Charles Alcock FORBES
Helicopter Industry's Success Secret: Market Diversity
March 12, 2013
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  • By: Charles Alcock

    In comparison with business jets, the helicopter industry has a fairly low profile, and the rotorcraft community seems to like it that way. But don’t let the industry’s apparent modesty fool you. As last week’s HeliExpo show in Las Vegas visibly demonstrated, the helicopter industry has ridden out the fallow years fairly well, largely due to the fact that it serves very diverse markets.

    Beyond corporate and private VIP applications, helicopter manufacturers have also been able to tap growing demand for emergency medical services, law enforcement support, news gathering and a variety of industrial applications, such as supporting offshore oil and gas activity—not to mention defense.

    According to industry analyst Brian Foley, combined civil, parapublic and defense helicopter sales are comparable to annual business jet sales of around $18 billion. Over the next 10 years, he is forecasting some 24,000 new helicopter deliveries worldwide (valued at around $250 billion), and all but 6,000 of these aircraft will be for non-military use. Honeywell also sees healthy growth in the helicopter sector, with its latest market forecast predicting between 4,900 and 5,600 new aircraft to be delivered over the next five years, with much of this anticipated in the next three years and right around the world.

    So it is little wonder that Helicopter Association International president Matt Zuccaro was in a glass-half-full frame of mind when he spoke to AINtv on the eve of the HeliExpo show. While acknowledging that he and his members could yet take a hit from U.S. government budget sequestration, he said that the helicopter industry is holding up well. This reflected in the record numbers, more than 21,000, who flocked from around the world to visit HeliExpo’s 750 exhibitors.

    The amount of new business announced in Las Vegas exceeded the $2 billion figure achieved last year. The bulk of this was account for $1.75 billion worth of new helicopter orders from leasing group Milestone Aviation, which was founded by former NetJets fractional ownership pioneer Richard Santulli. In two deals that will double the size of the Ireland-based group’s portfolio, Sikorsky secured a contract covering orders and options for up to 37 of its S-92 large helicopters and up to 17 of the new midsize S-76Ds. At last count, the total number of helicopters sold at HeliExpo topped 226 aircraft, so the industry’s salesmen almost certainly had a better week in the Las Vegas Convention Center than they did in the casinos.

    Further buoyancy was evident in Eurocopter’s move to unveil a new model, the EC135T3/P3. The group, which has a major subsidiary in the U.S., is working on a new high-speed X3 helicopter that has already logged just under 270 mph in test flights—still half the speed of a jet; but try landing a jet in the backyard of your mansion in the Hamptons.

    Texas-based Bell Helicopters is making good progress in its new 525 Relentless large helicopter, which is set to make its first flight in 2014. Company CEO John Garrison wants to greatly reduce the company’s dependence on military sales, which is probably a wise move in the current climate.

    Finally, AgustaWestland surprised the HeliExpo crowd by revealing that it has been secretly testing an electrically powered tiltrotor, mixing the versatility of a vertical takeoff and land helicopter with the speed and range of a fixed-wing aircraft. If that ever gets to market, it should give business jets more of a run for their money—plus the alternative power source will boost your green credentials a little.