LOUISVILLE, Ky.–Lockheed Martin [LMT] proudly announced it was back in the business of developing helicopters with Sikorsky’s booth here at the 2016 Heli-Expo commercial trade show.

Heli-Expo was Sikorsky’s first major convention as a division of Lockheed Martin, having been acquired from United Technologies Corp. [UTX] in late 2015.  It was clear that the company was not just a unit of new parent Lockheed Martin, but part of the family.

The back wall of Sikorsky's booth at Heli-Expo 2016 in Louisville. Photo: Defense Daily.
The back wall of Sikorsky’s booth at Heli-Expo 2016 in Louisville. Photo: Defense Daily.

While many companies have giant rings above their booths to allow attendees to find them from across massive convention halls, Sikorsky’s booth at the Kentucky Exposition Center did not. It had a large two-dimensional panel up front that was only viewable if one walked directly toward the front of the booth. If one approached from the side, someone new to the helicopter world wouldn’t know it was a Sikorsky booth.

Instead, the booth’s most visible aspect was the giant wall in the back that not only housed the meeting rooms for company executives and customers, but also served as a stage backdrop for important company announcements like a new customer service center. Emblazoned on that wall, which was colored in Lockheed Martin-blue, was the company’s signature catch-line:

“We’re engineering a better tomorrow.”

In the upper left-hand corner of the wall was the traditional Sikorsky “winged-S” logo. The new Sikorsky logo was in the upper right hand corner. In the traditional Lockheed Martin font, Sikorsky text was tucked into the traditional Lockheed Martin star. Below the Sikorsky name was a reminder: “A Lockheed Martin Company.”

Diagonal view of Sikorsky's booth at Heli-Expo 2016 in Louisville. Photo: Defense Daily.
Diagonal view of Sikorsky’s booth at Heli-Expo 2016 in Louisville. Photo: Defense Daily.

Not only were attendees visually reminded of Sikorsky’s new ownership, they were also audibly reminded. During CEO Dan Schultz’s state of the company press briefing on Feb. 29, Sikorsky media relations professionals said “a Lockheed Martin company” after every time Sikorsky was mentioned.

Sikorsky Manager of Product Marketing Andy Driver conceded to Defense Daily on March 2 that this subtle messaging was intentional.

“The purpose of having the tall wall is to let people know where we’re located if they want to find us,” he said. “That’s the main reason to get the wall high, for visibility reasons, to draw people in.

Lockheed AH-56 Cheyenne. Photo: Army.
Lockheed AH-56 Cheyenne. Photo: Army.

Lockheed’s last effort at developing helicopters came in the late 1960s with the AH-56 Cheyenne. About the size of the AH-64 Apache and bigger than the AH-1 Cobra, the Cheyenne was ahead of its time: a big, sleek attack aircraft that had great speed. The Cheyenne, unfortunately, had the tendency to flip when aggressively maneuvered at high speed. Ten Cheyennes were created and tested, but none entered service.

The messaging angle for the company’s return to making helicopters was clear. One man, who said he spent 30 years in the commercial helicopter industry, told Defense Daily he didn’t know Sikorsky had been acquired by Lockheed Martin until he saw the booth.

A poor commercial forecast in January by Lockheed Martin CFO Bruce Tanner due to the slumping oil and gas industry had people wondering how Sikorsky would approach Heli-Expo, the premier international commercial helicopter trade show. Sikorsky tied with Airbus and Finmeccanica for the unofficial title of second largest Heli-Expo booth, finishing behind Bell Helicopter Textron [TXT], which dominated the exhibit hall with its V-280 tilt-rotor prototype that it is developing for the Army’s Joint Multi-Role (JMR) tech demonstrator program.

Sikorsky spokesman Paul Jackson said at Heli-Expo that Tanner’s bearish forecast had no impact on the company’s booth presence, as he said Sikorsky committed to the space over a year ago. Jackson said the company came to the show to support commercial customers in all the sectors, provide opportunity for business meetings, which he said was probably the highest priority, and to receive customer feedback.

Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson on March 15 defended the Sikorsky acquisition. During a press briefing in Arlington, Va., Hewson said while the commercial helicopter marketplace is a “bit stressed” due to declining demand from the oil and gas market, she said, over the long term, oil prices will return and there will be continued demand for Sikorsky commercial helicopters.

Hewson forecast opportunities for Sikorsky commercial helicopters in paramilitary areas like coast guard in border patrol in additional to international customers. She said Lockheed Martin sees demand for VIP helicopters as well. Hewson also made an appearance at Heli-Expo, visiting the Sikorsky booth to meet with customers and employees, according to Lockheed Martin spokesman William Phelps.

But conventional wisdom says Lockheed Martin didn’t buy Sikorsky for the commercial market, it acquired the company for the military market. Hewson said Lockheed Martin has its eye on the Marine Corps’ upcoming procurement of the CH-53K King Stallion heavy lift helicopter. The CH-53K is in initial flight testing, but has faced developmental delays (Defense Daily, March 2). Sikorsky is also developing the Air Force’s Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH) and the new Marine One, formally known as the Presidential Helicopter Replacement (PHR). Those programs would bring big paydays to Lockheed Martin once they hit production. Plus, Hewson said, the Black Hawk will continue to be sold for years.

The Sikorsky sign at Heli-Expo 2016 in Louisville. Photo: Defense Daily.
The Sikorsky sign at Heli-Expo 2016 in Louisville. Photo: Defense Daily.

“We are absolutely thrilled with our acquisition,” Hewson said. “We have no regrets whatsoever.”

A prominent aerospace analyst expects Lockheed Martin will drop the Sikorsky name in a few years. Teal Group Vice President of Analysis Richard Aboulafia said Monday few aerospace companies keep a separate unit because they try to send a signal about having one company and associated synergies. Companies that do keep a division, he said, do it to keep an independent identity or low overhead.

Aboulafia said even Northrop Grumman [NOC] couldn’t resist keeping Scaled Composites, with its rich history in experimental aircraft, independent forever.

“If overhead costs aren’t an issue, it will probably become irresistible to just make (Sikorsky) part of Lockheed Martin,” he said. “Sadly, that’s the way of all legacy platform companies…if you’re not the acquirer, you tend to get erased by the sands of time.”

Aboulafia said Lockheed Martin might drop the Sikorsky name if the Army’s Joint Multi-Role Tech Demonstrator (JMR) and Future Vertical Lift (FVL) programs really gain traction. Those will determine the future of rotorcraft in the Army for decades.