Throughout the war boom that has fueled Black Hawk sales, Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. has kept its eyes on the future with its high-speed X2 prototype and a Marine Corps helicopter that when built will be the biggest in the world.
As it turns out, Sikorsky’s biggest question for the near future may be the appeal of a reconfigured commercial helicopter platform that’s more than 30 years old.
After years of delay, the Federal Aviation Administration approved “type certification” for the Sikorsky S-76D, the newest model of the helicopter that debuted in 1979, and which Sikorsky has since delivered more than 800 of.
The S-76D will provide the United Technologies Corp. subsidiary a new opportunity to demonstrate its value to the commercial sector, with the company’s struggles to land business on that front stretching back well before the recession.
That has not been the case for all helicopter manufacturers. Textron Inc. subsidiary Bell Helicopter has been doing a boom business of late, delivering 46 aircraft in the third quarter versus 26 a year earlier, citing for success its 429 model introduced three years ago.
“I think the market has remained strong,” said Scott Donnelly, Textron CEO, in a conference call. “I would say that we believe we are still continuing to gain some share, and we’d like to think that we’ll continue to do that. I think the 429 has proven itself to be an outstanding helicopter and is doing very well and competing and winning around the world.”
Rival AgustaWestland, meanwhile, has been selling its AW139 and has additional competition for Sikorsky in the form of the new AW119Kx, whose avionics include “synthetic” vision, moving map, and obstacle avoidance systems, with Life Flight Network in the Pacific Northwest reserving 15 aircraft.
Sikorsky stated it has a backlog of orders on the S-76D amounting to more than $500 million, and in October, the Export-Import Bank of the United States authorized more than $50 million to guarantee a loan extended by Apple Bank to Aeroservicios Especializados S.A. de C.V. The transaction will finance the export of a fleet of Sikorsky S-76D helicopters to Mexico with Ex-Im Bank saying the deal will support 450 jobs.
The S-76D includes engines from Sikorsky’s UTC sister company Pratt & Whitney, all-composite rotor blades, advanced avionics and autopilot system, active vibration control, and can be equipped with a rotor ice protection system for all-weather capability.
If technically advanced, the S-76D has proven vexing as well, with Sikorsky having originally targeted 2008 for initial deliveries.
It is not the only helicopter platform Sikorsky is currently struggling with, as the company is working out issues with its new CH-148 Cyclone designed for maritime duty in Canada.
“We need a win-win on this with the Canadian government,” said Greg Hayes, CFO of UTC, in an October conference call. “Obviously, we’re disappointed we haven’t been able to deliver the helicopters. We’re building them right now down at West Palm. We expected to build and deliver five this year (and) build and deliver 19 next year … but until we have an agreement with the Canadian government in terms of the final configuration and an interim configuration, we really can’t ship anything. So as I sit here today, I tell you we don’t have a solution.”
Will the S-76D represent a short-term solution for Sikorsky? Time will tell.
“I guess Sikorsky should have a very big fourth quarter,” Hayes said. “They’ve got almost 100 helicopters to deliver, so base business is actually going to do very, very well here in the fourth quarter. I think we got confidence that we’re going to hit that number.”