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Congratulations! You’ve graduated from owning a 30 year old, second-hand, twin-engine helicopter to a spanking new Airbus Helicopters H175, AgustaWestland AW189, Sikorsky S-76D, or some other next-generation rotorcraft equipped with the latest systems. Now that you own this machine, where are you going to have it serviced? Is the MRO that kept your aging helicopter flying able to do the same for your shiny new helicopter? If not, how can you find service before it’s too late?
These are questions that have many next-gen helicopter owner/operators concerned, and with good reason. New helicopters are breaking ground in a brave new world of composite airframes and highly sophisticated, interconnected digital electronics. How can a rotorcraft owner/operator be sure that their usual MRO is up to the challenge of keeping these new birds flying without messing up their systems?
To answer these and other related questions, Rotorcraft Pro spoke with respected helicopter MROs and OEMs. Here is what they told us.
What Makes New Helicopters Challenging to Service?
A next generation helicopter incorporates new technologies, digital control systems, and advanced structural materials that are advanced far beyond the sheet metal and steel found in an older generation aircraft. “Next generation helicopters are designed to minimize maintenance downtime and maximize aircraft availability through the use of new technology. They require a new way of thinking,” says David Stilianos, general manager of Sikorsky Helitech, a helicopter MRO based in Australia. To cope with these new helicopters’ complex maintenance programs and integrated systems, Stilianos explains, “An effective MRO must be able to provide a much higher level of support services, including program management, logistics, and engineering support to perform MRO work.”
Servicing these advanced aircraft is not just a matter of working with digital/computer-based avionics instead of analog/mechanical systems. Today’s next-generation helicopters are computer-driven platforms where fly-by-wire, servo motors, and electronic sensor inputs are replacing hydraulics and direct feedback mechanical systems. Today’s MRO technicians must have the skills to work on them; being able to shape sheet metal isn’t enough. “It’s also a matter of having detailed operational experience and the know-how to develop supplemental systems and mission equipment to address the ever-changing operational parameters demanded of these helicopters,” adds Dave McGrath, VIH Aerospace Group’s director of sales. He cites search-and-rescue and offshore operations as two areas where such change is ongoing.
Vector Aerospace is a helicopter/fixed-wing MRO with facilities around the world. Their vice president of business development for airframe and avionics solutions, Elvis Moniz, points out, “The cockpit and engine control systems in next-generation helicopters require a higher degree of skill and maintenance to properly integrate and shield these sophisticated digital systems to ensure system integrity.” Furthermore, he says that avionics and electronics in next-generation helicopters are increasingly sensitive to externally induced electromagnetic interference.
A particular concern with these new helicopters, compared to their analog ancestors, is the high degree of interdependent systems integration. The downside of intensive integration is that an error in the configuration of one seemingly isolated element can actually impair a number of onboard systems. Moniz explains, “Today’s next-gen helicopter cockpit systems are heavily integrated with flight management systems, digital autopilots, and caution advisory systems, including traffic and collision avoidance. All these systems must be thoroughly understood by the integrator, as any changes to these systems—even minor changes—will often impact other systems in a negative and sometimes unforeseen way.”
Why Do Some MROs Fall Short on Next-Gen Maintenance?
Even the best car mechanic is only as good as their knowledge base and hands-on experience. A mechanic that has only worked on 1950s-era mechanical cars will be baffled by computer-controlled vehicles of the 21st century. The same is true for helicopter MROs. Unless they have kept up with technological change as a matter of course, some shops may lack the skills, knowledge, and tooling to properly service next-generation aircraft. “It’s a matter of ongoing OEM and other training to ensure techs are utilizing the newest techniques and equipment for maintenance and testing,” observes McGrath. “A key element most miss is flexibility, diversification, and having a breadth of operational knowledge and MRO experience to rely on when managing difficult situations. The ability to apply this experience across newer platforms in troubleshooting and auxiliary equipment development is essential in reducing the learning curve to effectively meet MRO requirements.”
