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The Sikorsky S-92 flies to places most people have never been. From Barrow, Alaska, in the Arctic; to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in the Middle East; and to the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, the S-92 has proved itself across an extraordinary range of challenging missions and operating environments since it entered service in late 2004.
Designed by Sikorsky engineers to be a high-speed, long-range, heavy-lift, all-weather helicopter with a large stand-up passenger cabin, the S-92 also utilized the latest technology to achieve low direct operating costs and meet new certification standards for high reliability and safety.
Versatile by design, the S-92 has become a workhorse in the offshore oil fleet, performed more than 91,000 search-and-rescue (SAR) missions, operated security missions in hot and high places, and its military variant — the CH-148 Cyclone — recently began testing aboard Canadian naval frigates in the North Atlantic. Eleven governments also use a fleet of S-92s to fly their heads of state in secure comfort, and the United States will join this exclusive list in 2020, when new U.S. Marine Corps VH-92s start serving the White House as the new presidential helicopter fleet.
In May 2016, Sikorsky and its customers celebrated the S-92’s milestone one millionth flight hour. The landmark was achieved by a worldwide fleet of 275 aircraft, just 12 years after the first production delivery, and while recording a best in class safety record and availability rate. Sikorsky is celebrating the landmark with a “Thanks a Million” campaign throughout 2016, recognizing S-92 helicopter customers, operators, employees and suppliers.
The milestone was reached during an extraordinary period when offshore S-92 demand and utilization had increased to fill the void created when the Airbus EC225/H225 fleet was grounded after a fatal H225 accident in Turøy, Norway, on April 29, 2016. Accidents are never welcome in the helicopter community, but helicopter operators have always been very nimble when it comes to providing service to their clients when one helicopter model or another has suffered a loss.
“S-92 fleet hours are up 20 percent this year, and we are prepared to assist our customers in any way they need to remain operational,” Dana Fiatarone, vice president of Sikorsky commercial systems and services, told Vertical in mid-August. “We are implementing an additional number of support measures, and are working to keep the S-92 fleet availability at greater than 95 percent.”
Fiatarone said Sikorsky is also helping customers to put idle and under-utilized S-92s back to work, as well as supporting operators who are looking to modify or convert S-92s for new crew change or SAR roles.
The S-92 fleet in the North Sea region has grown by at least 10 aircraft since April, including the addition of two new S-92s direct from Sikorsky and the arrival of S-92s previously working in Canada, Brazil, the Falkland Islands, Nigeria and the United States.
By the Numbers
Each year at Helicopter Association International’s (HAI) Heli-Expo, the helicopter industry pays a visit to the Sikorsky booth to kick the tires of a new S-92. The aircraft always looks very attractive under spotlights on the carpeted convention floor a world away from where most S-92s earn their living. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the vast majority of them are working in the offshore oil-and-gas fleet. Of the S-92’s million flight hours, about 87 percent (more than 875,000 hours) were in service of the oil-and-gas industry. The remainder was split between SAR (6.1 percent), utility/parapublic/airline (3.8 percent) and VVIP/VIP (3.1 percent).
Of the 276 S-92s delivered by Sikorsky, aircraft are currently in service with operators in nine regions: North Sea (95 aircraft), Gulf of Mexico (36), Asia (34), Middle East (26), South America (24), Canada (16), Australia (11), U.S. (six), and Equatorial Africa (six). A portion of the offshore fleet is always deployed outside its home market on international contracts.
When it comes to aircraft utilization, during the first seven months of 2016, North Sea operators flew 42 percent of the S-92’s worldwide flight hours (with 33 percent of the fleet), followed by operators in the Gulf of Mexico (21 percent), South America (16 percent), Asia (six percent) and Canada (six percent).
Interestingly, Sikorsky reports that the average number of flight hours recorded by an offshore S-92 has grown over the past four years, from 825 flight hours to 1,072 flight hours annually. This probably reflects efforts by oil companies to achieve greater efficiencies. The world’s highest-time S-92 is in Norway, and has flown 18,000 hours in about 11 years.
