Arizona-based MD Helicopters may not be the biggest but it’s certainly ranked among the best. Among its commercial, law enforcement and military customers, this aerospace OEM’s multipurpose single- and twin-engine ‘copters have achieved cult status. Dan Harvey explains the attraction.
MD Helicopters righted itself out of a mid-1990s financial tailspin to retain its reputation as one of the most innovative and successful helicopter OEMs. True, the Mesa, Ariz.-based operation isn’t the largest ‘copter producer, but it’s one of the best appreciated. Its offerings have achieved a cult-like status among its customers.
Communication is key. “We’ve placed our fingers on the market pulse,” says Ben Weiser, senior vice president of business development and sales. “Because we closely interact with customers, we can foresee how and where new technology would prove advantageous. We’re always trying to make a leap forward.”
Feedback is turned over to the engineering department. “The members then determine what they can do to make our helicopters even better,” he says.
This involves updating aircraft and integrating latest technology.
Customers include commercial, law enforcement, medical and military users, both national and international. As far as military, MD Helicopters has provided product for US special operations, as well as for armed forces in Argentina, Finland, Korea, Japan and Jordan. Product has also been provided to police forces in the United States and Turkey. Other customer areas served include EMS, corporate and those television news outlets that want to report the latest “action news” related to breaking stories, traffic and weather.
“But in serving these major markets, we’re not involved in rocket science,” comments Weiser. “Customers just want a better helicopter, a vehicle that can transport as much as possible, in safe and efficient fashion. For instance, for EMS customers, that means transporting more patients.”
MD Helicopters offers single and light twin engine aircraft. Models include:
- MD500E – With a five-bladed main rotor, this single-engine model affords the highest speed, payload and productivity in its class;
- MD530F – This single-turbine, five-place helicopter is engineered to meet requirements for hot-day, high-altitude operations. “Hot and high means that it has a very powerful engine which enables it to maneuver and perform in high altitudes in hot weather,” explains Weiser. “We recently sold six to the Afghani air force. Summers in Afghanistan are brutal, which makes it difficult for helicopters to perform.”
- MD 902 Explorer – This twin-engine model, powered by two Pratt & Whitney Canada 207E engines with 720 shaft horsepower per engine, has the highest payload in the light-twin class. With a maximum gross weight of 6,500 pounds (2948 kg), it boasts exceptional power for take-off and landing on elevated platforms. “That makes it very popular with EMS customers,” says Weiser;
- The MD 520N – This fast, agile, lightweight, turbine-powered, all-purpose helicopter has a fully articulated five-bladed rotor system which provides excellent control and maneuverability;
- MD 600N – This eight-place, light, single-turbine engine helicopter provides high performance and increased capacity which translate into greater versatility. It flies faster, hovers higher, and provides agility and exceptional handling.
“N” MEANS NO PROBLEM
Weiser explains what that “N” means that appears in some of those product names. It stands for NOTAR®, an anti-torque system that provides safe, quiet, responsive FOD-resistant directional control. “Essentially, it means no tail rotor,” informs Weiser.
The technology was developed in the 1970s by Andy Logan, who was then working in the Apache program and wanted to address a helicopter’s vertical performance, circulation control and tail boom. Specifically, the system deploys a fan inside the tail boom to create a high volume of low-pressure air, which exits through two slots and creates a boundary layer flow of air, with brings into play the Coanda effect – a phenomena, named after Romanian aerodynamics pioneer Henri Coanda, that involves jet flow attachment to a nearby surface. Attachment remains even when surface curves away from initial jet direction. Coanda applied this discovery to development of aircraft.
MD Helicopters decided that the tail rotor was dispensable. “Typically, helicopters have a tail rotor, but we own a patent on a type of helicopter that doesn’t need one,” says Weiser. NOTOR® technology allows helicopters to fly straight and safe without the tail rotor.
