The Resurgence of Sikorsky’s Helibus

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The Resurgence of Sikorsky’s Helibus

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Sikorsky readies production ramp-up for its S-92 heavy twin

The resurgent offshore energy industry is driving fresh demand for Sikorsky’s largest civil helicopter, the S-92A Helibus.

Sikorsky delivered just four S-92s in 2022 and three last year. But three more are on the assembly line at the company’s West Palm Beach, Florida facility, and the company is in the final stages of negotiations for a block of 14 new-build helicopters for delivery in 2025 and 2026.

These helicopters will be delivered in the upgraded “A+” configuration that includes the new Phase IV main gearbox and a menu of choices including upgrated GE CT7-8A6 engines that offer better high/hot performance. The new gearbox uses a supplemental oil pump and additional oil lines to reuse main gearbox oil that is accumulated in a lower sump, in the event of primary lubrication failure. The A+ kits will be available for retrofit.

Leon Silva, Sikorsky v-p for commercial business, said that the helicopters will be produced at a facility to be announced and not West Palm. Production shifted to West Palm after Sikorsky closed its Coatesville, Pennsylvania plant in 2022. Silva said Sikorsky has evaluated “a large number of options” for production and does have a specific place in mind but is not ready to announce it. The helicopter will be produced in the U.S.

Silva pointed out that Sikorsky has assembled the S-92 in four different locales since production commenced in 2005 and that moving production is not overly difficult due to the helicopter’s architecture of putting it together from “very large subassemblies.”

Sikorsky has made “good progress” toward certification of the A+ kits, Silva said. The company anticipates receiving FAA approval in 2025. Most of the certification work centered around the Phase IV gearbox “and improvements associated with that,” he added.

“The majority of the site testing has been completed, and we have collected the data. We’re now organizing those reports and coordinating with the FAA for certification. We made a lot of nice progress last year and have it [the A+ program] fully funded and going full speed this year,” he said.

Sikorsky’s Matrix autonomy system could be added to the A+ at some point in the future, but Silva said that, for the present, Sikorsky is focused on “solving today’s challenges and not coming off like we are trying to distract anybody with some fancy technology.”

But Sikorsky has looked at incorporating Matrix into the S-92, and “we are having some interesting conversations with potential partners in order to develop a certification path.” He said Matrix will significantly reduce pilot workload. “We think customers are likely to be interested in that,” he remarked, adding that while “we don’t have any specific plans right now for that development, we are definitely having discussions and exploring potential tasks.”

For the moment, “today’s challenges” are focused on keeping the existing fleet of S-92s in the air. Nearly two-thirds of the 300-strong S-92 fleet serves the offshore oil and gas industry, and the majority of those are owned by leasing companies, with AerCap unit Milestone Aviation being the fleet leader at more than 80.

While Sikorsky has made progress in keeping customers supplied with parts and assemblies, Silva admits that it remains a problem. Silva said the lead time for a new S-92 main gearbox is two and a half years, but often customers can accept a refurbishment as opposed to a replacement.

That said, Sikorsky boosted gearbox output by 40 percent in 2023 compared with 2022, delivering 39. It anticipates increasing that number by 25 percent in 2024 and being caught up with the main gearbox backlog, as well as future anticipated needs, by year-end. Silva said Sikorsky produced a record number of gearbox housings in 2023, a component that requires highly complex fabrication.

Record S-92 post-Covid flight activity created a “perfect storm” for the OEM, with the helicopters flying record hours at a greater tempo than anticipated, Silva said. “They’re more active than ever before. While that validates the quality and strength of the design,” it also creates “supply chain issues.”

“We are trying to work through them, and they are improving slowly. Time is the biggest challenge. Most of these parts have long lead times, and it takes time to recover from that.”

During Covid, one in five S-92s were parked, but that didn’t last long. “That started the [parts] challenge,” Silva said. “We saw about 40 aircraft that were in storage being pulled out and put back into service.” He noted that when aircraft were put into storage, forward maintenance was not always a priority.

“In some cases, people weren’t too concerned about updating their [gear] boxes and so forth. So some of those aircraft—as soon as they got pulled out and put back into service—required additional attention. So demand for parts, specifically gearboxes, really spiked. That’s been our big challenge,” Silva said, adding that it was in Sikorsky’s best interest to move as quickly as possible to satisfy parts demand.

“It’s a critical issue for the operator and for us. Our business is aligned with the customer because of the way we support them. A large number of these aircraft are on our hourly power program. We don’t make money if they are not flying, so we are highly incentivized.”

Meanwhile, pressure from increased flight hours has led to the scrapping of some aircraft for parts as others bump up against the 20-year maximum age limit specified by some offshore customers or the 30,000-hour life limit of the aircraft. While it could be technically possible to zero-time remanufacture the aircraft to deal with these limits, Silva said it is not economically feasible. “It’s difficult to rationalize because it would require a lot of additional testing and certification on the aircraft to get there.”

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