Ian Frain reports from Anaheim, California, on Heli Expo 2020, a major trade event for the helicopter industry.
Helicopter Association International’s (HAI’s) annual Heli Expo 2020 was held earlier than in previous years, taking place at the end of January. It has been six years since the event was last held in Anaheim, California, and unfortunately the latest iteration was somewhat overshadowed by the fatal crash of a Sikorsky S-76 within the Los Angeles county area two days before the event. The victims were the pilot, famous former basketball player Kobe Bryant, as well as some of his family and friends.
All the main original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and major suppliers flock to this leading rotary event to talk helicopter business. They were treated to a host of exciting developments – looking forward to the future and also to the best of the past, with some classic legacy airframes being exhibited.
Bell brought in a single-engine Bell 505 JetRanger light helicopter and a twin-engine 525 Relentless prototype that was fitted with passenger seating. The company has an exemption that allows it to fly potential customers, even though the airframe is classed as experimental. It announced its collaboration with Norwegian oil and gas operator Wintershall Dea Norge A/S in introducing the Relentless to the North Sea operations.
On a smaller scale, the Southern California Edison Electricity Board’s new Bell 429 was among the products on display. It was flown in and out by former Helicopter Association International chairman Torbjorn ‘TC’ Correll, who is also the chief pilot for the operation. Both the Bell 429 and Bell 505 were used for flight demonstrations at the Angels of Anaheim sports stadium.
Two blue helicopters dominated the Bell booth. One Bell 407GXi, equipped with rescue hoist for the parapublic role, was on display, while the new Subaru Bell 412EPX also appeared. This joint venture between Bell and Japanese company Subaru Aerospace is a result of the Japanese ministry of defence and Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) UH-X (Utility Helicopter-X) programme to replace their fleet of 127 legacy Bell Fuji UH-1J utility helicopters.
Bell won the competition with then-Fuji to build the helicopters in Japan to supply the armed forces, with the commercial variant also exhibited from the launch customer for the 412EPX – the Japanese National Police Agency. Japanese authorities fly a combination of Airbus, Bell, Leonardo and even Sikorsky airframes and, with Bell, they fly the legacy 206L4 LongRanger and 412.
Airbus’ enhanced presence
Mention must be made of Airbus Helicopters as its products across the globe achieved a major fleet milestone of 100 million flight hours as of this year. There were two UK-registered helicopters at the Airbus stand, an H125 (formerly designated as AS350B3) and a luxury Airbus Corporate ACH130 (formerly known as EC130T2) Aston Martin Edition Helicopter. The H130 was based on, and developed from, the successful AS350B3 series. Recently, Airbus Helicopters partnered with British luxury car manufacturer Aston Martin Lagonda and, on January 3, launched the ACH130 Aston Martin Edition Helicopter, with four versions available. These include external liveries – Skyfall Silver, Xenon Grey, Arizona and Ultramarine Black – with complementary interiors and the synonymous Aston Martin wings embossed on the seating.
The white Airbus Helicopters H125 on static had ‘More Power, Enhanced Visibility, Simplified HMI’ emblazoned on the tail as the type will now receive a boost with up to an additional 190kg (418lb) of payload from the new Safran Helicopter Engines Arriel 2D. Additional improvements with performance include the hover ceiling out of ground effect (OGE) increase of an extra 1,500ft (up to 12,600ft) as another example.
The ‘Simplified HMI’ statement refers to the human machine interface, with improvements in the helicopter’s avionics suites in the form of an upgrade to its Vehicle Engine Management Display (VEMD) software. The more compact and simplified cockpit improvements include the Garmin G500H TXI touchscreen and a ‘remote FLI solution’ developed by California’s AKV Inc. This gives the pilot the ability to see the VEMD engine display on a smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth connection, while keeping an eye on external loads by sight. All in all, these improvements had an emphasis on improving visibility and pilot awareness, and physically reducing the cockpit display surface area by 40%.
The offshore marketplace was represented by Mexican operator Transportes Aereos Pegasso’s H175. The company operates in the Gulf of Mexico and has a sizeable fleet of 20-plus aircraft, including a few of the seven ton-class helicopters in support of the oil industry.
In a historical first, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) placed an order at the show for three H135 twin-engine helicopters, which are used globally within the parapublic marketplace. The H135s replace the legacy UH-1H helicopters in support of operations at the Kennedy Space Center with a multitude of missions such as safety, security during rocket launches, aerial firefighting and transportation of key personnel. The H135s will be procured via Davenport Aviation and the HUBZone contractor, the latter an expert in the supply of aerospace equipment to federal, state and government agencies.
