Faced with the rising cost of transporting helicopters by airplane, manufacturers are seeking innovative solutions to save time and money, including shipping the helicopters in parts and assembling them at their destination.
“The trend is to seek cost reductions and one way to save money is to send helicopter kits by sea,” says Alain Gauchet, aeronautic development manager at SDV in Marignane, France.
Eurocopter, the helicopter division of European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co., has started sending helicopters in kits from Marignane to Brazil, for example.
In some cases, transporting helicopters by sea and other cost-cutting measures may risk compromising security and efficiency, however, leaving manufacturers with tough choices. “It can be hard to strike the right balance between lower costs, quality of service and timely deliveries,” Gauchet warns, adding that the environmental impact of transport is increasingly important too.
Factors to consider when transporting helicopters include the type of helicopter, the dismantling of parts, the destination, the urgency and the overall transport costs. The lower-cost air solution, sending the helicopter on a regular Boeing 747 cargo plane, is only available on certain routes and is better suited for smaller aircraft like Eurocopter's Ecureuil, Gauchet says.
Transporting large helicopters such as the Puma on regular flights can prove complex. More parts are dismantled including the gearbox and tail while reassembly can take several weeks. The helicopter must pass safety tests before delivery, requiring mechanics and sometimes a test pilot on site as well as a hangar to rebuild the helicopter.
Chartering a plane remains the most efficient but most expensive solution. Advantages include the faster turnaround time. Typically, the manufacturer will dismantle only the blades and it takes days rather than weeks to refit blades at the destination, Gauchet notes.
For now, around 90% of helicopters are transported by air, split evenly between regular and charter flights, Gauchet estimates.
That percentage could soon drop, however, as manufacturers switch to maritime transport, driven by falling capacity in air, the rising costs of airfreight and concerns about the environmental impact of airplanes.
The fall in air capacity is partly due to the production stoppage of the massive Antonov An-124 charter planes, leaving only around 25 in regular service worldwide. Meanwhile, airlines are reducing the number of Boeing 747 freighters they operate because they are unprofitable, Gauchet adds.
Transporting helicopters by sea is cheaper than air but the journey from Europe to Asia, for example, can take around six weeks. The helicopter can be shipped in a container but that means major dismantling which is also costly and time consuming. To avoid dismantling, the helicopter can be loaded on the deck but it must be protected against the wind and sea spray which can also prove expensive.
In any event, helicopters remain a fragile cargo requiring special knowledge. “There are many risks during loading and unloading, especially in developing countries where the support staff may not have sufficient expertise,” Gauchet warns. In this situation, SDV typically seeks to supervise the full operation including loading and unloading. Such close supervision, along with reliable planning and high visibility, will become increasingly important in helping manufacturers reconcile cost-cutting with security and efficiency, Gauchet concludes.