Vertical’s 10 biggest helicopter stories of 2020

AvatarBy Vertical Mag | December 30, 2020

Estimated reading time 15 minutes, 8 seconds.

At the end of every year, we take a look back at the 10 stories that racked up the most views on verticalmag.com. This year, our list is surprisingly typical, despite the fact that 2020 was not a typical year for anyone.

In a year that brought so much tragedy and devastation, only one story from that larger news cycle — the death of Kobe Bryant — drove a significant share of our traffic. The rest of our most-viewed stories are largely about technological progress, hopefully promising a brighter future ahead. (Click on the story titles to read the original articles.)

10. HAL chairman provides updates on key helicopter programs

HAL Light Utility Helicopter
At the time of the article’s publication, three HAL LUH prototypes had together completed over 550 flights. HAL Photo

In June, KP Sanjeev Kumar summarized the latest helicopter developments from HAL, including the company’s participation in India’s Naval Utility Helicopter program, for which it offered the naval Dhruv. Also discussed: HAL’s joint venture partnership with Russian Helicopters to offer the Ka-226T to the Indian Army and Air Force; HAL’s own Light Utility Helicopter, which achieved initial certification in February; price negotiations for the Light Combat Helicopter; and preliminary design for the Indian Multirole Helicopter.

9. U.S. Army pilot takes Raider side stick in first flight of Sikorsky FVL offerings

Sikorsky S-97 Raider in flight
Sikorsky’s S-97 Raider prototype has now logged 93 flight hours. Eric Adams Photo

The U.S. Army’s Future Vertical Lift (FVL) competition heated up in a big way this year, as evidenced by the next few items on our annual Top 10 list. In this article, Dan Parsons described how Sikorsky overcame challenges related to Covid-19 to put an Army civilian experimental test pilot, Charlie Packard, in the left seat of the S-97 Raider. It was the first time a government pilot had taken the controls of one of Sikorsky’s coaxial compound helicopter prototypes. The company is pitching an evolution of the S-97, the Raider X, for the Army’s Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA).

8. Sikorsky, Boeing wow U.S. Army officials with first triple demonstration of next-gen rotorcraft

SB>1 Defiant and S-97 Raider helicopters
The Sikorsky/Boeing SB>1 Defiant (right) and Sikorsky’s S-97 Raider on the flight line at the company’s test flight center in West Palm Beach, Florida. Dan Parsons Photo

In February, back when getting people together was a lot simpler than it is now, Sikorsky and Boeing hosted defense and political officials at Sikorsky’s Development Flight Test Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. There, they showed off two FVL prototypes — the S-97 Raider and the Sikorsky-Boeing SB>1 Defiant — as well as the Sikorsky Autonomous Research Aircraft (SARA), an S-76B that is being used to develop autonomous pilot-assist technologies for FVL and other applications. The audience was suitably impressed, as were, apparently, our readers.

7. Rotor Radio: What it’s like flying an X2 helicopter at nearly 300 mph

Sikorsky test pilot Bill Fell
Sikorsky chief test pilot Bill Fell at the tail end of the S-97 Raider at Sikorsky’s test flight facility in West Palm Beach, Florida. Dan Parsons Photo

The most popular FVL story on our list wasn’t a story at all, but instead the landing page for Dan Parson’s podcast interview with Sikorsky chief test pilot Bill Fell and director of engineering sciences Steve Weiner. They shared their first-person insight into the development of Sikorsky’s coaxial-rotor X2 technology, and what it’s like to control a helicopter at speeds that most rotorcraft pilots can only dream of. Find all of our Rotor Radio episodes on your favorite podcasting platform, or at verticalmag.com/rotor-radio.

6. Talon Helicopters AS365 Dauphin ready to fight fires at night

Talon Helicopters’ AS365 N2 Dauphin performs a night flying water drop exercise near Pitt River, British Columbia. Heath Moffatt Photo

This summer, an Airbus AS365 N2 Dauphin operated by British Columbia-based Talon Helicopters became the only medium helicopter approved by Transport Canada to conduct nighttime fire attack missions under night vision goggles (NVGs). Dayna Fedy described the lengthy process Talon went through to equip the helicopter and gain approval for NVG firefighting. Canada had a slow fire season this year, but the Dauphin has been proving its worth in other missions as well, including search-and-rescue. Last week, two lucky lost hikers were spotted during Talon’s first-ever NVG training exercise with North Shore Rescue — an hour before they were reported missing.