Sikorsky doesn’t disclose its order and delivery numbers, but the General Aviation Manufacturers Association reports that Sikorsky delivered 37 S-92s in 2013, 42 in 2014, 16 in 2015 and just four S-92s in the first half of 2016.
Sikorsky Commercial Helicopters
Sikorsky entered the commercial business 70 years ago, when it delivered three S-51s to Helicopter Air Transport (HAT) in Camden, New Jersey, in August 1946. For the next 30 years, every commercial helicopter Sikorsky delivered was a derivative of a military helicopter program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). In the mid-1970s, Sikorsky self financed the development of the twin-engine S-76 as its first “pure” civilian helicopter program. The fast and sleek S-76 was certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 1978 and became very popular for offshore and executive transport as well as emergency medical services (EMS), SAR, and scheduled airline operations.
The S-92 made its public debut — in the form of a full-scale mockup — at the HAI Convention in Las Vegas, Nevada, where it tested the market for an S-61 replacement and larger S-76 stable mate.
The original product development strategy called for combining the General Electric CT7 engines and the dynamics technology of the military S-70/H-60 Black Hawk/Seahawk with a new rotor system and larger volume cabin. However, as the S-92’s maximum gross weight increased to 25,200 pounds (above the H-60’s component limits of 22,000 pounds) to meet customer requirements, Sikorsky had to develop an entirely new dynamics system that was 20 percent more powerful to handle the higher weights and meet new stringent Federal Aviation Regulation part 29 certification and single engine Category A performance requirements.
The three-page S-92 requirements document specified: 19 passengers; stand-up headroom; 400 nautical mile range (740 kilometers) under North Sea instrument flight rules; direct maintenance costs of $850 per hour (in 1999 dollars); and new safety standards with flaw tolerance and basic structural redundancy.
Sikorsky identified five prime markets for the S-92: offshore; utility operations and helicopter airlines; U.S. military; heads of state and VIPs; and foreign militaries, but it took several years for the market to mature. With no U.S. military program on the horizon to help fund development, the company proceeded cautiously as it looked internationally for risk-sharing partners and military customers. Ultimately, Sikorsky formed a team with five international aerospace companies to take the project forward, and announced full-scale development of the S-92 at the 1995 Paris Airshow.
Prototype production began at the company’s facility in Stratford, Connecticut, and the sales campaign kicked off at Heli-Expo 1998. Sikorsky offered the S-92 in two configurations: a 19-seat civil transport with an airline interior and a 22-passenger military transport with side-facing seats. The offshore model was originally priced at $12.5 to $13 million.
Development and Certification
Sikorsky built five S-92 prototypes (including a ground test vehicle) in Stratford and transferred them to its flight test center at William P. Gwinn Airport in West Palm Beach country, Florida. The S-92 ground test vehicle ran on Aug. 14, 1998, and the prototype S-92 first flew on Dec. 23 that year.
During the three-year flight test and certification program, the S-92’s design was refined. The engines were upgraded to General Electric CT7-8A turboshafts, the avionics system changed to the Rockwell Collins Pro Line 21 with four LCD displays, and the airframe modified with a 16-inch fuselage plug aft of the cockpit. The length of the tail rotor pylon was also reduced by 41 inches and the horizontal stabilizer repositioned to the right side to improve flight handling, permit a 50-inch wide SAR door, and improve the tail fold configuration for shipboard operations.
The development team peaked at 350 people during the flight test and certification phase, and, after 1,570 test flight hours, the FAA certified the Sikorsky S-92 on Dec. 17, 2002 — the 99th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first powered heavier-than-air aircraft flight.
The S-92 won the 2002 Robert J. Collier Trophy, and was lauded as “the greatest achievement in aeronautics or astronautics in America” by the National Aeronautic Association for its “multiple improvements in safety, operating cost, and traveling comfort.”
