Program Update: Sikorsky S-76D first flight ushers start of year-long test program

HAI Convention News » 2009
February 19, 2009, 10:38 AM

Sikorsky’s S-76D, the latest S-76 medium twin variant, made its first flight February 7 at the company’s West Palm Beach, Fla. test facility. The flight came a few months behind schedule and Sikorsky blamed the delay on “supply chain and some resulting rework issues.” Two other prototypes are currently under construction at Keystone. Sikorsky says it has “more than 100” orders for the
S-76D. Certification is anticipated in early to mid-2010.

Power-on electrical and avionics testing on the first prototype was achieved in September. The Thales TopDeck avionics suite is undergoing qualification bench-testing and the Thales autopilot is being evaluated in the S-76 simulator. The new composite main rotor blades are in fatigue testing and the tail rotor blades were whirl tested in December. Seven Pratt & Whitney Canada PW210S engines (fadec, 1,050 shp takeoff) have accumulated 1,800 hours in test cell runs at OEI power and are “exceeding expectations.”

The -D will feature new composite main rotor blades, a quiet tail, rotor, rotorcraft icing protection (for flight-into-known-icing conditions), a health-and-usage monitoring system and a glass cockpit, including integrated digital maps.

The TopDeck system is integrated directly into the flight management system to allow dynamic construction of flight plans and easy access to other information, including Jeppesen charts that can be loaded onto the system via flash memory cards. The system features four 8- by 10-inch LCDs (one primary flight display and one multifunction display for each pilot position) that are NVG compatible. TopDeck is designed to be upgradable for synthetic vision. It uses a cursor-control device and can load flight plans from laptops via flash drives and a USB port.

The S-76D will cruise at 155 knots, have a maximum gross weight of 11,700 pounds, a maximum range of 441 nm (no reserve), and an anticipated price of $11.5 million.

Sikorsky’s Keystone Helicopter division is gearing up to produce both the S-76D and the larger S-92 at its Coatesville, Pa. heliplex campus.

Keystone has already received an FAA production certificate for the S-76C++ and will add the -D to that authorization. It also anticipates receiving FAA approval to manufacture the larger S-92. On its way to meeting its goal of producing 100 helicopters per year by 2012, the company is dealing with the FAA regulatory process, expanding Keystone’s physical plant and increasing required staffing and management levels. Keystone president David Ford said that the current order book for S-92s amounts to between 18 and 24 months of production.

Obtaining the production certificate is a “phased-in” process, according to Ford. Plans to produce both helicopters at Coatesville were set in motion when Sikorsky acquired Keystone in 2005. Keystone began doing major subassembly work on the S-76C++ and was subsequently granted a stand-alone production certificate for that helicopter in late 2007. The S-76 is currently produced at Keystone and at Sikorsky’s Stratford, Conn. plant. As part of a phased schedule, more S-76 production was gradually transferred to Keystone throughout last year. All S-76Ds will be produced there and Keystone’s production certificate contains a letter of authorization allowing it to add specific S-76 variants, according to Ford.

To keep production activities and repair-station work physically separated, Keystone has leased a 30,000-sq-ft plant near its heliplex dedicated to production of new aircraft. The building houses all S-76 production as well as some final assembly work on the S-92, including the joining of various fuselage components made by a diverse team of international suppliers.

The S-92 fuselages are now trucked from Keystone to Stratford, where the engines, gearboxes and rotors are added. That work will move to Keystone by the end of this year. Construction has started on a new flight hangar and production facility on the heliplex campus that should be completed by year-end. The 60,000-sq-ft facility will contain a customer delivery center that will segregate aircraft. Another new 150,000-sq-ft building is being constructed to house final aircraft assembly and material warehousing. That building will be completed before S-76D serial production begins in 2010, Ford said.

Keystone continues to recruit additional employees to accommodate new production, but Ford acknowledges that “it is a difficult market out there” when it comes to finding the right people. “It’s a seller’s market for skilled aviation technicians. Staffing has been the most daunting task.”

In response to the challenge, Keystone has established its own training academy and is recruiting candidates from the sheet metal, machinery and automotive industries. “We’re looking more for aptitude than actual experience,” Ford said. Candidates complete a three-month training class and then move to the shop floor to gain experience with mentors so as “not to burden our existing production people with trainees,” Ford said. “Essentially, we have come to the conclusion that for many jobs, we will have to grow our own employees” as opposed to finding ready-made candidates.

The ramp-up in staffing began in 2007 and Keystone estimates that it will have more than 1,000 employees on site by the end of this year. An estimated 400 of that total will have joined the company within the last two years.

The rapid growth has also forced Keystone to expand its management team to keep pace, and the company has relied on Sikorsky’s parent, United Technologies Corp. (UTC), to provide some key new managers and executives. Ford said Keystone has also adopted UTC management and process programs, including a continuous improvement program.

Typically as a company grows through 300 to 500 employees it tends to be a people-centric organization, said Ford, “but above that threshold you need to transition to a more process-centric organization so you can keep quality standards at the same high level. The overall experience of our workforce is not as high as it was five years ago” due to the company’s rapid growth. “We supplement that with robust processes and procedures so we can be assured that every aircraft is assembled and tested the same, no matter who is at the end of the wrench.”

Ford emphasized that the new helicopter production will not adversely affect Keystone’s existing engine and airframe MRO business, which currently accounts for 25 to 30 percent of the company’s activity. “We just completed a $250,000 renovation of our MRO hangar and we are refocusing that business,” Ford said. The refocus includes building more value-added activity, including engineering services, high-end and complex refurbishments and developing retrofit options kits.

Ford sees MRO business growing in the long term. “At some point, new helicopter production is going to plateau. Those aircraft are going to come out of the warranty period and need lifecycle maintenance.”    

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