January 1, 2001
Pilot Report: MD 902 Explorer: The Helicopter that Refused to Die
Rumors of MD Helicopter’s imminent demise have been greatly exaggerated. The MD 902 Explorer is a large part of the reason why.
by Ron Bower, Reporting from
I WAS IN THE DESERT, and I have seen a miracle with my own eyes—it has made me a believer! I have witnessed the resurrection of a helicopter that many had given up for dead. But this helicopter would not die.
Against what once seemed to be overwhelming odds, the MD Explorer is alive and well—in fact, very well. My pessimism has been replaced with high optimism about the enhanced MD 902 Explorer; more so the young and vital company, MD Helicopters, Inc. (MDHI), which revived it.
I recently visited MDHI’s facility at Falcon Field in
MDHI came into being through an unusual chain of big-company maneuvering. In 1997, Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas, which included McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Systems (MDHS). Boeing’s purchase of "Mc D" had nothing to do with civil helicopters, but rather their interest only in Mc D’s core businesses of airliners and military aircraft.
Shortly after the purchase, Boeing announced its intention to get out of the civil helicopter manufacturing and sales business and put the civil products of the former MDHS on the auction block.
At the time, I thought this MDHS "sale" announcement surely would be a kiss of death for the MD 900 Explorer, the new-technology, light-twin NOTAR helicopter conceived by McDonnell Douglas. The Explorer, while boasting a quiet NOTAR (no tail rotor) system, a lightweight composite design, and a spacious, multi-use cabin, had been overpriced by about $1 million, and it lacked sufficient market penetration.
In the ensuing months, few companies emerged as interested buyers for the Boeing civil helicopter line. Bell Helicopter Textron raised their hands for the MD 500 and 600 series product lines to get market access to the amazingly loyal MD 500 customer base and to secure rights to the NOTAR technology.
In February 1999 came the announcement that Boeing completed the sale of the
former MDHS civil helicopter lines to RDM Holding, an industrial firm based in
I wrongly viewed RDM’s optimism about the potential of the MD 900 Explorer as a product of its naïveté about the helicopter industry. The fact that the Explorer was being produced by a new, inexperienced parent company further lowered my expectations for survival of the helicopter. To me, it even posed serious questions about product support and spare parts availability for existing MD 500 and 600 series customers.
What to me (and I am sure many others) seemed an almost hopeless situation has instead turned out to be a boon to the existing MD 500 and 600 customers and breathed refreshing new life into the MD 902 Explorer.
After two years of being a distant doubter, I am now convinced that MDHI is not only going to make it but is now a viable, responsive company capable of producing quality products. Leading the way is the enhanced Explorer, the MD 902.
Upon arrival at MDHI, my first impression was that MDHI has an attentive, small-company attitude. MDHI is indeed a small company for a major airframe manufacturer. With about 300 employees and $100 million in annual revenue, its work force is lean. All of the people I came in contact with, from the CEO to the line assemblers, made clear that they are there because they want to be there.
At the helm is Henk Schaeken. He immediately struck me as accessible, easy going, likeable, and smart. He obviously understands how to run a company and how to make things happen. His goals are not grandiose; rather, they are to stay small and be more responsive to customers. He recognizes and is committed to continually improving customer support—an area where low marks on customer surveys were inherited from Boeing.
A strong sign of MDHI’s commitment to customer support is its investment in new facilities. The company just completed a 35,000-square-foot building, the sole purpose of which is to inventory a huge quantity of spares and take care of existing customers’ needs. They also bought from Boeing a 40,000-square-foot hangar for final production assembly. The additional facilities have more than doubled the size of MDHI’s original complex.
Schaeken’s first year on the job was to rebuild the internal support and supply structure. Many of the subcontractors had bailed out after the announcement of the sale to Boeing, but that’s now in the past.
"We are a helicopter assembler," Schaeken says. "Reliable and self-sustained subcontractors make up a significant percentage of our components. This significantly reduces our overhead and allows us to concentrate on our job of building quality helicopters."
As it turns out, a number of competent and healthy components manufacturers
are involved, including Kaman Aerospace,
The first order of the day was an in-depth briefing on the 902 Explorer and the differences between it and the original 900 Explorer. The briefing was conducted by director of marketing and sales, Clark Wirthlin, and senior production test pilots Gene Nuqui and Jim Fowler.
The Explorer has had a long and unusually quiet growing phase. Its infancy was heralded as a ship designed by the people and for the people. The only problem was that, by the time all the people had spoken, the need for recovering costs prevented them from buying the helicopter and putting it to work.
