We get behind the controls of a Magni M16 gyroplane, chat with NASA engineers about the Mars Helicopter, look at Helinet’s firefighting Black Hawk & reflect on the legacy left by Universal Helicopters.
Erickson is banking on more than 150 buyers for a souped-up version of the S-64F Air Crane driven by increased demand for the behemoth’s firefighting and heavy construction capabilities in coming years.
“Based on what we’ve seen in the market, we think that there’s a market demand of at least 50 to 100 airframes in the world,” chief executive Doug Kitani said Jan. 28 at HAI’s 2020 Heli-Expo. “A very, very significant increase in the number of airframes today.”
The company is developing an enhanced version of the aircraft called the S-64F+ that will feature new, more-modern full-authority digital electronic control (FADEC) engines, composite main rotor blades, advanced cockpit avionics and flight control system and an improved water cannon.
Prioritizing upgrades to the existing fleet of about 50 aircraft, there is a mixed government/commercial market for another 50 to 100 aircraft, Kitani said. Government customers, particularly Italy, South Korea, Greece and Australia will account for the bulk of those orders, followed by commercial customers.
“We’re seeing things like in the firefighting realm where there’s not enough aircraft to go around. . . . Where operators used to go between northern and southern hemisphere, we’re seeing that model break down. We saw that this year, [with] the tragic fires in Australia,” Kitani said. “There’s significant demand, mostly from sovereign customers but we think commercial customers will follow and build out bigger fleets with more capability.”
An aircraft that can demonstrate the functionality Erickson and its intended customers are after could be flying within three to four years because much of the technology Erickson wants to incorporate is available, Kitani said. Certifying the various upgrades could be done through a “combo” supplemental type certificate, he said.
“What we found in the last year-plus as we dug into this is the technology to accomplish what we want is out there, and it’s really a systems integration exercise,” Kitani said. “We don’t see a huge amount of technology risk, but we are going to focus on the things that we think are important for bringing the aircraft to market sooner rather than later.”
Using the composite rotor blades and new engines, Erickson should be able to achieve significantly more lift capacity and power right off the bat using the existing Air Crane airframe without modification, Kitani said.
“But that may not be a priority on day one,” he said. “Our first priority is to get an aircraft certified and able to start executing missions, not only firefighting but precision construction.”
Further power will come from a new pair of engines. Erickson has partnered with aviation research-and-development firm Piasecki to consult on the choice from several commercial and military engines by the end of the year, Kitani said.
“We have a shortlist of engines, but … we’re working with a company called Piasecki aircraft, out of Philadelphia, that knows the airframe and knows Erickson very well. They’re helping us chart this out really to understand with some fidelity what’s the best engine for this airframe for the future.”
It is unclear where the funding for development of the S-64F+ will come from, but chief financial officer Stephen Wideman assured reporters there was a “multi-year plan” in place, without providing details.