Standing alone behind the Airbus booth was the new San Diego Gas and Electric H145 used for powerline support, among other missions, to monitor, support and repair the city and county electricity and gas supplies. This is the first H145 utilised for this mission in North America.
Leonardo leads the way
Leonardo recently won the US Navy TH-XX competition to replace the five-decade-old Bell TH-57C Sea Ranger training helicopter. The competition included proposals from Bell with the 407GXi and Airbus Helicopters H135. During the year of campaigning, Leonardo utilised an AW119 Koala platform dubbed TH-119 at various locations, though primarily at Naval Air Station Whiting Field, Florida. The Koala platform will be designated TH-73 in service and during the show Leonardo demonstrated the TH-119 in navy livery to customers and media who had the opportunity to fly around the local area.
In another first, Texas-based Travis County STAR (Shock Trauma Air Rescue) Flight’s new AW169 was on display at the Leonardo booth. This is the first helicopter emergency medical service (HEMS) AW169 in the North American marketplace. Travis County purchased three AW169s replacing three HEMS Airbus Helicopters EC145 and one Bell UH-1H Super Huey (used for firefighting). The AW169 will be equipped with a Simplex belly firefighting tank to fulfil the aerial firefighting role as well as its primary HEMS duties.
On the corporate side, there was an AW139 helicopter fitted with a luxury interior while, from the offshore sector, there was a larger AW189 belonging to Era Helicopters. Several Sikorsky (Lockheed Martin) Black Hawks, albeit in Firehawk configuration, were present at the event. Most notable was a trio of the newest S-70i Firehawks.
The i-version – international Black Hawk – is manufactured by Sikorsky’s Polish subsidiary PZL Milec, which handles all S-70/UH-60 airframes destined for foreign militaries, parapublic or commercial operators globally, including the continental United States, but not the US Army, Air Force or Navy.
The Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACoFD) has taken delivery of two new S-70i in addition to their fleet of three 20-year-old S-70 Firehawks and five legacy Bell 412s.
The S-70i can feature an EMS interior from Air Methods (a division of United Rotorcraft) and a 1,000 US gallon (3,785 lit) belly tank that necessitates raised undercarriage, synonymous with the Firehawk design. Historically, the LACoFD inspired the design of the Firehawk and was the first customer in the late 1990s. Both Sikorsky and United Rotorcraft delivered new S-70i Firehawks, not only for the LACoFD, but also to the San Diego Fire Department (SDFD) and the California Department of Forestry (CDF). Both the SDFD and CDF Firehawks were also on display.
The LACoFD was not the only operator on show with commercial Black Hawks as there were several other operators/owners at the show. However, these were all ex-US Army airframes now being utilised in the commercial marketplace. Four years ago at Heli Expo 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky, an ex-US Army UH-60A appeared for the first time with its respective new commercial operator, and since then more and more UH-60As have been entering service and performing a multitude of missions, predominantly aerial firefighting and systems testing. Florida-based Firehawk Helicopters brought its UH-60A to Anaheim, while California-based HP (High Performance) Heavy Lift and Construction Helicopters showed a white UH-60 equipped with an unusual combination of leather-bound VIP interior and belly firefighting tank.
Heli Austria’s new Firecat, an Airbus AS332L1 Super Puma modified for aerial firefighting, was also on display. Roy Knaus, who owns one of the largest helicopter companies in Europe in Heli Austria, operates a mixed fleet of Airbus Helicopters H125, H130, H135, H145, AS355, AS332L1, MD Helicopters MD902, and Bell 412. The company is headquartered south of Salzburg at St Johann im Pongau, and operates all over the country, in addition to neighbouring Switzerland, Germany and Italy, as well as further afield in Iceland. The AS332L1 is a modification and a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) for the Super Puma. This includes shaving off weight by removing the fuel and undercarriage sponsons, with a fixed undercarriage in its place. Heli Austria has also acquired a former AS332L Super Puma, which will be converted into ‘Firecat’ configuration and equipped with the Helitak belly-mounted, aerial firefighting tank. This tank has a capacity of 4,250 litres (just over 1,100 US gals). This particular Firecat is off to Canada to join Coldstream Helicopters in Kelowna, British Columbia, for the fire season.
Airborne emergency response
It wasn’t just the global commercial helicopter companies that had a presence inside the exhibition halls – airborne law enforcement had a big part to play.
Both the Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD’s) Air Support to Regular Officers (ASTRO) Division and San Bernardino Sheriff brought the latest H125 in its fleet. At the opposite end of the scale the Pinal County Sheriff exhibited a UH-1H Huey. Other legacy aircraft operators included the Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bell UH-1N used for search and rescue (SAR), while Washoe County RAVEN (Regional Aviation Enforcement Unit) showed a Bell OH-58C Kiowa.
