HI Uplift: Have heavies had their day?


Pity the poor old heavy helicopter. She spends years in storage during the downturn in the offshore energy sector. Then, when oil and gas markets finally start to pick up, the heavy helicopter risks finding herself edged out but the younger and more glamorous super-medium and medium helicopters. But reports of her demise would be far overstated, according to industry insiders consulted by Helicopter Investor.

“Heavies are likely to continue to play a role in the helicopter industry in the foreseeable future due to their unique capabilities in terms of payload, and range, albeit on a smaller scale than previously,” Sara Dhariwal, senior aviation analyst, at Cirium Ascend Consultancy tells Helicopter Investor. This prediction is supported by the Cirium 2023 Helicopter Fleet Forecast, estimating the heavies to take around a 1% share of all deliveries over the next decade. This is down 4% on the most recent 10 years.”

In contrast, super-mediums – the AW189 and H175 – are forecasted to take a 4% share of all new deliveries. Focusing on the offshore sector, the fleet development seems to indicate that the super-mediums are indeed chipping away at the S92s. “Combined, the AW189 and H175 now have almost a 30% share of the total super-medium/S92A fleet in offshore configuration,” says Dhariwal.

Cirium defines a heavy helicopter as having a typical maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of up to 8.6t, with a typical seating capacity of 19-26. The main markets for heavy helicopter missions are search-and-rescue (SAR), offshore, utility and law enforcement. The consultancy’s Cirium 2023 Helicopter Fleet Forecast expects the main new demand to be for SAR, utility and law enforcement to be served by H215s, Surions and S-70s.

Brad Shaen, director and founder, International Aviation Marketing asserts the case for heavies like this: “Heavy helicopters are absolutely essential in the energy sector as there are missions that can only effectively be serviced by an S92 and previously and H225.”

The biggest challenge that faces the S92 helicopter programme is the product support provided by the manufacturer, Shaen tells us. “If Sikorsky can support the market with spares, the S92 will continue to dominate the space and I expect that new orders will be placed. If they can’t, the super-mediums will flourish and/or we may see the re-entry of the H225 into the energy sector.” (Pictured, courtesy of Sikorsky, is an S-92 helicopter).

Dhariwal tells us heavy helicopters continue to deliver compelling advantages in key markets. Not least they offer superior payload, longer range and a higher seating capacity than any other helicopter category. All these qualities are important in different measures depending on the missions it serves. “For an example, there has been a surge in demand from the firefighting sector for the SuperPumas as operators are looking to replace the Russian-built KA-32s following the conflict in Ukraine,” says Dhariwal. “For certain offshore missions off the coast of Canada, the range and payload of a heavy is required complete a return journey to the oil rigs furthest offshore without having to refuel.”

Picking up on the theme of storage, Cirium says the storage rate for Sikorsky S-92s has improved significantly from a high of about 15% at the end of 2021 to just under 10% today. Apparently, some of the stored aircraft are awaiting parts and maintenance repair and overall (MRO) capacity – after which they are expected to return to service.

The most recent delivery of an S-92A into the offshore market was in 2019. Nearly 90% of the current S-92A fleet are between 10-20 years old, according to Cirium Fleets Analyzer. With the OEM recently announcing it is cancelling plans for the upgrade variant – the S-92B – it is unlikely we will see significant new deliveries for the type, says Cirium.

Dhariwal highlights recent comments from Leon Silva, head of Global Commercial and Military Systems at Sikorsky that while the manufacturer had decided not to pursue the S92B, they are still producing S92A helicopters. “They are due to deliver SAR aircraft in 2023 and order books are open,” says Dhariwal. “Whether a new final production line (FAL) will be announced is yet to be confirmed.”

For now, the S-92A remains dominant in the offshore sector, with very limited numbers of Airbus Helicopter H225s returning to this sector following its temporary grounding. “Airbus has however continued to deliver H225s and H215s to other segments within the civil sector, with the most recent one delivered to Japan for utility use earlier this year,” says Dhariwal. But fleet development seems to indicate that the super-mediums are indeed chipping away at the S92s, she adds.

So, could heavy helicopter find new demand in the construction of offshore wind installations. Not according to our industry insiders, “No, they are too big and not cost effective for the wind sector,” says Shaen at International Aviation Marketing. “Maybe one day, if the wind farm is further offshore.” Dhariwal is equally sceptical: “As it stands today, a heavy is unlikely to be a viable option to use for offshore wind. Moving forward, it may depend on the logistics of the operations.”

Plus, there is another large helicopter waiting to enter the market – the Bell 525 Relentless, Dhariwal reminds us. The type was launched in 2012 and deliveries are expected to start imminently. “That means that whilst the market appears to be getting smaller for the larger types, there is now more competition in the space than ever before. The question is whether there is room in the segment for all of them, and if not, which one will come out on top?”

Whatever the impact of the Bell 525 Relentless, it looks like any suggestion of heavy helicopters’ forthcoming demise are entirely premature. If you enjoyed reading this article, please sign up for our free newsletter.