Sikorsky takes a significant portion of the VVIP and head of state helicopter markets with its S-76 and S-92 models. Vice-President Global Business, Commercial Systems and Services, Jeanette Eaton describes its product line and global support network
Sikorsky was among the early helicopter pioneers. The diminutive R-4 flew in prototype form in 1942 and soon entered service as the US military’s first helicopter. An evolving series of primarily military rotorcraft followed, including the VH-3 presidential transport from the ubiquitous Sea King family line.
Commercial variants of Sikorsky’s military designs became available almost from the outset, but during the 1970s the OEM began development of an all-new, twin-engined medium helicopter aimed directly at the civilian market. Optimised for utility and passenger transport missions with oil and gas, airline and corporate operators, the S-76 took its maiden flight in 1977 and reached its first customer in 1979. That was 40 years ago and yet the S-76 remains as Sikorsky’s corporate and VVIP medium helicopter offering.
In itself, that’s perhaps not unusual. There are many examples of decades-old airframe designs still in production, today fashioned using the latest construction techniques and flying on modern engines and avionics systems. But those aircraft need to have been exceptional in the first instance and remain attractive to customers who weren’t born when they first came to market. What’s the key to the S-76’s longevity?
Jeanette Eaton, VP Global Business, Commercial Systems and Services at Sikorsky Aircraft reckons there are four vital ingredients to its success. “First, the aircraft’s exceptional safety record. Second is reliability and availability. Time is money for our VVIP customers. They want an aircraft that’s there for them when they need it and S-76 availability is historically above 95%. Third, it’s fast, with an extremely smooth, quiet ride. Passengers can enjoy a drink in the back of the S-76D while talking without having to raise their voices above the level of a typical conference room meeting, or take a call with similar ease.” And fourth? “It just looks good!”
The S-76D is the current production model, with an integrated Thales glass cockpit including four-axis autopilot and other additional safety features, among them an enhanced ground proximity warning system, and a power limit indicator, all designed to enhance crew situational awareness while reducing workload. There are also enlarged windows and the advanced Pratt & Whitney Canada PW210S engines drive main and tail rotor blades manufactured from high-performance, flaw-tolerant composites.
Presented with the possibilities of a strong VIP market, Eaton says Sikorsky is also working hard to clear some if its used S-76C inventory. “We’ve converted several aircraft to VIP configuration and listed them on our website, offering them as new or preowned, with a new aircraft warranty and entitlements. We also produce engine upgrade packages for existing S-76C+ customers, including engines, wiring harnesses, inlet barrier filters and accessories to retrofit aircraft to S-76C++ standard.” All of which means that while some of the oldest S-76A helicopters have been retired, the S-76C and S-76D have a strong future.
To date, Sikorsky has delivered in excess of 180 VIP-configured S-76s and Eaton says the VIP mission accounts for more than 20% of the worldwide fleet. The type provides head of state transportation for ten countries and among its VVIP clients, the British Royal Household has employed the S-76 since the 1990s.
Perhaps more familiar in the offshore support role, the S-92 provides the basis for Sikorsky’s second and much larger VIP helicopter. Delivered from 2004 as a competitor to aircraft including the Super Puma (today the Airbus Helicopters H225), the S-92 has also found a niche in the head-of-state market; as the VH-92, it will replace the US Marine Corp VH-3 fleet. The aircraft’s large cabin facilitates a variety of customer options. Eaton says it’s an exceptional machine, but then she would. Instead of expounding its virtues, she simply passes on feedback from an operator:
“Wow, we never knew a helicopter could be like this.” That’s typical of comments we hear when VVIP customers first meet the S-92. This particular statement came from a very high-profile Hollywood star who’d had plenty of opportunities to be amazed during his long and illustrious career.
We’ve learned that the full advantages of flying in the VIP S-92 need to be experienced to be to be understood; just talking about it never really does it justice. We are often late taking off, not because the aircraft is delayed, but because it takes so long for passengers to take selfies of themselves and their guest(s) boarding this remarkable machine. They love the whole experience.