It was the first helicopter certified to the latest North American and European airworthiness part 29 harmonized certification requirements (through amendment 47), providing unprecedented features such as a fully flaw-tolerant design for the rotor and fuselage structures, and redundant flight-critical systems that prevent single-point failures.
“We are particularly proud of the aircraft’s flaw tolerant design,” said Fiatarone. “It leads the way by being the first aircraft certified to this rigorous standard and by meeting or exceeding oil-and-gas industry requirements.”
Built for the 21st century, the S-92 (at launch) offered a potential maximum range of 480 nautical miles with 19 passengers at maximum gross weight (26,500 pounds) with 30 minutes’ fuel reserve.
Powered by its two CT7-8A engines, rated at 2,520 shaft-horsepower for takeoff and 2,043 shaft-horsepower continuous, the S-92 has a never exceed speed of 165 knots (306 km/h), a maximum continuous speed of 151 knots (280 km/h), and a long range cruise speed of 136 knots (252 km/r).
The S-92 also introduced a spacious standup cabin that was higher (six feet), wider (6.68 feet) and longer (20 feet) than the S-70/H-60, and had a rear ramp/baggage compartment. A Sikorsky-developed active vibration control system provided a 30-percent decrease in vibration levels and reduced noise.
Standard safety features included high-intensity radiated field protection (HIRF), crashworthy seats for all occupants, a fuel sponson designed to keep fuel away from passengers, energy absorbing landing gear, bird-strike protection at maximum aircraft speed, and lightning strike protection.
The standard avionics suite included an enhanced ground proximity warning system, traffic collision avoidance system, and a health and usage management system.
Cougar Helicopters became the S-92’s launch customer when it signed a letter of intent (LOI) on Jan. 25, 2000, for use off the east coast of Canada. In March 2003, final assembly of the first production S-92s began at the original Sikorsky factory site in Bridgeport, Connecticut, with LOIs for nine helicopters, including two options.
The order book began to fill as the outlook in the oil and gas industry improved, stimulating new exploration activity further offshore. Along with this, new international oil companies were willing to pay higher contract rates for new generation helicopters that offered greater payload, efficiency and speed — and that were certified to the latest airworthiness standards.
The first production S-92 departed Stratford in late September 2004 on its delivery flight to PHI, Inc. in Louisiana. In the first year of service, four leading offshore helicopter operators — PHI Inc., Norsk Helikopter, CHC Helicopter Corporation and Cougar Helicopters Inc. — introduced the S-92 on offshore routes in the Gulf of Mexico, Norway and Atlantic Canada. The S-92 proved to be extremely reliable, quickly reaching aircraft utilization rates of between 90 and 160 hours a month, with Norsk (later Bristow Norway AS) leading the fleet by flying about 2,000 flight hours per year per aircraft.
In other markets, Sikorsky delivered the first corporate S-92 to the New York area in 2004, the first S-92 for a head of state to Turkey in 2005, the first dedicated SAR aircraft to CHC in 2007, and the first multi-role utility S-92 to Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior (MOI) in 2008. Canada became the first customer for a naval military variant of the S-92 when it signed an order for 28 CH-148 Cyclones in November 2004.
Moving to Coatesville
At first glance, Coatesville, Pennsylvania, seems to be an unlikely place for Sikorsky to assemble and complete new S-76D and S-92 helicopters, but aviation companies in the Philadelphia area have been building autogyros and later helicopters since 1929.
The transfer of the S-92 final assembly line from Stratford to Coatesville was completed during the winter of 2009-2010, following a period when every S-92 flew from Stratford to Coatesville for completion in offshore, SAR, VVIP and utility configuration.
“The transition to Coatesville for the commercial product was a natural fit,” said Audrey Brady, general manager of the Coatesville factory, who was previously the S-92 program director. “We began by completing the assembly of the 115th S-92 and progressed to full assembly by the time we completed the 127th aircraft.”
