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Oil drilling a boost for copter sales

HARTFORD -- Rising fuel prices that are a bane to consumers have been a boon to Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. and other manufacturers of helicopters that shuttle workers to and from rapidly multiplying offshore drilling rigs.

Between 2002 and 2005, commercial helicopter sales rose from about $100 million to $600 million for the Stratford, Conn.-based subsidiary of United Technologies Corp. About two-thirds of it was driven by a boom in offshore drilling rig construction sparked by skyrocketing oil prices, Sikorsky spokesman Ed Steadham said.

Last year, Sikorsky delivered 49 commercial helicopters, with a price tag starting at $8 million each. That's up from fewer than 10 in 2002, he said.

``Offshore oil has been the big driver of commercial helicopter business in general and for us in particular," Steadham said.

Sikorsky is riding an industry wave. In less than a decade, US civil helicopter production rose by nearly 200 percent, from a low of 278 in 1996 to 805 in 2004, the most recent year available, according to Aerospace Industries Association, and reported by Helicopter Association International.

``The big trend is that with Third World entities, there's no drop-off. There's going to be an increase," said Rick Burt, general manager of Cougar Helicopters in Newfoundland, Canada. ``You're dealing with India and China ramping up for demand for oil."

The price of oil is hitting new highs, with prices surging to about $75 a barrel in world markets roiled by the Mideast crisis and threat of supply disruptions. Consumers are being pinched, but the industry is awash in cash and spending money to drill new sites in search of oil and natural gas.

``What may have been unfeasible at $2 a gallon may be feasible at $3 a gallon and more feasible at $4 a gallon," said Donald Klepper-Smith, an economist in New Haven. ``People are getting aggressive on the exploration side."

Worldwide, 96 drilling rigs -- sites for between 25 and 150 workers -- are under construction, according to Houston-based ODS Petrodata, which tracks oil and gas markets, marine transportation, field development, and the rig market. In January 2005, 21 rigs were under construction, ``and that was a lot," said Tom Marsh, vice president of operations at ODS Petrodata.

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