Most VIP helicopters are ultimately limited by one or more unavoidable compromises. They often don’t have much leg room or space between the seats, so passengers rarely wish to travel longer than one hour. Very few helicopters have useful luggage space, and very few billionaires travel light. Most helicopters are severely limited on fuel if you have to use short-field or vertical profiles, limiting either the journey or the number of passengers carried. None of these limitations applies to the S-92. And there is only one helicopter with a toilet fitted – the S-92. In a remote field, or after a long day at the horse races, this ‘luxury’ is often a necessity and a significant comfort and source of relief.
We’ve had the privilege of operating in the VVIP market for more than 40 years, and to have flown in excess of 20 different helicopter types in more than 65 countries. After all that time and experience, we have to say that in many respects the opportunity to operate the S-92 for the last five years has been the pinnacle of our story. As an operating company, we’ve seen that the S-92 offers so many unique advantages as an onshore VIP transport and we’ve seen those advantages appreciated by customers of all types. We believe this potential just needs to reach a tipping point in order for the S-92 to become an even more successful aircraft in the market; our next challenge, in partnership with Sikorsky, is to drive towards that tipping point of success and wider adoption.
And therein lies the rub. Sikorsky’s massive military success is continuing with the latest evolutions of the H-53 and H-60, while its dramatic S-97 Raider technology demonstrator has the potential to revolutionise helicopter design. Its S-76 and S-92 are also highly regarded in the commercial and government VVIP markets, but the OEM isn’t the first, probably not even the second that springs to mind when considering the corporate and VIP helicopter market as a whole.
“It’s important to keep in mind that since we don’t play in the light helicopter game, only in the medium and heavy, we have less volume of commercial business strictly in terms of units,” Eaton explains. “However, when you consider the investments associated with developing and maintaining medium and heavy helicopters and supporting them out in the world, we are as strong, if not stronger, than anyone, as evidenced by the recently announced S-92A+/B and the seven different S-76 models developed through the years.”
Explaining the S-92A+ and S-92B models announced at HAI Heli-Expo in March this year, Eaton says: “These fleet upgrades will include the introduction of a new Phase IV main gearbox with an architecture that plays a huge role in reducing operating costs, while bringing a ten-fold improvement in safety. We’re also launching the first commercial application of technology demonstrated in our MATRIX programme. Phase one brings advanced computing power to the platform as part of an infrastructure enabling additional future products that will shape the way we fly for the next 30 years. The S-92B will become the new production aircraft, and the S-92A+ is produced from a kit for upgrading fielded aircraft to a similar configuration.” The S-92B will also feature 20% larger cabin windows and other cabin and role improvements.
Even as the upgraded S-92 promises to bring new customers into the fold and the S-76D continues quietly and discretely to satisfy the needs of its VIP clientele, Sikorsky has a robust customer support structure in place. Helicopters are complex machines subject to rigours fixed-wing aircraft seldom, if ever face, and even the most reliable will need fixing from time to time.
S-76 support is perhaps complicated by the primary variants employing different engine types and avionics suites, but Eaton says even the legacy fleet is subject to the same standard of care. “We support all S-76 and S-92 customers with our 24/7/365 Customer Care Center, in Trumbull, Connecticut, four Forward Stocking Locations (FSLs) and an increasing number of deployed Field Service Representatives across the globe. We also continue to authorise Sikorsky Customer Support Centers, 20 of which are in operation.
“Our Customer Care Center has consistently resolved aircraft-on-ground events in less than 24 hours over the past two years and continues to do so. Our four strategically-located FSLs house critical components and parts closer to the customers who are most likely to need them at a moment’s notice and, in some cases, parts have been delivered in less than an hour.
“We’ve also increased our focus on sustainment support, with our Fleet Management Center. Co-located at the Customer Care Center, the team monitors component removal rates, when and why particular parts need to be replaced, and how long it takes to replace them. Then they use predictive analytics to develop proactive solutions for scheduled fleet maintenance, reducing the number of AOG events and increasing fleet availability levels.”
Eaton concludes: “These resources enable Sikorsky to provide timely, responsive support that keeps our customers flying and brings them home everywhere, every time,” an assurance that probably goes a long way to explaining why they bought a Sikorsky product in the first place.