Any remaining doubts over whether the recovery in the civil helicopter market is for real were dispelled in a whirl of record orders, new product announcements and building backlogs at this year’s Heli-Expo.

As if to underscore the rising tide of optimism, the show itself was busy, with attendance topping 19,200, eclipsing 2008’s record of almost 18,000. More than 650 exhibitors covered nearly 1 million sq. ft. of floor space; manufacturers brought in 60 helicopters for the show.

Highlighted by Bell Helicopter’s launch of the super-medium 525 Relentless, the show clearly reflected the growing influence of the oil exploration and support business on the development of larger helicopters. Agusta-Westland displayed a mock-up of its similarly sized and recently flown AW189, while Eurocopter’s EC175 remains on track for combined basic and offshore mission certification later this year.

Sikorsky is also eyeing potential new products to fill the void in its lineup between the 12-passenger twin and the 19-passenger S-92 — some 180 of which have now been built and 19 delivered in 2011. “There’s clearly a gap we’re studying in the super-medium or medium-plus sector, but there’s no decision on it yet,” says CEO Jeff Pino.

Although entering an already crowded marketplace, Pino says the estimated demand is for 1,200 units in the offshore oil industry alone.

Sikorsky also is set to increase output of the S-92 thanks to its largest-ever order from British operator Bond Aviation, which is acquiring 16 aircraft to expand its offshore exploration support activities. In September, Bond also signed a deal with AgustaWestland covering the future purchase of AW139s, AW169s and AW189s.

The AW189 program received its first major order, from Qatar operator Gulf Helicopters. The 15-helicopter deal builds on an existing relationship with Gulf, which also operates a fleet of 13 AW139s and has five more on order. The new helicopters will also be used for offshore transport missions.

AgustaWestland also clinched an order from Ireland-based Lease Corp. International (LCI), which is launching a helicopter division with orders worth more than $400 million for a fleet of AW139s, AW169s and AW189s. The venture is the first time a major fixed-wing leasing company has branched into the rotary-wing world and heralds a new era in the helicopter market, says LCI Executive Chairman Crispin Maunder. This view was underscored by another helicopter lessor, Milestone Aviation Group, chaired by former NetJets CEO Richard Santulli, which also announced deals with Eurocopter and Sikorsky for EC225s and S-92s, respectively.

“The market is really back,” says Eurocopter President and CEO Lutz Bertling, noting that his company netted orders for 457 helicopters in 2011, and “we’re sure we will have more than 500 bookings this year.” He adds his company is planning to ramp up production — a move fueled in part by the launch at the show of the next-generation EC130T2. Eurocopter came to Heli-Expo with 105 orders in hand for the next-generation of the EC130 program, which is attracting orders from air tour and emergency medical service users.