The Coatesville facility employs more than 500 people and covers more than 416,000 square feet, including the 217,000 square feet Heliplex where Sikorsky commercial assembly lines and well-equipped production test flight and delivery center are located.
Like most modern aircraft factories, Coatesville is a system integrator of large aircraft sub-assemblies made elsewhere in the world. Sikorsky makes the S-92’s rotor and dynamic system in the United States, but all the major airframe components are made by risk-sharing partners around the globe.
Embraer in Brazil produces the S-92’s sponsons and its subsidiary ELEB makes the landing gear; AVIC subsidiary Changhe Aircraft in China makes the tail rotor pylon; Tata Advanced Systems in India makes and assembles the cabin; Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation in Taiwan makes the cockpit; and Aernnova of Spain makes several metal and composite components (including the rear fuselage, aft transition tailcone, horizontal stabilizer, engine cowlings, main rotor pylon, and cargo ramp).
Sikorsky has a two-step sales process where customers accept delivery of a “green” aircraft, which are then sent to the completion hangar for customization prior to final delivery.
“We build a vanilla aircraft and every S-92 that comes off our production assembly line is exactly the same,” Brady told Vertical, adding that the variations to the wiring packages to accommodate new avionics and systems (such as SAR systems, TCAS II, ADS-B and Rig Approach) and options such auxiliary fuel tanks are added during the completion process.
“Most of the aircraft we are producing are delivered in offshore configuration, but we also complete S-92s for VIP, VVIP, heads of state, search-and-rescue, and utility customers,” she said.
One of the most challenging S-92 completions jobs was a November 2007 order for 15 multi-mission S-92s for the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Interior (MOI), with deliveries fast-tracked to begin as early as March 2008. The aircraft were highly customized to respond to critical missions in the kingdom, including SAR, firefighting, and EMS — in addition to security and traffic surveillance missions. And the aircraft had to be quickly configured for each mission. Despite the logistical challenges the order presented, the first S-92 was delivered on schedule.
Flying in the Gulf of Mexico
The offshore oil-and-gas industry has become the biggest market for the S-92, with Bristow, PHI and CHC flying large fleets in the Gulf of Mexico, the North Sea, Brazil, and Australia. The S-92 also flies with smaller companies providing transport to oil-and-gas fields in Azerbaijan, Brunei, Canada, China, Nigeria, Norway, Malaysia, Thailand, Trinidad, and the U.S.
As of June 30, 2016, Bristow had 76 S-92s in its fleet, CHC was operating 44 S-92s at the end of fiscal year 2016 (prior to its court-supervised reorganization), and PHI Inc. had 35 S-92s as of Dec. 31, 2015.
In the Gulf of Mexico — the region where the aircraft completed its first operational flight — Bristow utilizes the S-92 to deliver passengers and cargo to deepwater installations anywhere from 50 to 250 nautical miles (nm) offshore, according to Bob Old, the company’s director of operations of the Americas region. “More common are flights in the 150 nm range,” he told Vertical. “The biggest benefit for our clients is the passenger carrying capability. The ability to carry 19 passengers at a time makes client crew changes more efficient.”
In this region, aircraft may need to fly through squall lines, and deal with bands of continuous rain showers, low ceilings and poor visibility. There is also the threat of tropical storms and hurricanes.
“We often utilize the S-92 to quickly evacuate workers from the larger offshore structures in advance of these storms, because of the aircraft’s large size and ability to accommodate 19 passengers at a time,” said Old. “In the Gulf we also have to operate in hot summer temperatures. One of the many high points of the S-92 is that it is air-conditioned so passengers are comfortable inflight even on the hottest days.”
Bristow customizes the cockpits of its S-92s in the Gulf with an optional fifth multi-function display to enhance pilot visibility, and these are well-liked by flight crews.
In 2008, VIH Cougar introduced a dedicated SAR S-92 to the Gulf of Mexico on contract to two major international oil companies. Equipped with both a SAR and EMS interior, it was one of the first helicopters on the scene when the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20, 2010.
