Paris Air Show Comes Amid the Squeeze of Old, New

Image courtesy of XTI Aircraft Co.

The Paris Air Show opening this week finds the rotorcraft world squeezed between the hard economics and vast uncertainty of today’s market and growing expectations of tomorrow’s market for more and faster innovation of vertical flight in both civil and military missions.

The 52nd  Salon International de l’Aéronautique et de l’Espace at the famed Le Bourget airfield northeast of Paris will feature the traditional aircraft and flying displays that have marked the event since its inception in 1909. (RWI can be found in Hall 3 at booth D145.)

They will include the first appearance of a flying version of Airbus Helicopter’s H160, whose 2015 first flight occurred just before that year’s show at Le Bourget, and briefings by Leonardo Helicopters on its AW169 in air ambulance missions. Russia Helicopters will be displaying its Ka-52 scout-attack gunship, attack Mi-28NE and Mi-35 and the Ka-226T light multi-purpose day-and-night helicopter.

In the broader view, the ongoing slump in oil prices marks “a longer, more horrific downturn,” as Bristow Group Jonathan Baliff said June 9, describing conditions that led to a significant restructuring of that major offshore operator. That followed this year’s reorganization of offshore operator CHC in U.S. bankruptcy court, just one of many market and geopolitical developments that reinforced the industry watchwords voiced in March at the Heli-Expo trade show in the U.S. – cautious optimism.

“Given the surprises of national elections over the last year in the U.S., the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe, questions about Britain’s exit from the European Union, tensions with China, Russia, North Korean Peninsula and the Middle East, ongoing weakness in Western economies and in the oil market and the threat of terrorism;” said Roberto Garavaglia, Leonardo Helicopters SVP for Strategy and Competitive Positioning, “cautious optimism is a prudent course.”

That course guides the traditional rotorcraft industry as new forces threaten to disrupt it: those driving from without and within for a new generation of vertical-lift aircraft.

These impulses come from such corners as Airbus (whose new Airbus Aerial endeavor aims to develop new imagery services to analyze data from drones, satellites, high-altitude aircraft and other sources) to Bell Helicopter (whose CEO is pressing engineers to consider why rotorcraft avionics can’t be updated at the pace of smart phone applications).

They also come from aviation new entrants, such as the share-ride ground transport giant Uber, Amazon and Google, who challenge the vertical-flight orthodoxy by preaching and pursuing projects to fly people and goods over heavily congested areas with small piloted or autonomous aircraft.

In a nod to this new focus on innovation, the Paris Air Show this year is adding a new exhibit area “dedicated entirely to innovations from the major players in the aerospace industry, as well as those of the start-ups in the sector,” the show’s organizer, the French Aerospace Industries Assn. said. Among those invited to present their work June 20 is XTI Aircraft, the Englewood, Colorado company that has proposed the TriFan 600, a fan-lift business transport with vertical takeoff and landing capability and turboprop speed.

Such ventures are met with vast and deep skepticism by old-school aviation folks who have seen a host of bold innovations rise then vanish over their careers. The skeptics are awed a bit by the billion-dollar-deep pockets of some backers of today’s visionaries, but they also remember Howard Hughes and the old saw that the way to make a small fortune in aviation is to start with a big fortune.

The dreams of today’s vertical-lift innovators stand in contrast to the real challenges of designing and building rotorcraft – particularly high-speed ones.

The high-speed segment of the industry will draw attention at Le Bourget this year. Airbus Helicopters on June 20 is scheduled to reveal details of its new high-speed aircraft to be developed in the frame of Clean Sky 2, the European Union’s research and development effort aimed at developing innovative, cutting-edge technology to reduce aircraft CO2 gas emissions and noise levels.

Other high-speed aspects will be discussed. Leonardo will be updating customers and the market on its AW609, whose third prototype joined the flight test program early this year. Italian authorities in May issued their final report into the second prototype’s Oct. 30, 2015 in-flight breakup, which highlighted the challenges of matching engineering simulations to the actual performance of a rotorcraft’s fly-by-wire flight control system at high speeds.

Expect similar issues to come up in the U.S. probe of the Bell 525’s prototype’s in-flight breakup last July 6 in Texas during high-speed dive tests. Ground and flight tests of the remaining prototypes have been halted since then.

Bell leaders recently expressed confidence that 525 flight tests would resume soon. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board as of June 16 had not yet scheduled a meeting of its top officials to review the findings of its investigation and determine the crash’s probable cause.