HI Uplift: Hill Helicopters aims for disruptive ‘magic carpet ride’ Uplift
Re-imagining the light helicopter – for private and commercial use – is not a task for the faint-hearted. But it’s a disruptive dream Jason Hill and his team at Hill Helicopters are determined to make reality. Progress seemed pretty solid, sitting in the plush cockpit of one of the company’s two demonstrator aircraft making their UK debut at the Imperial War Museum Duxford, Cambridgeshire, last week.
Company founder and chief engineer Hill explained the idea at an investors’ evening the day before my visit: “We’ve made a proper helicopter. One of the key design inspirations was trying to bring general aviation up to the design and quality standards akin to the automotive industry and every other area of life. In terms of the operational aspects, we wanted this to feel like a magic carpet ride.”
That ride will be delivered by a three-bladed, single-engine gas turbine helicopter. Up to 95% of the aircraft – including the GT50 turbine engine – is being built in-house. (Much more on this later). Two variants will be available – the HX50, wearing wheels at the launch event, and the HC50, which made her debut equipped with skids. Apart from the landing gear, both models are identical but destined for different markets. The HX50 is destined for the private market dominated by the owner-pilot whereas the HC50 is intended for commercial use including tour operators and corporate flight departments.
The initial certification is expected from the UK CAA with subsequent type validations and acceptances expected to follow around the world.
While flight tests are scheduled for next year, with operational launch due in 2025, the projected performance of the five-seat helicopter is impressive. The GT50 turbine engine generates 500 shaft horsepower, according to the manufacturer. That is said to deliver a cruise speed of 140 knots (161mph) and a maximum range of 700nm (1,296kms). The payload will be 1,760lbs (800kg).
Hill even describes the aircraft as a GVTOL (green vertical take-off and landing) aircraft, pledging the engine will be capable of running on carbon-neutral Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF).
If those figures were not impressive enough, the product pricing is also exciting some investors. The HX50 has a base price of £595,000, while the HC50 carries a basic price tag of £725,000. (This week, for a limited period, Hill was offering the HX50 at the discounted price of £535,000 and the HC50 at £625,000).
Hill Helicopters says it can sell aircraft at those price points because of its vertically integrated manufacturing model offering near complete control of its supply chain. Rotary engineer Hill used a music metaphor to explain the manufacturer’s cost control.
“This [helicopter] is a greatest hits album,” he said. “It contains all the things that we know and love from the helicopter industry. Proven concepts packaged beautifully and using a vertical integration strategy for manufacturing. We can control the costs end-to-end of absolutely everything. That is the key to all of this.”
Mischa Gelb, Hill’s brand ambassador and veteran rotary pilot, told Helicopter Investor more about the benefits claimed for the company’s vertically integrated manufacturing model. “Because he [Jason Hill] controls the costs of all the components, he can control the cost of all the spare parts when people need to replace things. So, we have the ability to ensure there will always be a sufficient and generous stock of spare parts – at much lower cost than could be delivered by third-party suppliers. So, we can support the customer in a way that’s never been done before.”
Hill Helicopters is also prepared to partially underwrite the aircraft’s insurance cost. And it offers what Gelb claims is an “industry best” warranty of five years or 5,000 flight hours.
Another factor cutting costs of the HX50 is that it’s offered on an amateur build permit-to-fly basis. Owners visit the factory for a minimum of 10 days to help build the aircraft, alongside licenced engineers, in order to qualify for the permit. But both the HX50 and the HC50 are physically identical, stressed Gelb. “There’s no difference in the aircraft whatsoever. The price difference just reflects the certification processes – with their different timelines and costs,” he told us.
It’s a proposition growing numbers of investors appear to find compelling. Total helicopter orders this week topped 1,000, according to the company, which opened HC50 sales the day before my visit to Duxford. Last year, HX50 orders accounted for 56% of the market for all light helicopters, said Gelb. “And that was before we ever showed anyone a helicopter.” Hill has taken orders from 69 countries, with the biggest markets proving so far to be the US, UK, Canada and Brazil.
For private pilots, the HX50 offers a stable platform with benign handling characteristics that bring helicopter technology up to date, said Gelb, who learnt to fly aged 18 and owns the Canadian flight school BC Helicopters. The touchscreen centre console display is intuitive to use and eases pilot workloads in dense airspace or bad weather, he added.
The commercial variant HC50 is expected to prove popular with tour operators and corporate flight departments. Sales have already been made to Orlando Heli-Tours, which has ordered 10 aircraft and an operator in the Seychelles seeking to replace its fleet of EC120s.
More sales are expected to follow the first air tests, final certification and launch into service. The company has already presented the aircraft to more than 6,000 people, of whom 80% are eligible buyers, said Gelb.
“The general aviation industry has been waiting for something like this for 40 years,” he said. “Now, it’s only a matter of time.”
Walking around the thronged hangar at Duxford, it wasn’t hard to find fans of the company – or investors in the new aircraft.
Bernadette O’Connor and Dan O’Brien had flown over from New York City for the presentation. Both were impressed. “It’s an absolutely beautiful aircraft. I can’t wait to see it fly,” O’Connor told us. O’Brien added: “It will be huge if he [Jason Hill] pulls it off. What he’s done so far is incredible.” Their interest in the HX50 is more than aesthetic, as they’ve ordered one to replace their aging Robinson R44 aircraft.
In their eyes (and many others), Jason Hill has succeeded in his main ambition. “We’ve got to make flying cool again. That’s what this is all about.”
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Both Hill Helicopters made their UK debut at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford, Cambridgeshire last week.