“The significance is immense,” relates Weiser. “Take away one less dynamic rotating, vibrating part and you have a smoother, quieter and more stable ride. And quiet translates into ‘green’ – that is, less noise pollution.”
Quiet also translates into a practical consideration. “For law enforcement customers, a quiet helicopter enables them to better sneak up on the ‘bad guys,’” Weiser points out. Plus, there is the safety element. Tail rotors can lead to accidents. “Take for instance places and situations where helicopters are a novelty,” says Weiser. “When a craft touches down in a place like a football field, people get excited and like to run up to the helicopter. A sharp rotating blade in the back can lead to tragic results.”
A HUGE – AND HUGHES – LEGACY
MD Helicopters traces its roots back more than 50 years, when the Hughes Tool Company’s aircraft division developed “light helicopters” in 1955 – and Hughes means Howard Hughes, the legendary flyer and aviation pioneer. In 1984, the company became part of McDonnell Douglas and then merged (in 1997) with Boeing. Two years later, Boeing sold the helicopter line to MD Helicopter Holdings Inc., an indirect subsidiary of the Dutch-based RDM Holding Inc.
From there, it traveled some unfriendly skies, as it suffered financial troubles. Its mission was rescued by a 2005 acquisition by Patriarch Partners LLC, a New York-based investment firm. Patriarch Chief Executive Officer Lynn Tilton restructured and revitalized the organization, and MD Helicopters enjoyed subsequent substantial growth. “Patriarch owns interests in as many as 76 companies, including MD Helicopters, but ours is the one in which Ms. Tilton has assumed hands-on management,” says Weiser.
Her impact is underscored by a recent contract. In March 2011, MD Helicopters was awarded a $186 million Department of the Army Rotary Wing Primary Training Aircraft contract for as many 54 aircraft to be used in Shindand, Afghanistan.
The initial award called for six MD 530F Helicopters for training purposes. The vehicle – a hot-day, high-altitude craft – provides a perfect fit.
“The contract was to the US army for 54 aircraft, and it included a logistics support package,” describes Weiser. “It’s an option contract, but the point is that this contract is great for the company. In the meantime, as we enjoy a good backlog of military sales, our commercial sales have picked up. So, we’re on an upswing. We’re very excited about the future.”
While it has established a strong relationship with NOTAR®, MD Helicopters is integrating other new technologies into its crafts. “We’re very innovative when it comes to avionics, and that led to our partnership with Garmin, which is a well known and highly respected avionics manufacturer,” says Weiser.
In February 2012, MD Helicopters received Federal Aviation Administration certification of the Garmin G500H electronic flat panel displays. “Their glass cockpit fits well with our single-engine series,” reports Weiser. “It provides Primary Flight Display [PDF] for pilots – which means things such as air speed, attitude, altitude, climb rate and the course and heading information.”
In addition, the Multi Function Display (MFD) enhances the visual scanning and interpretation. The MFD screen provides detailed moving-map graphics depicting the helicopter’s current position in relation to ground features, chart data, navaids and flight plan routings. This Garmin G500H dual-screen flight display offers a cost-effective solution that proves useful in the most demanding helicopter missions. It’s available for production and for retrofit installation for the MD 500E, MD 530F and MD 520N helicopters. “But we are starting to upgrade the Explorer helicopter, so it will have a glass cockpit as well,” reports Weiser. “We hope to have that ready for the market late next year.”
That’s but one of several high hopes that MD Helicopters entertains – “We’ll soon be unveiling a new version of a single-engine craft,” reveals Weiser – but all hopes are bolstered by confidence. “We’re a burgeoning company. We deliver high-performance helicopters on time,” says Weiser. “True, we’ve suffered some problems. But we’ve endured and now we’re growing, as we stand by our commitment to make a great product even better. Mention our name and hear the positive response. Operators will tell you how much they love the aircraft. I’ve been amazed by the loyalty we’ve generated.”
Amazed – yes.
Surprised? – maybe not.