5. Exclusive preview: The Indian Navy and Coast Guard’s ALH ‘Dhruv’ Mk-III helicopters

Coastal security ALH Dhruv
The Indian Navy and Coast Guard’s ALH Dhruv Mk-III helicopters feature an array of systems previously seen only on heavier, multi-role helicopters of the Indian Navy. KP Sanjeev Kumar Photo

In another story with HAL, KP Sanjeev Kumar got a sneak peek at the “made in India” Mark-III variant “Dhruv” Advanced Light Helicopter slated for delivery to the Indian Navy and Indian Coast Guard. The customized Mk-III under delivery features a full glass cockpit with HAL’s Integrated Architecture Display System, more powerful “Shakti” (Safran Ardiden 1H1) engines, and a host of new systems integrated by HAL’s Rotary Wing Research and Design Centre.

4. Why do helicopter crashes like Kobe Bryant’s keep happening?

Kobe Bryant helicopter crash investigation
NTSB investigator Carol Horgan examines the wreckage of the Sikorsky S-76B that crashed near Calabasas, California, on Jan. 26, killing nine people including Kobe Bryant. NTSB/James Anderson Photo

On Jan. 26, a tragic helicopter crash in California killed nine people, including basketball legend Kobe Bryant. Besides setting the tone for 2020, the crash highlighted how little progress the helicopter industry has made in preventing VFR-into-IMC accidents. The accident remains under investigation, but Elan Head drew on a wealth of publicly available data to explore what interventions might have prevented the crash — and what proposed solutions probably wouldn’t have made a difference.

3. Lynn Tilton gives up CEO role at MD Helicopters 

Lynn Tilton MDHI
A 2015 photo of Lynn Tilton at the MDHI facilities in Mesa, Arizona. Famous in the helicopter industry for her theatrical Heli-Expo press conferences and eye-catching outfits, Tilton was never one to shy away from attention. Patriarch Partners Photo

The industry was stunned when it was announced in March that Lynn Tilton, the flamboyant CEO of MD Helicopters Inc. (MDHI) had stepped down from her role, leaving MD in the hands of its senior leadership team. The surprise development was related to ongoing litigation involving collateralized loan obligation vehicles called Zohar funds, and a bankruptcy court ruling that ordered Tilton to sell MDHI and other of her companies to pay them off. Even nine months later, the future of MDHI remains in question.

2. The Original Blackhawk: the Sikorsky S-67

S-67 Blackhawk helicopter
The S-67 Blackhawk was designed, constructed and had its first flight within nine months of the program’s beginning. Sikorsky/Jeff Evans Collection Photo

Our second most-viewed story this year was Bob Petite’s look back at the Sikorsky S-67 helicopter gunship, the first to carry the Blackhawk name, which in 1970 set speed records that would stand for the next eight years. The single prototype was destroyed in a fatal crash in 1974, but its name lives on in Sikorsky’s best-selling UH-60, the Black Hawk. Terrific archival photos from Sikorsky and the Jeff Evans collection helped bring the S-67’s history to life.

1. Bell developing fan-driven electric anti-torque system

Bell Electrically Driven Anti-Torque EDAT helicopter demonstrator
Bell has been flight testing its Electrically Driven Anti-Torque system in Canada since May 2019. Bell Photo

In February, editor-in-chief Oliver Johnson raised the curtain on Bell’s Electrically Distributed Anti-Torque (EDAT) system, which replaces conventional mechanical anti-torque elements on a helicopter with four electric motors and fans. The story attracted so much attention and discussion on our website and social media accounts that we also published a follow-up piece to answer our readers’ most frequently asked questions; you can find that one here.

BONUS: Helicopter coloring books for kids of all ages

This Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk is one of the Vertical fleet poster models available to color at home. Eric Lian/Lian Media Illustration

This one narrowly missed a spot on our Top 10 list, but we think it’s worth re-upping anyway. Back in March and April, when much of the world was in lockdown, we decided to turn some of the most popular models on our Global Commercial Helicopter Fleet Poster into coloring sheets. We made them available for download on our website, and also included links to other coloring and activity books from Airbus, Bell, MDHI and others. Now that lockdowns are back in a big way, you might find them useful for passing time — your kids’ or your own.

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