Here are some impressions from the first day of Heli-Expo…
If you tend to carry an iPad with you on helicopter flights, the Gyronimo weight and balance performance app is a thing of real beauty and practicality.
If you’re wondering “What could be dumber than putting someone who doesn’t know how to fly a helicopter into a real helicopter?” then http://www.heliflighttrainer.com/ (site seems to be down right now) is for you. This is a standard industrial robot holding a Robinson R22 cabin with two people inside. Thus did essentially one person, Andreas Margreiter of Austria, manage to build a full-motion flight simulator. It costs in the neighborhood of $1.5 million, which is a lot more than an airworthy R22 ($150,000 average) but a lot less than a standard full-motion sim.
In an industry that is notorious for its lack of innovation, the Marenco SKYe SH09 (they could use some help from an American naming consultant) is inspiring. Some crazy Swiss people decided to go head to head with Airbus’s EC145, one of the world’s most popular helicopter. The SKYe SH09 has an all-composite body, fantastic visibility, and a single Honeywell engine (made in Canada currently but with additional production scheduled for Switzerland). It holds 8 people, including the pilot and has big doors in the back plus a safe fenestron tail rotor. So it should be ideal for medevac flights but will cost a little over $3 million instead of the nearly $6 million that people are paying for the EC145. Due to the ease of collaborating with the relatively nimble Swiss aviation authorities, the company expects European certification in 2015 with FAA certification taking an additional year (a flight school owner at the convention said “Everyone time I have to deal with the FAA I want to just take out a gun and shoot myself.”) The company has already sold 56 machines and will be profitable if it can deliver the machines ordered thus far. They are targeting production of 90 helicopters per year.
If you’re not happy with the results from sticking your smart phone up against the bubble, the designer of the Cineflex gimbal mount has come out of retirement in New Zealand with the the Shotover F1. For $350,000 plus a 4K camera and a $50,000 cinema lens, you too can make some very stable home movies from the helicopter. Don’t forget that you’ll need an A Star plus a mount to go with it; the ball is sadly much too large to fit on a Robinson (entrepreneurs: there should be a good market opportunity for a stabilized ball that can be mounted on a Robinson R44, which is much cheaper to operate per hour than turbine ships; acceptable 4K results should be obtainable with a compact camera such as the Blackmagic or maybe even some of the mirrorless systems).
Avidyne was there with some new avionics that can compete with Garmin’s GPS, radios, transponders, and audio panels. I’m not sure who is going to buy these because they are priced roughly the same as Garmin’s industry-standard products.
Pilatus was there despite the fact that they have nothing to do with helicopters. Pilatus is the world leader in turboprops, a position formerly occupied by the American company Beechcraft with its King Air (twin-engine) and single-engine military trainers. Pilatus introduced the PC-12 in the mid-1990s, which can handle the King Air’s job with just one engine. Beech decided not to invest in updating its design and slowly lost market share. Pilatus also leapfrogged Beech in making single-engine military trainer airplanes. The U.S. military couldn’t bear the idea of using an American design but they also couldn’t admit that they were going to import all of their planes from Switzerland. The solution turned out to be that Beech would assemble the Pilatus design here in the U.S. and give it the name of “Texan II”. This wasn’t enough to keep the company solvent and they went bankrupt in 2012. Now Pilatus is out to destroy what remains of the U.S. jet manufacturing business (Embraer has already out-competed U.S. companies in many categories) with their PC-24 design, due to be delivered starting in 2017. This is a 17,750 lb. twin turbojet that can operate from 2700′ runways (in theory) and operate from dirt/grass runways. It holds up to 10 people, including the two front seats, and is certified for single-pilot operation. About $9 million.
The job fair for pilots was mostly medevac operators looking for high-time pilots. Thanks to insurance companies and Medicare willing to pay $20,000 for a 15-minute flight, there are a lot of pilots getting paid to surf the Web for 12-hour shifts. (I have heard that the state of Kentucky has more medevac helicopters than the entire country of Canada, for example.) A sightseeing operator reported that it was getting tougher to find qualified candidates: “It isn’t hard to find people with 1000 hours of experience, but once you get beyond the monkey skills of manipulating the controls the average person we interview is less qualified every year. We need people who can show up prepared for an interview, who will show up to work reliably, who can interact with customers. Those are getting fewer and farther between.” (This echoed a manufacturer’s technical support manager that I talked to previously. He said that every year the mechanics who show up to be trained are less conscientious and he therefore thinks that is becoming less safe to fly in American-maintained aircraft.)
Flight schools affiliated with four-year universities are busy. A few years ago the federal government began offering veterans 100 percent payment for flight training as long as they were also getting a college degree. So instead of paying 40 percent of a low cost at an independent flight school the veteran would pay 0 percent of a much higher cost, plus have the government pay a four-year college’s tuition and his or her own housing and food expenses. One of the features of this program is that the veteran can fly in any machine operated by the school. So instead of learning instrument flying in a $250/hour Robinson R22 or $350/hour Robinson R44, the veteran might be learning in a $1000/hour Jet Ranger. I asked one school owner “Could you get a Gulfstream G-650 and rent it out for $10,000 per hour as the basic instrument trainer?” “Absolutely,” was the response. Bristow Academy in Florida is doing contract training for budget-minded foreign militaries around the world. The students learn the basics of helicopter flying in a combination of $300/hour Schweizer 300s and $1000/hour Jet Rangers before heading home to fly more complex machines. I asked how much the U.S. military spent to train beginners in Jet Rangers. It is apparently over $4000 per hour. I asked if Bristow had approached the U.S. Army offering to do for them what it was doing for the foreigners, cutting the cost to taxpayers by more than 75%. “They weren’t interested,” was the response.
Anaheim may not be considered the most attractive SoCal neighborhood by locals, but the palm trees are a welcome contrast to a Boston February. Our drive from LAX to Anaheim was painful. If anyone reading this Weblog contrives to become dictator of the U.S., please make it illegal for any phone navigation app provider not to highlight every In n Out Burger along a route. I’m staying in Disney’s flagship Grand Californian hotel (about $400 per night, including tax). Speakeasy says that my room’s wired Internet speed varies between 270 kbps and 900 kbps for download (the WiFi network is almost completely non-functional, with a staff member explaining that “Apple devices are too advanced for our network”). Here’s looking out the window from a room that Disney staff characterize as either a “garden view” or a “woods view”:
Whoever at Disney thought up the idea of calling this a “woods view” could probably come up with a much better name for that SKYe SH09 helicopter!