Who Am I?

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A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

30 April 2006

The FH1100 Saga Continues

Bringing any aircraft to production is not an easy task. We are trying to return an existing aircraft to production, and it's not any easier.

Back in the late 1950's, the U.S. Army wanted to replace the Cessna O-1 "Birddog" airplane it had been using in the light-utility/observation role. But they didn't want another airplane; helicopters were the wave of the future. So they compiled specifications for a four-seat, turbine-powered Light Observation Helicopter ("LOH") and opened a design competition. The winner would receive an order for 3,600 helicopters. As expected, dozens of designs were submitted.

There were two manufacturers providing small helicopters to the military in the 1950's: Bell Helicopter from Texas and Hiller Aircraft of Palo Alto, California. Bell's ships had gone primarily to the Navy; Hiller's went to the Army. Both companies supplied design entries that were very similar to each other. Even so, a betting man would've put his money on Hiller winning the contest. The Generals who thought they were going to make the decision liked the Hiller design better than the Bell. But a dark horse entered the race.

Howard Hughes was undeniably a terrific airplane designer. But he'd never known success as an aircraft manufacturer. When he heard about the LOH contract, he wanted it. Badly. He pulled out all the stops to win, using every trick in the book, and then some. The ethics of his actions will forever be argued. The bottom line was that he was willing to invest his own personal money to win the contract.

Bell was already a huge company. They had branched out into the medium-lift arena with the UH-1 "Huey" and were developing an attack version of it that later became known as the Hueycobra. Their relationship with the military was growing stronger.

Hiller, a relatively smaller company had all sorts of ingenious ideas for different aircraft but sadly, none of them ever saw production. Hiller's only production helicopter, the piston-powered, three-seat UH-12 was nearing the end of its production life with no replacement in sight, revenue-wise. So Hiller needed the LOH contract just as badly as Hughes wanted it.

Because the "word on the street" was so strong that Hiller would win the contest, company founder Stan Hiller went looking for a production partner. He knew his company could never produce 3,600 helicopters in the time frame allotted, and he needed help. It came in the form of big-plane maker Fairchild Industries, who thought they were buying a huge military contract. The new company was called Fairchild-Hiller. The Palo Alto plant was closed, and production for the FH1100 was set up in a new, modern facility all the way across the country in Hagerstown, Maryland.

In the end, the contract was awarded to Hughes. Bell's executives shrugged, cancelled the LOH project (or so they thought) and moved on with the development of the UH-1, AH-1 and other things they were working on (like the XV-3, forerunner of the XV-15 and V-22). Little did they know that there were people within the company who believed strongly in the light-turbine concept, even though a market for such a machine had not really developed. Quietly, they redesigned their ugly LOH entry into the model 206 that we know and love today. The rest, as they say, is history.

Disheartened, Fairchild really didn't want to be bothered with "little helicopters." Between 1968 and 1973, they built and sold 254 FH1100's before throwing in the towel. Production was cancelled and the design was sold back to Stan Hiller who by then had moved on to other things.

A succession of owners kept the helicopter alive in the ensuing years; some even tried half-heartedly to return the ship to production. None really succeeded, although four more "new" ships were produced (really just helicopters assembled from parts that had been made in the initial production run). The FH1100 developed a reputation as an orphan - an unwanted orphan at that. A number of crashes made people look at the design more skeptically. But oddly, there has never been a fatal accident of an FH1100 that was attributable to material design failure. This is counter to the Bell 206, which has certainly had its share of components that required redesign.

In 1986 my boss, Georges Van Nevel bought his first FH1100 and formed Helicopter Technology Inc. He found it to be a reliable, tough, economical, versatile helicopter. When the Type Certificate became available for sale in 1999, he bought it with the intention of returning the ship to new production. Which is where we're at today. After twenty years, Helicopter Technology Inc. is still in business.

We are hampered a bit because people percieve our helicopter as "old" or not modern. Indeed, the FH1100 is the same age as the Bell 206 and Hughes/MD500. It's just that those other two ships have had the benefit of 40 years of continual upgrades and improvements whereas ours has not. And it's tough competing against new aircraft like the EC-120, which is certainly a sleek-looking bird (although I don't find it particularly attractive and I'm not itching to fly it). Still, we believe there is a lot of life left in the FH1100 and we are working on making improvements to it that will keep it competitive in today's market. It was designed with many clever features that were ahead of its time back then and are still innovative today.

So I'll keep you posted on our progress. It's fascinating and exciting to be involved in this. It feels like being a part of aviation history. But I'll tell you one thing: Bringing an aircraft into production is sure not an easy task.