“Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning. ”
MD 902 Explorer
More than 20 years after it was conceived, the MD 902 Explorer is coming into its own as a fast and comfortable light twin-engine turbine helicopter that performs exceptionally well in hot temperatures and high altitudes.
Up front, you'll find room for two pilots, although the 902 can be flown easily and safely by one. In back, in VIP configuration, there is space for four to six passengers and a 48-cubic-foot luggage hold. Thanks in part to MD Helicopters' proprietary No Tail Rotor (Notar) technology, the $5.875 million 902 can outperform many "newer" designs, is quieter and has good operating economics.
Originally conceived for the medevac and law-enforcement markets, the model is growing in popularity as an executive transport. Since 1998, more than 100 Explorers have been built and production is ramping up anew, with deliveries of 25 scheduled for this year, up from about a dozen in 2008.
These are modest numbers compared with those from Eurocopter and Bell Helicopter, but they're impressive in light of MD Helicopters' history. You see, in the summer of 2005, the company had virtually been left for dead.
The European consortium that owned MD then had hopelessly undercapitalized it. Production of all models ground to a stop. Customers were fed up with product non-support, suppliers and employees were unpaid and the bankers were doing a carrion hover above the corpse, getting ready to sell off the parts and pieces. Over four decades, a diverse and distinguished ownership chain-from billionaire/aviator Howard Hughes to McDonnell Douglas to Boeing-had been unable or unwilling to make a go of the Mesa, Ariz.-based helicopter manufacturer, despite great designs and enormous market opportunities. This was a company that seemingly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory at every turn.
During the 1960s, MD, then called Hughes Helicopters, won a U.S. Army contract for hundreds of light scout and attack helicopters for the Vietnam War. However, costs bloated, the promised delivery schedule slid deeply into fiction and the Army canceled the deal, giving the contract instead to Bell. That helped ensure Bell's prosperity for decades. The civilian variants of that Bell OH-58 replacement Army helicopter, known as JetRangers, remain the world's most ubiquitous turbine helicopters today.
Then in 1987, when McDonnell Douglas owned MD, the company embarked on a revolutionary, clean-sheet-of-paper design called the Explorer. It was first aimed primarily at European markets, where noise restrictions are stricter than in the U.S. and aircraft must have two engines to operate at night in instrument conditions. (More than 30 Explorers are now based there, primarily in the United Kingdom and Germany.)
The design features extensive use of composites; a quiet, bearingless, five-bladed main rotor set up "walk under" high so patients and passengers can "hot load" with the rotor spinning; and a trapezoid-shaped door under the tail boom for fast stretcher loading. Dual oversized sliding side doors make passenger entry and egress quick and easy. The tall, 130-cubic-foot cabin ameliorates claustrophobia and the low-slung instrument panel and panoramic windshield give pilots a superior view. In addition, the helicopter has a comparatively small footprint for a light twin, allowing it to be easily and safely maneuvered into and out of tight landing spots and parked in smaller hangars than some of its contemporaries. The Explorer also boasts integrated engine and systems monitoring instruments that were considered extremely advanced for their time.
All of these things are nice, but what really sets the Explorer apart from the competition is the aforementioned Notar system.
On most helicopters, the torque of the main rotor is counteracted by opposite thrust from the tail rotor. Power to the tail rotor is transferred from the engine, or engines, via a main transmission and a drive shaft that runs the length of the tail boom. If that shaft, the attendant tail-rotor transmission, gears or the tail rotor itself fail, anti-torque is lost and the helicopter will likely spin out of control without quick pilot action. (This generally requires a maneuver called an autorotation, which involves an immediate steeper-than-normal descent and landing.) More benignly, under heavy loads, in hot temperatures, at higher altitudes or in certain wind conditions, conventional helicopters can suffer a lack of tail-rotor authority resulting in restricted maneuverability and, in rare circumstances, loss of control. These are bad things. Proper aircraft maintenance and flying technique generally prevent them, but the possibility is always there under the above-mentioned conditions.
Notar uses a high-speed, transmission-driven fan to move a high volume of low-pressure air through the tail boom. The air exits through slots on the right side of the tail boom, creating up to 70 percent of the anti-torque forces generally provided by a tail rotor. With foot pedals, the pilot can control the pitch of the blades on the Notar fan and a jet thruster at the end of the boom to modulate the Explorer's yaw. Adjustable fins on the boom-the vertical stabilizer control system-are automatically driven by onboard gyros to smooth out turns and limit a helicopter's natural tendency to occasionally fishtail in forward flight.
Notar consumes plenty of engine power while the Explorer is in a hover, but uses less for cruise flight and climb. That means the Explorer can climb faster and higher and haul more weight than similarly powered ships. It also contributes to a smooth ride. (However, the system isn't bulletproof.)
All this was very progressive and when the Explorer came to market in earnest in 1998 it should have cleaned up, save for two significant details: It was priced $1 million more than the competition and ownership of the company was again in limbo, following Boeing's acquisition of McDonnell Douglas in 1997. Boeing wanted to keep the U.S. Army Apache attack helicopter program but sought to dispose of MD's civilian helicopter line. Bell was interested in most of it but not the Explorer because it competed directly with its own emerging Model 427. Ultimately, the federal government blocked Bell's partial acquisition on antitrust grounds and the civilian assets of MD were sold to RDM Holdings of the Netherlands in 1999.
All the while, improvements continued to be made to the Explorer. Gross weight was increased by 500 pounds to 6,500 in 2007 and more powerful engines were added, as were supplemental fuel tanks and emergency skid floats. But by July 2005 the company was on the ropes. The investment firm of Patriarch Partners, which specializes in buying and fixing distressed enterprises, bought MD and poured an estimated $200 million into it. Patriarch renegotiated its plant lease, replaced the management (twice), brought supplier accounts current and set about to satisfy long-suffering customers.
In 2006, Patriarch also bought Heritage Aviation to handle interior completions.
For Explorer VIP cabins, Heritage fashioned a modern modular design that quickly changes between a four- and six-place interior. In the four-place club configuration, the cabin seats are demarcated by two facing cabinets that hold beverage and entertainment centers. Cabinets are mounted on seat rails and easily interchange with two additional seats when a six-passenger layout is needed. The cabinets house a beverage center and in-flight entertainment systems, including a CD/DVD/MP3 player and Flight Display Systems' moving map, which is linked to the 15-inch monitor in the cabin divider. Heritage completed the look by custom machining the bezels and door trim before sending them out for platinum finish plating. Metallic-tinted Lexan inner cabin windows provide privacy as well as ample light. Sound-dampening insulation was added to quiet the cabin.
Patriarch CEO Lynn Tilton personally assumed the helm at MD, made customer service the top priority and even had her own Gulfstream G200 jet fly parts to grounded customers. She also uses a 2006 MD Explorer (N881LT), owned by the company.
Her efforts are paying off. According to Tilton, MD turned profitable in late 2007. In 2008, it scored second (after Bell) among all turbine civil helicopter manufacturers in the annual Product Support Survey published by our sister publication, Aviation International News. MD's new stability has breathed fresh life into the Explorer and the helicopter's order book is building.