““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Take a 35-year-old American helicopter design and farm out airframe production to the Czech Republic and the stabilator to Turkey. Add a new engine design from Canada and a sophisticated avionics system with key elements from France. Bring all this together for final assembly at a new facility in Pennsylvania. What could go wrong?
A lot, actually.
On paper, the plan for the S-76D looked like a slam-dunk when Sikorsky announced it in 2005: add new engines and modern avionics to a popular airframe that has sold more than 800 copies since 1979 and remains popular with offshore operators and the executive A list on Wall Street and the Fortune 100. You don’t just fly somewhere in an S-76–you arrive. It’s like the first time you slip into the back of a Rolls-Royce or check into a Ritz-Carlton. Even though the basic fuselage design dates back to the early 1970s, it’s as sleek and timeless as anything off the drawing board of Italy’s Pininfarina, the renowned automotive design house. And with a cruising speed of 155 knots, the S-76 remains one of the fastest twin-engine helicopters out there. The “D” was supposed to improve on this legacy with more powerful and fuel-efficient engines, more useful load, rotor blades with icing protection and intuitive avionics that would safely allow the helicopter to be flown single-pilot in instrument flight conditions. Ambitious, yes. Rocket science, no.
Yet, over the last few years, as Sikorsky grabbed headlines for its futuristic, one-off X2 compound helicopter, the S-76D program has been afflicted with repeated delays. The program is now four years behind the original schedule. Inquiries as to why are met with corporate speak about “development issues.” Most but not all of these related to squeezing more fuel economy out of the new Pratt & Whitney Canada PW210S turboshaft engines. (United Technologies owns both Sikorsky and Pratt.)
Was the S-76D worth the wait?
The short answer is… yes.
So far, thanks to its global supply chain, Sikorsky has done a good job of holding down costs. Offshore operators should be able to get into a new S-76D, with no-frills utility seating for 12 to 13, for around $10 million. Corporate operators who want plush seating for four to six can grab one for under $12 million. And for that price, you get a lot.
The dual-Fadec (full-authority digital engine control) PW210S engines deliver 1,050 shaft horsepower (shp) each (takeoff power). Range with full fuel is 375 nautical miles (with 30-minute reserve) at a respectable 143 knots and the engines are certified to a service ceiling of 20,000 feet. They drive new flaw-tolerant composite main rotor blades that can be fitted with optional electric deicing. The dual-speed main rotor blades can also be engaged in “quiet” mode and the main rotor hub features an active vibration-control system that delivers a very smooth ride–for a helicopter, anyway. A new tail rotor also is marginally quieter.
The avionics package is integrated into the Thales Top Deck suite and is designed to be “interactive, intuitive, integrated and safe.” It prompts pilots and offers decision options as required. (Yes, I would like fries with my autorotation.) It features four six-by-eight-inch glass-panel displays and two cursor control devices on the center console.
At first glance, this looks like an aviation bastardization of the annoying iDrive on new BMW automobiles. In reality, the pilot is never more than two clicks away from getting what he needs. (BMW, take note!) The multifunction displays hold a variety of engine indicators and electronic charts. Standard features include an enhanced ground-proximity-warning system, a traffic-collision-advisory system, dual autopilots and a health-utilization-monitoring system that can send aircraft data back to the operator and Sikorsky in real time to ward off maintenance issues. The system can be equipped with satellite weather and the ability to shoot precision GPS approaches down to 50 feet. (If the clouds are lower than this, forget about flying.) Top Deck also will be compatible with the new FAA NextGen air-traffic-control requirements and can accommodate synthetic vision.
Mainly for offshore customers, an emergency float system is standard and can be augmented with an automatic flotation deployment system.
In executive configuration, the cabin of the S-76 hasn’t changed much over the years, but the new Silencer cabin shell keeps it noticeably quieter. Cabin options have kept pace with the times: LED lighting, satphone, monitors, beverage drawers and snack nooks, DVD and Blu-ray players, high-end speakers, luxurious leathers and expensive veneers. Seating configurations are from four to six–everything from two upholstered benches facing each other to opulent individual captain’s chairs. Cabin volume is 204 cubic feet, slightly larger than that of most entry-level jets. The baggage area remains a “child of the 1970s” and is a paltry 38 cubic feet. If you are riding with the boss, pack really light. Each side of the cabin has a massive hinged door for easy entry/egress.
Sikorsky has orders for more than 100 S-76Ds and plans to build 24 to 36 per year. The company now expects to obtain certification in the third quarter of this year and shortly thereafter plans to seek approvals to operate the helicopter at higher gross weight and increase the service ceiling to 20,000 feet. For customers, the wait is almost over.
AT A GLANCE
Price – $10 million to 12 million*
Crew – 1-2
Passengers (typical): – 8-12
Range – 375 nm**
High-speed cruise – 155 knots