You may have heard of the Blue Team and their efforts to come up with the "perfect helicopter." The Blue Team was an unprecedented grouping of pilots, mechanics, and operators formed in the late 1980s who were asked, with no strings attached: "What do you want, need and expect in a helicopter?"
The answers came back: safe, quiet, fast, strong, big and small at the same time, simple, capable, and with low direct operating costs (DOCs). And that’s exactly what they got.
According to Wirthlin, "McDonnell Douglas built what the Blue Team said they wanted." Wirthlin was involved with starting the Blue Team and stayed with the program through thick and thin. Unfortunately, large development and certification costs drove the acquisition price tag of the Explorer well above that of its competitors.
Now that the Explorer has been released from its initial development expenses through the changing of the corporate guard, it has seen a substantial drop in price, with positive modifications to boot. "We reduced the price by about a million dollars," Wirthlin says.
As a result, the Explorer is now appropriately positioned in the light-twin market with a base price of $3.1 million. This price includes many standard features that are options on competitors’ helicopters: dual controls, sliding cabin doors, heater/defogger, rotor brake, and basic GPS/comm radios and ICS.
Thanks to Wirthlin’s briefing three years ago with the major insurance
companies, another cost savings with the Explorer is a possible 10% to 25%
reduction in hull insurance because of built-in safety features such as NOTAR
and very high main rotor blade clearance (more than 10 feet). Wirthlin had
recently identified 28 major accidents in the
NOTAR removes the risks of a tail rotor strike, not only in a tight landing zone, but also on the ramp when personnel are working around the helicopter. "There have been no accidents of any kind in Explorers in some 50,000 hours of flight time," Wirthlin says.
The Explorer is certified for single-pilot IFR operations, and is certified in the stringent Category A operation, which, among other things, requires the helicopter to be able to continue takeoffs and landings with one engine inoperative.
The net conclusion is that the Explorer is now price competitive and offers many unique features that an increasing number of operators find important.
Production test pilots Gene Nuqui and Jim Fowler went through the basic technical history of the ship and then covered the upgrades from the original 900 to the 902. They got the initial airframe design of the helicopter right the first time, so most of the upgrades are in performance and engine power.
Originally, the 900 Explorer had Pratt & Whitney
The MD 902 incorporates specially shaped engine ram air inlets. These inlets have a gate at the back that automatically opens when the Explorer’s airspeed climbs above 47 knots, thus preventing any foreign object damage (FOD). The benefits are better airflow into the engine at cruise, allowing for a lower engine gas temperature (EGT), a lower specific fuel consumption, and a slightly higher airspeed.
The briefing concluded with a review of the flight manual limitations section. Next, we toured the assembly hangar to see the 902 "in process."
The assembly line
My first impression of the assembly line was one of supercharged, we-are-busy-and-like-it-that-way energy. Every person on that floor seemed proud to be there. The production crews were working hard and efficiently throughout the line.
One thing that jumps out when you see the 902 Explorer in assembly is the preponderance of the use of composites rather than sheet metal in the airframe and structures. Composites simultaneously increase strength and reduce empty weight—two characteristics that operators want. The other desirable attribute is that composites reduce man-hours (and thus manufacturing costs) in production, assembly and fitting.
Seeing unskinned Explorers helped me see other unique features of the Explorer, such as the design for crashworthiness. The helicopter can absorb 30 g’s at 30 feet per second. Not only does the landing gear and airframe structure soften an impact, but the Explorer also has stroking seat supports to absorb vertical energy for all seats. Additionally, two skid-shaped beams extend below the nose to minimize rolling forward during an accident.
On the flight line
Next came the walk-around flight inspection of the two helicopters we were to fly: a single-pilot IFR-equipped 900 Explorer and a VFR-equipped 902 Explorer.
When you first approach an Explorer it seems externally small. That was by design. Measuring 38.3 feet from forward blade tip to stinger, the Explorer is almost a foot shorter than a Bell JetRanger (39.1 feet) and has almost the same rotor diameter. The Sikorsky S-76 comes in at 52.5 feet and the AgustaWestland A109Power spans 42.78 feet.
But don’t let the external compactness fool you. Inside, there is plenty of room for a two-person crew and six passengers. The cabin volume of 124 cubic feet is more than I anticipated because of the flat floor and high ceiling. In addition, there is 48 cubic feet of baggage space with the Explorer’s large aft access door.
