Helicopter show defies economic indicators

February 23, 2009

This week, the halls of the Anaheim, Calif., Convention Center are offering shelter from the economic storm outside. Here at Heli-Expo, the annual convention for the Helicopter Association International, the economic turmoil stays outside as a projected 17,000 attendees fill an enormous exhibit hall chock-a-block with helicopters of all sizes and shapes.

According to Matt Zuccaro, HAI president, the attendance on opening day is on par with that in Houston in 2008, which set a record of 17,300 for the organization. “I’ll be very happy if we come close to last year’s number and every indication is that we will,” he said.

Meanwhile, the number of exhibitors is up 12 percent to 584 from last year and total exhibit space is up slightly; the number of helicopters on display is up to 64, one more than last year.

While several fixed-wing aviation shows have been canceled or scaled back already, Zuccaro attributes the strong showing at HAI to the diversification of the helicopter market. While airplanes are typically used for transportation, whether for the airlines or general aviation, helicopters perform all sorts of missions from emergency medical services and oil rig work to electronic news gathering, firefighting, logging, and search and rescue. If one segment of the market softens, not all the others go down with it, and it’s relatively easy to reconfigure helicopters from one market to another that might have a greater need, Zuccaro said.

Membership in the organization up has grown to 2,763 companies, individuals, and other helicopter associations, up about 227 in just the last few months alone, mostly because of increased marketing to international entities. To encourage younger pilots to join, the organization offers a free one-year membership to helicopter students and this week awarded numerous scholarships to student pilots and maintenance technicians.

Zuccaro said one of the biggest issues facing the helicopter industry is a lack of air traffic infrastructure in the low-altitude segments where helicopters normally operate. Zuccaro encouraged the FAA and Congress to support this effort to “extend the NAS [national airspace system] down to us.”

The association chief predicts that with the right investment, helicopter safety can be significantly increased. The ability for an onboard system with the right TERPS criteria built in to create an instrument approach on the fly for a helicopter flying to a remote rescue site is coming soon. TERPS is the FAA obstacle and terrain clearance criteria for certifying instrument approaches.

Meanwhile, ADS-B technology is being deployed in the Gulf of Mexico that will give helicopters operating there nearly the same ATC services available to aircraft operating over land, including air traffic separation, in-cockpit weather, obstacle avoidance, and radio communications. Without such services, helicopter productivity drops by as much as 90 percent when instrument conditions prevail in the Gulf.

HAI is implementing a voluntary accreditation program for its members to help address concerns about helicopter safety. HAI staff will audit member company flight operations to verify compliance with safety standards that will be established for each type of mission, such as EMS, news gathering, firefighting, and logging.

For more on helicopters, see AOPA Online’s new Hover Power blog.

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.