When it comes to servicing the new H175, Clarisse Quentien, head of MRO readiness and network set-up strategy for Airbus Helicopters says, “The cutting-edge technologies applied require highly skilled Airbus Helicopters-qualified MRO technicians, special tools, and the knowledge to operate them.” This is why Airbus Helicopters has put in place its new HCare customer service end-to-end support program for its products, giving MROs the 24/7 worldwide means and network they need.
Keeping up with next-generation technology is also a major priority for AAL USA, a helicopter/fixed-wing MRO based in Huntsville, Alabama, with facilities worldwide. Brett Harlow, AAL USA’s director of commercial services, says skilled MRO staffing is key for sophisticated aircraft, like the AW189 that they service. “We are constantly upgrading our skills set and tooling. Because electronics are central to next-generation helicopters, we have increased the number of technicians dedicated to them, on a per-aircraft basis, from one to two or even three. This is because proper software configuration is absolutely essential in these new aircraft, and we all know how much havoc a software error can cause, even in our everyday lives.”
How Do You Select Prospective Next-Gen MROs?
Now it seems reasonable to assume that OEM-owned MROs know how to service their own sophisticated aircraft. After all, they built them in the first place. Even so, unless your next-gen helicopter is based near an OEM’s MRO facilities, using them may not be an option on an ongoing basis. Besides, you may be able to negotiate a better price with a third-party MRO.
Selecting third-party MROs who belong to an OEM’s authorized repair network is a good first step. “By choosing an MRO within the OEM network, you are guaranteed a level of quality, amongst other factors, to ensure you as a customer get your aircraft back in the air as soon as possible and with less cost,” said Randall Schaffer, MD Helicopters Inc.’s director of aftermarket business development and customer engagement. “We stand behind all 47 of our authorized service facilities, and they are evaluated every year based on many stringent factors.” Those factors include responsiveness to customer requests and their satisfaction, the amount of work the MRO does in-house as opposed to sending it to a third party, and the MRO’s available parts inventory.
Airbus Helicopters’ Quentien states two questions that come with using a non-OEM MRO:
⦿ Which aircraft are they authorized to maintain?
⦿ Among other services, do they offer components repair, complete aircraft visits, depot maintenance, and level operations?
VIH’s McGrath recommends these queries for prospective MROs:
⦿ How many years have they offered OEM-approved helicopter services?
⦿ How much do their OEMs support them in obtaining parts?
⦿ What are their capabilities beyond simple repair and overhauls, including the range of aircraft types they support and their plans for expanding the number of types in the future?
AAL USA’s Harlow recommends asking them about their end-to-end servicing process:
⦿ How fast and reliably can they get work done?
⦿ What procedures exist to ensure that work is done to the highest standards?
“The turnaround time can be stretched out by an MRO having to seek FAA approval for certain modifications,” Harlow notes. “Because AAL USA offers FAA Organizational Delegation Authorization services directly under the FAA’s authority, we can fast track many approvals while ensuring that they conform with FAA regulations.”
Meanwhile, Sikorsky Helitech’s Stilianos has four questions for prospective MROs:
⦿ What methodologies do you employ to ensure your projects run to schedule and budget?
⦿ What leadership and culture exists within your organization?
⦿ How do you ensure all your staff understand the importance of my project?
⦿ Do you provide tailor-made customized support solutions in partnership with the relevant operator?
Finally, Vector Aerospace’s Moniz suggests asking MROs:
⦿ Do they have direct factory access to critical aircraft parts or do they source parts through other channels?
He adds, “Customers should be cognizant that in many cases, repairs to their aircraft performed outside of an authorized service center often pose problems when trying to sell aircraft abroad.”
The experts say if you follow these steps you will maximize your chances for getting the best service and support for your next-generation helicopter. Given that these aircraft can cost tens of millions of dollars, the painstaking research is well worth it.