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Story and Video by Lyn Burks

Photos by Lynnette Burks

As a working helicopter pilot of 22 years, I have watched the bumpy business roads that MD Helicopters has travelled.  Although the legacy of MD is much older than its owner, Lynn Tilton, it seems like it may have inherited its resilient scrappiness from the company’s matriarch.

With a Brooklyn street sense of independence, a Yale education, and sharp tongue, I have personally seen her take naysayers to task at press conferences.  I read in a Forbes interview, where she had a run-in with the CEO of Ansaldo Sistemi Industriali, a producer of electric motors and generators.  He failed to treat Tilton with proper respect when she first came to tour the soon-to-be-bankrupt factory in Genoa in 2005.



“He was like, ‘In Italy, we like-a the women,’”she says. “‘We like-a them in the bedroom. We like-a them in the kitchen. Not in the boardroom.’  I’m thinking, I’m going to buy this company, and I’m going to fire these arrogant men.”  A week later, at the bankruptcy auction, when the CEO, who had been at the company for 32 years failed to provide essential paperwork, Tilton grabbed him by the knot of his tie and, in a boardroom full of people, shoved him against the wall.  “You’ve showed me no respect and no appreciation,” she hissed.  “Today I can give your company away. So when I say ‘Step right,’ you step right.  When I say ‘Step left,’ you step left.  Do you understand that dance?”  Then she stormed out.

I am sure the cash that her $8 billion private equity firm, Patriarch Partners, LLC, brings to the table does not hurt, but I believe that MD Helicopters’ ability to claw its way back into existence is due in large part to Ms. Tilton’s forced will, tenacity, and dedication to American enterprise and manufacturing.  These traits have won her dozens of awards, including the recent honor of Aviation Entrepreneur of the Year, which was presented to her at the Living Legends of Aviation Awards ceremony.

A HISTORY REFRESHER

We should not forget that MD Helicopters traces its roots back more than 50 years to when Hughes Tool Company, Aircraft Division first started to develop “light helicopters” in 1955.  After years of successfully manufacturing such models as the Hughes 269, 300, 500 and 530F for civil use and TH-55 Osage, OH-6 Cayuse and the highly successful AH 64-Apache, Hughes sold its helicopters business to McDonnell Douglas in 1984.  For the most part, McDonnell Douglas stayed true to the original Hughes designs and nomenclatures.

In 1997, McDonnell Douglas merged with Boeing in a $13 billion deal to become The Boeing Company.  At the merger’s completion, Boeing modified their logo to incorporate the McDonnell Douglas symbol.

In 1999, Boeing sold the former MD commercial helicopter lines to MD Helicopter Holdings, Inc., an indirect subsidiary of the Dutch company, RDM Holding, Inc.  Included in the sale were the MD 500E and MD 530F single-engine helicopters with conventional tail rotors, the MD 520N and MD 600N single-engine helicopters with the Boeing exclusive NOTAR® system for anti-torque and directional control, and the MD Explorer series of twin-engine, eight-place helicopters.
Boeing maintained the AH-64 line of helicopters, and rights to the NOTAR system.

MD Helicopters Holdings Inc. was acquired in July 2005 by Patriarch Partners, LLC, the private equity fund founded by Lynn Tilton in 2000. The company was recapitalized as an independent company, MD Helicopters, Inc.  Since the acquisition, under the direction of CEO Lynn Tilton, MD Helicopters has enjoyed a successful turn around, increasing its production and sales 700%. Additionally, MD Helicopters reached another milestone when it was awarded a $186M contract by the U.S. Army, the first of its kind since Ms. Tilton took over the company at its lowest point.

MD Helicopters is based in Mesa, Arizona and the current product line includes the MD 500E, MD 530F, MD 520N, MD 600N and the MD Explorer.  With more than 2,500 aircraft currently in use around the world, MD Helicopters is a substantial company by any measure.


NOTAR  - WHAT’S THE DEAL?

I recall that NOTAR® (an acronym for the phrase NO TAil Rotor) anti-torque technology, was hitting the market at approximately the same time I was beginning my career as a helicopter pilot.  At the time, I could not help but think the technology would make conventional tail rotors obsolete.

Now, nearly two and a half decades later, I cannot help but wonder why the technology has not gotten more uptake by helicopter operators in the industry.  Since the technology was refined and the concept was on solid ground, I felt there had to be more to the story.  The only production helicopters utilizing NOTAR® are built by MD.  Having spent a career flying aircraft with conventional TRs (tail rotors), an invitation from MD to come fly the NOTAR® and learn more about the technology was irresistible.

According to MD, 20% of accidents / incidents are related to the TR via component failure, TR strikes, and LTE (Loss of TR Effectiveness).  They also state that the NOTAR® is 30% quieter than most conventional TRs.  With its recent gross weight increase to 6,770 lbs. (3,070 kgs.), twin P&W 207E engines, and large aft cabin, MD 902 Explorer seems to be the perfect fit for the light twin-engine EMS helicopter market.  The added safety margin of NOTAR®, and lower noise signature, are icing on the cake.


