The State of the Commercial Russian Helicopter Fleet
How the market may shift between Russian and Western manufactured helicopters has now been in question for an extended period of time. When conflict in the Ukraine first began and embargoes came down on Russia, we initially thought the impact on the helicopter industry to be immediate due to operators and foreign militaries seeking Western machines as a solution. This was not the case with the primary reason for this being that there are currently no embargoes against the use of commercial, Russian-manufactured helicopters or parts already located in the western hemisphere. Aside from EASA pulling the Type Certificate on the Kamov Ka32 helicopters for operations in Europe, the current commercial fleet has been permitted to operate.
We are, however, starting to see the supply chain supporting this fleet stretch thinly as the situation overseas evolves. While it is not illegal to buy spare parts from Russia, the fact that you cannot wire transfer funds into the country makes it difficult to source the materials needed to support these machines and third parties that were carrying Russian helicopter inventory are running out of spares. In addition to this, the Ruble to USD has gained strength, therefore impacting the cost to operate the Russian fleet. Between the increasing number of challenges of acquiring spares and the elevated costs, owners and operators will soon be forced to evaluate and source alternatives.
The issue with the Western-manufactured helicopter fleet is that there is currently a shortage of inventory to offer as a replacement. Taking a deeper dive into the Western fleet and looking specifically at heavy helicopters; the S92 design was not intended for repetitive lift operations, the EC225 has largely been consumed, and the population of commercial AS332L/L1/L2 helicopters is relatively small. The S61 has potential as an alternative, however, the model is aging and spare parts are becoming difficult to locate. Limited in quantities and more challenging to operate, the Air Crane and Chinook derivatives also do not offer much respite. The wildcard in the market is the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter as it would be an attractive solution but US Export Controls and the restricted category classification of the helicopter model will make it difficult to operate in many parts of the world.
In terms of medium helicopters, there are currently few excess AW139s available in the world, and, although these models may begin to provide a solution, the greatest benefit may be offered by the Bell Medium fleet that is in abundance with readily available aircraft.
Given the number and size of organizations that have relied on Russian commercial helicopters, such as the World Food Program and the United Nations, the industry is going to need rotary wing solutions to combat the unavoidable challenges we are yet to face. It will be interesting to realize how the apparent void is filled over the next few months and beyond.