Aside from the airborne firefighting Firehawks, which are equipped with EMS equipment for secondary medical evacuation (medevac) missions, there were a couple of air ambulances.
Metro Aviation from Shreveport, Louisiana, provided an Airbus Helicopters EC145e eLite and Bell 407GX. Air Methods provides 130 aircraft across 18 states for the emergency medical service mission. The other half of Metro’s business involves air medical completions, and as such the company holds some 30 Supplemental Type Certificates (STCs).
Metro designs, manufactures and then installs air medical interiors for around 35 aircraft per year.
About five years ago, Airbus Helicopters began to cease production of the EC145 (BK117C2), then, with the interest and encouragement of Metro Aviation, the EC145e eLite was developed and produced by Airbus Helicopters USA.
The eLite is a lighter version of the EC145, following the removal of the Single Pilot Instrument Flight Rules (SPIFR) equipment. Metro Aviation was the launch customer and subsequently it now markets the eLite across the North American marketplace.
Smaller but no less important
MD Helicopters (MDH) exhibited its latest products, which included a new airborne law enforcement MD530F belonging to Fresno County Sheriff and the armed MD530G Block II scout light attack helicopter. The Block II product is equipped with Elbit Systems’ Integrated Weapons System (IWS), the Helmet Display and Tracking System (HDTS), Weapons Management System (WMS) and Mission Management System (MMS).
Enstrom Helicopters from Michigan exhibited a turbine 480B and F280 light training helicopters, while Robinson Helicopters of Torrance, California, exhibited its R44 Cadet and R66 Turbine helicopters.
One major piece of news came from Leonardo, which has acquired Swiss Kopter company (formerly known as Marenco Swiss Helicopter). Kopter exhibited another mock-up of its SH09 at the show, displaying the final design features.
These include a new main rotor configuration, a redesigned tail rotor, an enhanced gearbox, modified landing gear and larger cabin space for extra seating.
The future of vertical flight?
Several companies including the major OEMs such as Airbus Helicopters and Bell, partnering with the likes of Uber, are developing vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) urban air taxi/personal air transport for the near future. Heli Expo 2018 was at the forefront of showing these emerging technologies, and now in 2020 we were able to see some of the results.
Airbus Helicopters A3 first flew the Vahana self-piloted electric VTOL (EVTOL) tilt-wing vehicle demonstrator at the end of January 2018. A month later in February, Airbus Helicopters partnered with Fly Blade Inc, which arranges commercial helicopter transportation for customers, to develop an on-demand helicopter flight experience, with a view to leading the urban air mobility (UAM) marketplace. At this year’s Heli Expo, the Vahana was on display for all to see and currently it has conducted more than 80 full-scale test flights.
The helicopter industry has seen its share of ups and downs in recent years, notably with the offshore marketplace and the downturn of the oil market. At the end of January 2020, two of the largest offshore operators merged, Bristow Group and Era Group (Era Helicopters in Louisiana and Alaska). Bristow has a large fleet of just over 200 aircraft while Era has a fleet of around 100, both coming together under the Bristow banner.
In other notable news, Erickson Aircrane Incorporated announced it would be introducing the S-64F+ Aircrane into the marketplace. Erickson took over the type certificate of Vietnam-era Sikorsky CH-54 Tarhe flying crane in the early 1970s. The company still manufactures and operates this workhorse, mainly in the aerial logging and firefighting mission, with its S-64E/F Aircranes.
Erickson operates in the Mediterranean region from Italy, Greece and Turkey during the firefighting season with a fleet of S-64 Aircranes. It has sold Aircranes in the Chinese and Republic of Korean marketplaces, and to the Italian Forestry Corps (Corpo di Forestale). Erickson also operates a varied fleet of rotary and fixed-wing aircraft, having acquired the then legacy Evergreen Helicopters. The fleet includes Airbus Helicopters H125, AS332, Bell 212, Bell 214ST (Super Transport) and Bell 412, and it also undertakes military support and commercial helicopter work in Afghanistan, including vertical replenishment (VERTREP) for navy vessels.
As usual at Heli Expo conventions, aside from the main OEMs exhibiting their products, there was a range of helicopters on sale – from used Bell 429 and Bell 206L to a former law enforcement Airbus Helicopters H125.
In this booming marketplace, Heli Expo underscored its position as a world-leading event, showcasing new technologies and offering a valuable range of updates from around the world of rotary aviation, albeit with a strong US flavour.