Folks, I'm on record saying that United Technologies (NYSE:UTX) made a very big mistake when it elected to sell off its Sikorsky helicopter division. Even the nice price UTC got -- $9 billion -- may turn out to be too cheap if Sikorsky retains its position as the world's most popular combat helicopter-maker.
But allow me to insert a caveat here, today. If there's one thing that could make Sikorsky's helicopter franchise less valuable, it is Textron (NYSE:TXT) and its V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.
Ospreys have big wings
The Osprey, as you can see in the photo above, is a helicopter-airplane hybrid. With its two massive propellers pointed at the sky, it can take off and land on a proverbial dime. Tilt those propellers horizontally, however, and the V-22 Osprey shifts into airplane mode, cruising as far as 470 miles at speeds of 300 mph.
According to U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Paul Greenberg, this means the MV-22B (a V-22 variant built specifically for the Corps) can "carry a significantly greater payload than the aircraft it is replacing, the CH-46, at twice the speed and range -- over 60% greater range than any other rotorcraft, and more with aerial refueling." Simply put, Major Greenberg says the Osprey "far outstrips" the competition.
Moving out of the nest
Built in cooperation with Boeing, Textron's Osprey got off to a rough start, suffering four crashes during its development period, and three more after it entered into service. That said, one of those in-service crashes occurred during extreme weather conditions in a war zone. The other two happened during pilot training. This suggests the accidents had less to do with imperfections in the aircraft, and more to do with pilots' need for time to get used to flying the Osprey.
But the more the Marines do fly the V-22 Osprey, the more they like it.
All together now: How much do they like it?
Earlier this month, DoDBuzz reported that demand for the V-22 Osprey is growing so fast the USMC can't train pilots fast enough to fly all the Ospreys it's been buying.
While problematic for the USMC, that's a hugely good problem for Textron to have. Can you imagine if Ford were selling trucks so fast that buyers were flooding into the DMV in search of driver's licenses? Or if Colgate were selling toothpaste faster than people could learn to use a toothbrush? This is all suggestive of very strong demand from one of Textron's most important customers, the U.S. Pentagon.
Consider, too, that while the V-22 Osprey outclasses the helicopters it is replacing in both range and speed, it also costs more than twice as much. According to BGA AeroWeb, each V-22 Textron sells brings in $69.2 million in revenue. That's more than twice the price of a big Boeing Chinook, let alone a smaller CH-46 Sea Knight (no longer being built, or priced). It's twice the cost of Sikorsky's MH-60R Seahawk -- the other helo taking over duties from the Sea Knight.
Yet price seems to be no object. The Marines still can't get enough V-22 Ospreys.
And how much is this worth to Textron?
According to BGA, through September 2014, 264 out of a planned 458 V-22s had been delivered to the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Special Operations Command. That means that this $32 billion program is already more than halfway through its planned production run. It still has more than $13 billion worth of aircraft to go, though. According to S&P Capital IQ, that's nearly one full year's worth of revenues for Textron.
What's more, with Bell being Textron's best-performing division by far -- earning 12.5% profit margins versus a companywide margin of just 8.2% -- revenues from V-22 Osprey sales are arguably some of the most valuable revenues Textron brings in.
Now imagine how much better Textron's business might become once the U.S. Army learns how much the Marines love their V-22 Ospreys. Imagine, too, how much overseas business might shift from Sikorsky helicopters to Textron -- sort-of-helicopter-ish Ospreys. Japan, for example, just placed an order for five V-22 Ospreys to outfit its new fleet of naval helicopter carriers...
Come to think of it, the fact that Japan is buying tilt-rotor Ospreys for helicopter carriers just might tell you all you need to know about how Textron has stolen a march on Sikorsky.