flying. Bell has 260 orders for the helicopter from operators in 30 different countries.