Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Night at the Helicopter Factory

Forty years have passed since the last time I was inside the Sikorsky Aircraft helicopter assembly plant in Stratford, Connecticut. That was for a job interview and I wound up declining their offer, to join up with their corporate colleagues at Pratt & Whitney in East Hartford...which is another tale. But last evening Sikorsky hosted this month's FAA Aviation Safety Program seminar and included a guided tour of their manufacturing areas. Unsurprisingly, it was a sellout.

The tour began with a walk through the machining center. Of course, photography was not permitted so I'll have to illustrate with some photos harvested from the web.

Sikorsky doesn't do a great deal of part manufacturing in Stratford; most of the bits come in from sub-contractors. But a number of critical items -- like gearbox housings, many gears, rotor heads, rotor cuffs, and some rotor blades -- remain in-house. The finished parts are truly beautiful objects -- jewelry for a giant.

We moved on to the main assembly area for military programs where about 20 UH-60M Blackhawks and SH-60/MH-60 Seahawks were in various stages of completion. The MH-60 differs from the SH-60 in that it's a hybrid with a UH-60 fuselage. You can spot them because they have the tailwheel at the aft end, while a "real" Seahawk has it under the mid-fuselage so that the tail can overhang the deck edge when parked.
The latter tailwheel location, we were told, imposes a significant weight penalty on the structure.

These aircraft have been Sikorsky's mainstay programs for many years. In 2009, the firm delivered about 140 "Hawk" variants. They have ongoing construction contracts, and programs are in development to upgrade earlier models to late-model configuration.

Out tour guide then negotiated our admittance to the hangar ("No foreign nationals here, right?") where a number of completed aircraft were being fussed over by mechanics. One "M" model Blackhawk was powered up so we could all admire the glass panel, new to this variant. These aircraft now incorporate fly-by-wire control technology. I asked our guide to characterize Sikorsky's philosophy about flight envelope protection (a subject I've touched upon recently in this post). He said that there were "rings" of control limits and that the "inner ring", essentially a mechanical control emulation, was accessible to the pilot by passing physical control detents. In short, it isn't an Airbus.
Our group moved on to the commercial programs' final assembly bay where work was underway on S-92's for commercial customers and MH-92's for the Canadian Maritime Helicopter program. The MH-92 is definitely a state-of-the-art bird, with full fly-by-wire control and active vibration damping (using phase cancellation technology). The program is behind schedule and has endured quite a bit of criticism north of the border, but it is producing an elegant aircraft.

The S-92 is Sikorsky's commercial workhorse. The program's high-time airframe now has about 7,000 hours and they are holding up very well. They thrive in roles such as offshore platform re-supply where they endure adverse conditions and fly many hours every day.

We moved on to the fixed-base simulator where we saw the result of a program to address the hazard of "brown-out" when landing in dusty environments. The system uses a combination of inputs from millimeter-band radar and radar altimetry to generate a synthetic vision display of exceptional fidelity. If needed, it offers autoland capability in zero/zero conditions. As we watched its operation from the sim's observation platform the sensation of motion was uncanny, even though we knew the platform was welded down.

Our next stop was very special. We got to visit Mr. Sikorsky's office, which is maintained by the company as it was when he went West in 1972. It is modest in size but the walls are crowded with amazing memorabilia of one of the great aviation careers. It's good that the company keeps the memory of the man whose name it bears as a prominent part of its culture.
And of course, off to one side is the thing that everyone makes sure to see -- Igor's legendary fedora.

We wound up our tour with a short video presentation describing the leading edge X2 Technology. This aircraft incorporates coaxial contra-rotating rigid rotors and a pusher propeller and it is expected to achieve a speed of 250 knots.

All of us were very grateful to the Sikorsky Aircraft employees who volunteered their time so that a group of local General Aviation pilots could see what they are up to on the banks of the Housatonic River. We were highly impressed!

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