Chevron USA introduced its first offshore S-92 in 2013, and three of the aircraft are now stationed at its new centralized base in Galliano. Chevron is the only major oil company in the Gulf of Mexico that operates a large fleet of helicopters and also contracts helicopters from commercial operators.
In 2015, Era Helicopters took delivery of its first two S-92 helicopters — the first in the world to feature Sikorsky’s gross weight expansion (GWE). The first of these entered revenue service in October, flying from Era’s new “super base” in Houma, Louisiana.
“The extra 1,200-pound payload capacity provides enhanced flexibility that benefits the customer,” said Paul White, Era’s senior vice president, commercial. “Our S-92s can carry more passengers and we can take them further, with minimal fuel stops.”
PHI’s busiest S-92 base is at Louisiana’s Houma-Terrabonne Airport. It has two separate passenger terminals and heliports dispatching S-92s offshore, including one dedicated to BP.
Cougar Helicopters was the first offshore operator to order the S-92, but the third to put it into revenue service as it needed to wait for Transport Canada certification of the S-92’s innovative Rotor Ice Protection System (RIPS). The RIPS works by determining the temperature and moisture content of the surrounding environment and automatically applying heat to the main and tail rotor blades to remove any ice build up.
Rick Burt, vice president of offshore and SAR at HNZ Group (and a former offshore executive with CHC and Cougar) was the first offshore pilot to fly the S-92 and publish a flight report in a helicopter magazine in 2001. “My first impression was that the S-92 was a new generation helicopter that could carry twice as many passengers per flight between St John’s [Newfoundland] and the Hibernia, Terra Nova or White Rose oil fields Cougar served that were located between 170 and 200 nautical miles offshore,” Burt told Vertical.
The first Cougar S-92 flew offshore on April 7, 2005. “The S-92 introduction was quite a big change for our company,” said Paul Carter, Cougar’s chief pilot. “The passengers adapted very quickly because they could stand up in the aircraft and the seats were comfortable, but it took a while for our pilots to transition from a Super Puma with ‘steam gauge’ instruments in a cockpit designed in the 1980s to the glass panel cockpit of the S-92. We were used to looking at a few gauges and now we had a tremendous amount of information sitting on the screens in front of us. But by the second or third year, you really formed a love for the aircraft.”
Cougar contracted VIH Aerospace to develop a 150-US gallon (570-liter) auxiliary tank for work that went beyond 200 nautical miles. Each tank provides an additional 45 minutes of flight.
Cougar was the first operator — civil or military — to utilize the S-92 for SAR, and its aircraft is now compatible with night vision goggles. VIH Aerospace designed and built a SAR equipment installation that has an LCD display screen, communications suite, controllers for an infrared camera and NightSun searchlight, and a “Sea Tray” to protect the cabin floor from seawater.
The newest installation in the SAR aircraft is a GoPro camera mounted externally to capture the hoist sequence.
A new CAE Level D full flight simulator in Mt. Pearl was certified on March for training on March 25 this year. Cougar pilots are required to do three night offshore takeoffs and landings in a simulator every 90 days, and spend two hours in the simulator every three-week shift.
In the fall of 2014, CHC Helicopter Canada Inc. put three S-92s into service supporting Statoil’s West Hercules rig drilling in the Flemish Pass Basin.
“We were flying 284 nm offshore Arctic during the drilling of the Cupids well program, but due to extreme Arctic conditions creating ice, the rig moved to a distance of 295 nm for a week during the 700-day operation,” said CHC’s Brian Bianco. “CHC is proud that its S-92s have conducted the longest flights to an offshore rig anywhere in the world.”
In good weather, the S-92 could carry between five and eight passengers to the world’s most distant platform.
In mid-October 2015, HNZ Group (formerly Canadian Helicopters), became the third Canadian offshore operator of the S-92 when it began flying for Shell Canada to deepwater drillship Stena Icemax. The contract included a crew change S-92 and a dedicated SAR S-92 with a back up aircraft that could fill either role.