The rotor system is plenty high. At my height of six feet, four inches, I
could not even get close to reaching the main rotor blades while they rested in
static droop. This obviously makes for much safer hot loading and unloading at
any kind of landing zone, from an executive heliport to an
The Blue Team really did come up with a great list of things to incorporate into "the perfect helicopter." There are large preflight/maintenance steps and handholds on both sides of the helicopter that are capable of supporting the weight of large mechanics or pilots. The easy-open cowlings grant you access to every part of the upper deck.
The fuel filler port has finally been put in a location that the pilot can see from his or her seat on the right side of the front office.
Looking at the round NOTAR boom, I still have a hard time conceiving it as an airfoil. But that’s what it is. The fan turns, forcing high-volume, low-pressure air through slots along the boom to create low-pressure lifting forces on the right side. This naturally counteracts 70% of the main rotor torque. The remaining 30% of anti-torque thrust needed in a hover is provided by the rotating direct jet thruster at the end of the tailboom.
Not only is NOTAR the safest available option for providing anti-torque, but it also requires far less maintenance and weight than any set of spinning parts at the extreme end of a long longitudinal arm. The NOTAR boom is big and strong and does not stress crack, yet it is so light that a single man can pick it up with little effort.
Into the air
With the preflight complete, Gene and I climbed into the 902 cockpit. Not only does the Explorer give you enough room, the visibility is comparable to an IMAX theater presentation, thanks to the generous portion of glass surrounding the cockpit.
The startup was quick and easy. With a turn of the rotary engine control switches, the FADEC-controlled Pratt & Whitney turbines were off and running in quick succession, and the rotor was instantly spinning.
Looking inside to the well-designed and considerably lower cut instrument panel (about half the height of a Eurocopter BK 117) my eyes were drawn to the colorful and easy-to-read Integrated Instrument Display System (IIDS, pronounced "idzz"). The IIDS is the heart of the engine and systems monitoring.
The Blue Team went through a great deal of effort to make the Explorer’s IIDS as simple and as functional as possible. This is also the reason why the panel is so low—there are no "steam gauges" requiring large amounts of real estate.
The best thing about IIDS is the way you can turn off everything but irregularity. In other words, you can take it down to a couple of green bars for torque and your fuel quantity. Anything that shows up on the now-dark screen, especially a new, unfriendly color, will draw your attention, making it easy to figure out the problem.
In the hover, the Explorer is smooth, nimble and does not exhibit the normal downwind vibrations of a helicopter that uses a conventional tail rotor. The NOTAR system was smooth, responsive, and did everything I asked it to do.
One of the major benefits of NOTAR is that it eliminates the possibility of loss of tail rotor effectiveness (LTE). In fact, according to the flight manual, a critical wind azimuth does not exist below a density altitude of 5,000 feet.
When transitioning to forward flight, the Explorer is assisted in the yaw department by two articulated vertical fins. The fins are controlled by a redundant Vertical Stabilizer Control System (VSCS). This VSCS is in place to eliminate any waggle, and it does its job quite well.
We initially flew out to the hills north of
We landed in a remote area, and my son, Shannon, a dual-rated ATP who was
with me to handle the photography, moved to the front and I went to relax like
an executive might in the spacious aft cabin. In the back, the ride was very
smooth and comfortable as
We returned to MDHI to do the IFR portion of the flight. We climbed aboard the MD 900 (the one with the PW206A engines). This Explorer had an air conditioner that would blow ice crystals at you in the desert heat. An obvious difference from the VFR version was the addition of the Bendix (now Honeywell) autopilot.
The instrument portion of the flight was as relaxing as the VFR. The autopilot brought us around for the ILS 30C approach at Williams Gateway Airport (KIWA) without a single hitch and intercepted the localizer and glideslope with the same smooth motions that the business jets make.
The biggest difference between the Explorer and a business jet is that we could slow down if we wanted to. At 50 feet the Explorer’s autopilot leveled us off and we zoomed down the runway centerline at 110 knots under autopilot control, until we hit the "go-around" button, which initiated a perfect climb-out.
The flights ended with no squawks noted. Shannon and I both gained a new appreciation for the Explorer, the people who designed it, and the people who now build it.
Exploring the market
The major market for the Explorer has been
Now, with a large, easily accessible cabin, single-pilot IFR and CAT A performance, the Explorer has moved into the
The Explorer is bound to become a desirable corporate and executive helicopter and even a private-use helicopter for those well-heeled individuals who want twin engines, quiet operation, a spacious cabin, single-pilot IFR, and CAT A capability. The 902 truly is a multi-mission helicopter and deserves serious consideration.
My hat is off to the diligence of MDHI for conjuring up this miracle in the desert. Everyone likes to see miracles happen—especially helicopter pilots.