The cramped, spartan passenger spaces of the earliest helicopters, like those in their fixed-wing brethren, have evolved into relatively comfortable, attractive and functional environments. Still, helicopter interiors pose unique demands. Apart from the largest cabin civilian helicopters, the executive helicopter cabin is often a snug fit compared to other cabin-class business aircraft. Nevertheless, helicopter cabin designers have achieved a fair degree of parity with the interiors of fixed-wing aircraft.
How many customers choose to upgrade from the basic factory standard passenger cabins? Bell Helicopter Communications Manager Sara Monger told us approximately 20% of their customers choose some form of upgrade from the company's standard passenger cabin offerings. However, those upgrades vary widely depending on the customer's mission and use for the aircraft.
Meanwhile, all Sikorsky executive helicopter clients' interiors are custom projects. “The customers also want a value proposition,” says Sikorsky's Marianne Heffernan, communications manager. “We do this by trying to keep the infrastructure of each of the interiors common, including the basic seating arrangements, of which there are several, [as well as] wall panel systems, acoustic systems, [environmental controls] and basic electrical systems, as these elements require highly developed engineering solutions. The customization takes place with the decorative coverings, seat upholstery, cabinetry layouts and entertainment systems. This combination of standard and custom elements allows the designers to create a unique interior system solution for each customer.”
Helicopter operators have far more cabin options available than even 10 or 20 years ago. OEMs say they are employing newer and better quality fabrics, such as leathers, composites and Kevlar for seats, headliners, sidewalls and flooring, as well as numerous custom one-off products and specialty devices paralleling closely the overall cabin completions marketplace.
Updated cabin options for executive helicopter interiors also include greater emphasis on customer conveniences, such as cabin management, communication and entertainment systems. Customers also are ordering satcom phones, external cameras, HD video display systems, moving maps, LED lighting and flat-screen monitors, all controlled from a single position. Safety upgrades include the introduction of energy attenuating seats and armor protection systems. And, from a passenger comfort standpoint, there is greater use of highly engineered internal noise reduction systems. (See “Managing Cabin Noise,” BCA, June 2012, page 38.) Another major cabin design development that isn't an option at all is the growing use of 3-D design and rendering tools that enables the designer to rapidly create custom solutions while allowing the customer to better visualize the completed product. These new tools lead to a precision design, more effective decision-making, fewer design changes and happier customers.
The Final Frontier
But there are some limits. Given the space, weight and mission constraints of a helicopter, some fixed-wing cabin wish-list items haven't yet found their way into helicopters — sleeping accommodations, or large galleys, 40-in. monitors, high-speed Internet, and the like. And since executive helicopter missions typically are under an hour, the mission is apt to be an extension of a ride in a limousine. Customers want a comfortable seat; a quiet, smooth ride; convenience. flawless systems; a drink; a snack; and the ability to stay connected.
Nevertheless, the abilities of helicopter cabin engineers are remarkable — and probably underappreciated — given what they are able to squeeze into the cabins of air ambulance, law enforcement and offshore service cabins.