The Challenge of the North Sea
Today, four operators — Bristow, CHC, Babcock Mission Critical Services Offshore Limited and Norsk Helikopterservice (NHS) — fly a combined fleet of almost 90 S-92s in Europe, including 16 on government SAR contracts in the UK and Ireland. During the summer, additional crew change and SAR S-92s arrived in in the U.K. and Norway from overseas to fill in for the grounded H225 fleet.
Historically, Aberdeen handles 500,000 offshore helicopter passengers a year flying primarily in S-92s and H225s. The recent H225 grounding has altered the picture on the ground and in the sky, with hundreds of people working behind the scenes to keep passengers flowing without disruption to the offshore platforms.
On April 29, 2016 — the day of the Turøy crash — there were 95 offshore movements at Aberdeen Airport flown by 26 different helicopters (13 H225s and 13 S-92s), according to an air traffic monitoring program. On Aug. 26, there were 125 offshore movements flown by 26 helicopters (one AW139, two H175s and 23 S-92s). Between the two sample periods, the S-92 fleet at Aberdeen increased by 77 percent and S-92 movements increased by 135 percent.
The aircraft made its debut in the region with Norway’s Norsk Helikopter in February 2005. Utilization of the aircraft soon reached eight to nine hours a day, and the first S-92 reached 1,000 flight hours within seven months.
CHC Helikopter Service of Norway, part of the CHC Group, became the second operator of the S-92 in the North Sea in 2005.
“Our pilots and crews appreciate the modern cockpit, flight control system with auto-hover, medical kit options and storage space,” said Dave Balevic, SVP of engineering and operations at CHC.
CHC launched the first S-92 flights serving the U.K. sector of the North Sea from Aberdeen Airport (the world’s busiest offshore oil hub) in 2006. The next year, it placed the world’s first dedicated SAR S-92 in service when four aircraft began a five-year Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) contract in northern Scotland. (Today, Bristow operates 11 S-92s as part of a fleet of 22 aircraft providing SAR services on behalf of the MCA in the U.K.)
As regulators and industry introduced new offshore safety requirements in the North Sea, the S-92 received further enhancements. In mid-2012, the FAA and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) certified it for Sea State 6 conditions, completing the S-92A emergency flotation system sea state expansion.
A Global Market
Brazil is the largest offshore oil producer in South America, and the country received its first S-92s in late 2009. Today, the S-92 now flies with the three largest offshore operators: Lider Táxi Aéreo S/A, BHS – Brazilian Helicopter Service Táxi Aéreo Ltda, and Omni Táxi Aéreo Ltda.
Lider is Brazil’s largest helicopter operator and Latin America’s largest business aviation enterprise. It introduced the aircraft to the region, and has 12 S-92s in current service.
“The S-92 has been extremely significant to the growth of Lider because it became the backbone of our contribution to the exploration of pre-salt areas for Petrobras,” said Eduardo Vaz, Líder Aviação CEO, adding that the S-92 offers “first and foremost, safety and reliability . . . and superb operational capabilities giving . . . the range, payload, and speed Petrobras needs.”
Elsewhere, the S-92 has helped develop oil and gas fields off the coasts of Malaysia, Brunei, Australia, China, and Thailand.
Thai Aviation Services (TAS) introduced the S-92 into its fleet in 2013. “The S-92s replaced two S-61Ns serving offshore rigs between 90 nm and 150 nm offshore,” said Craig Havas, TAS’s deputy managing director – operations, and S-92 chief pilot. “For the pilots, the new technology translated into significant flight safety improvements and better operational capability. From a mechanic’s perspective, I am yet to talk with an engineer who does not like working on them. The ease of maintenance, reliability and actual access to components make it a mechanic’s dream.”
Sikorsky took a risk when it launched the S-92 in 1995, but 20 years later, the helicopter continues to find new civil and military customers and promises to be in service for a long time to come.