HOW IT WORKS

Using natural characteristics of helicopter aerodynamics, the NOTAR® system provides safe, quiet, responsive, FOD-resistant directional control.  An enclosed variable-pitch composite blade fan produces a low pressure, high volume of ambient air to pressurize the composite tail boom.
The air is expelled through two slots, which run the length of the tail boom on the starboard (right) side, causing a boundary-layer control called the "Coanda Effect".

The result is that the tail boom becomes a "wing", flying in the downwash of the rotor system, producing up to 60 percent of the anti-torque required in a hover.  A rotating direct jet thruster accomplishes the balance of the directional control.  In forward flight, the vertical stabilizers provide the majority of the anti-torque, however directional control remains a function of the direct jet thruster.  The NOTAR® anti-torque system eliminates all of the mechanical disadvantages of a tail rotor, including long drive shafts, hanger bearings, intermediate gearboxes and ninety-degree gearboxes.

OVERCOMING BARRIERS

Not directly related to NOTAR®, but solidly connected to sales, is the question of industry uptake.  I clearly remember the concern on the street in the mid-2000s about purchasing and owning an MD helicopter. That question was, “Can MD support my helicopter with parts and spares?”  The answer at the time was “not very well.”  The Internet and word of mouth are powerful mediums, and tales of operators waiting months for parts with aircraft sitting idle were commonplace on industry message boards.

Looking back, the support problem seemed to manifest and take root during that dark time from 1997 to 2005.  This was the time when the MD line was bounced around like a pinball between McDonnell Douglas, to the Boeing Company, to the Dutch RDM Holdings, and finally to its current owner since 2005, Patriarch Partners and Lynn Tilton.

Lauded as business turn-around masters, Lynn Tilton and team put their ears to the ground and listened to the cries for better support from the industry.  Recognizing that inadequate support was the biggest barrier to MD sales, and a barrier to getting NOTAR technology into the field, they tackled the support problem head-on.

According to MD, the company is focused on internal process improvements, supply chain product flow, and fuselage ramp-up.  There has been a significant emphasis on the sales of spares as well as the repair and overhaul business.  Part sales have also shown a significant increase in orders per month.

A testimony that bolsters the fact that MD has adequately addressed its past issues surrounding support of its clients and aircraft is the award of military contracts.  According to Craig Kitchen, MD Helicopters’ Chief Commercial Officer, “OEM’s are not awarded military contracts without comprehensive, proven support and quality control systems in place.”

ADDRESSING MYTHS

With respect to flying NOTAR® aircraft, two myths that I’ve heard in pilot circles, were that (1) anti-torque control authority lacked performance and (2) that it “felt” significantly different to fly as compared to traditional TRs.  I humbly submit that based on my own limited experience flying the MD 902, those impressions may have been perpetuated by people with even less experience flying the NOTAR® than me.

My no-spin opinions (pun intended) on the topics are these:  First, from the standpoint of performance, at approximately 3000’ DA and 80% MGW, NOTAR® technology performed perfectly under all normal flight regimes.  There was never a moment when pedal authority was limited or felt even the slightest bit degraded.  Even more impressive was when Production Test Pilot Nick Page demonstrated left and right pedal turns at a rate of 60 – 70 degrees per second!  If you do not believe that, watch the associated video for this article.

Second, with respect to how different NOTAR® “feels,” I say, “So what?”  It’s no different than when I first flew the AS350 (with a clock-wise main rotor) for the first time after decades of flying Bell, Sikorsky, and Agustas, which are all counter-clockwise.  Nothing can be more different than completely opposite pedal inputs. The bottom line is that you instinctively move the pedals in the direction the nose needs to go.  Not to mention, it’s not like the aforementioned aircraft with conventional TRs do not have their own limitations.  If I am honest, although I have never gotten myself into full-blown LTE, I have momentarily hit the stops in most every helicopter I have flown.  Those instances were generally near MGW, in gusty wind conditions, and in tight LZs with limited maneuvering space.

THE NEXT CHAPTER

Overall, I was impressed with nearly every aspect of flying the MD 902 Explorer.  I wouldn’t be objective if did not mention at least one thing I found lacking in the 902: a flight deck with a suite of modern IFR, NVG-compatible, engine and flight instruments.  But hold on, that’s being addressed as I type!  Currently in the works for the MD Explorer will be the introduction of a next generation, full-capability flight deck.  To accomplish this, MDHI has partnered with advanced avionics manufacturer, Universal Avionics Systems Corporation.  The result of this development will be a new custom single-pilot IFR-capable integrated flight deck available for all production and retrofit MD Explorer helicopters.  The new cockpit will feature a Primary Flight Display (PFD) providing all primary flight parameters, primary engine / rotor data and safety critical annunciators.  Full capabilities will include synthetic vision, electronic charts and display graphics that are video and mission display capable. The system will be available in several cockpit configurations supporting both single and dual pilot operations.  Night Vision Goggle (NVG) compatible cockpit displays and controllers are planned immediately after certification of the basic display system project.

I think the MD Helicopter and story are inspiring.  Although I do not know Ms. Tilton personally, I applaud her dedication to not only saving this iconic American company, but re-building this historic institution created by Howard Hughes nearly a half century ago.  As quoted by Ms. Tilton herself, “MD Helicopters is American Pride Rising to New Heights.”
 

Posted in: Company Profiles

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