A Swiss company founded in 2007 with the goal of launching a brand-new helicopter design has yet to deliver a finished aircraft. Expected certification dates have come and gone. Ten years is a long time to wait, especially for a company that has taken in at least $430 million from unusually patient investors without delivering a single finished product.
But leaders at Kopter — which until February was known as Marenco Swisshelicopter — are confident not only that they will deliver their first SH09 single-engine helicopter sometime in the first half of 2019 but that, within a decade, Kopter will rank among the top three civil helicopter manufacturers in the world.
It’s an ambitious outlook, to say the least.
But that’s pretty much the marching orders given to Andreas Löwenstein when he was hired as CEO on January 1, 2017. The 25-year aviation and defense industry veteran came to Marenco after the company’s board, dominated by Russian investor Alexander Mamut via a family trust headquartered in Cyprus, pushed founder Martin Stucki into retirement
Stucki, a Swiss helicopter pilot and engineer, is rightly credited with identifying a potentially huge, underserved segment of the global helicopter market: operators looking for an all-new, technologically advanced single-engine helicopter that offers the size and capabilities of a twin-engine aircraft. But Stucki and his small team of engineers repeatedly were frustrated by unexpected technical delays and an inability to advance their promising new product through the European Aviation Safety Agency’s (EASA) certification process.
So Löwenstein and a new team of industry veterans were hired away from companies like Airbus, Leonardo, Rolls-Royce, and even Bell to get the ball across the goal line as quickly as possible. Collectively, the new management team has 220 years in the helicopter industry.
“The company had been driven by people who did not come out of the helicopter industry,” Löwenstein says. “It was led by a group of brilliant engineers. But we needed to bring [the initial product, the SH09,] to certification. That means you need a team that is skilled and experienced in the certification of aircraft and, most importantly, that is trusted by the certification authorities.”
The process to certify a new aircraft design is always measured in years, but Löwenstein says one reason for the SH09’s slow progress was the size of the Marenco team. “The certification scope you have to cover is so broad. The documentation you have to produce is so thick. You cannot do it with 140 people, which is about what we had when I arrived. We also had to shape the product support operation, build the sales team, and create an assembly-line process, all in order to win certification. So we needed to bring in people with lots of experience in each of these areas.”
By late 2016, it was clear to all involved that Marenco Swisshelicopter had a solid foundation — the design of the SH09 was both innovative and on target. But it also was obvious that the company was struggling to put all those other important elements together in order to earn certification. That’s why the change in leadership had to be made.
With founder Martin Stucki no longer involved — whose Martin Engineering Consultants gave rise to the Marenco brand — that made-up word no longer seemed relevant. And Swisshelicopter is such a long word — and one that proved to be very hard to pronounce by many nonnative German, French, and English speakers — that the new leadership determined that it, too, had to go.
The company needed a shorter, pithier name that would stick in helicopter buyers’ minds and roll off international tongues with ease. And, indeed, Kopter, with a K to capture the company’s Swiss/Germanic heritage, has seemed like an inspired choice since the new brand was introduced on February 1 of this year.
Building toward Certification
In the roughly 18 months that Löwenstein has been on the job, the company payroll has more than doubled in size, to around 300. Another 50 or so employees are expected to be added by year’s end.
Since Löwenstein’s arrival, the company’s headquarters and engineering teams have been relocated to a new, larger facility in Wetzikon, east of Zurich. The company has staffed up its dynamic testing facility in Ennetmoos, south of Zurich.
Staff have been added at Kopter’s certification management office across the border in Siegertsbrunn, Germany. And new staff are being added and trained at the company’s primary manufacturing and assembly plant in Mollis, south of Zurich. Because that facility’s maximum production capacity will be a little more than 50 units per year, Kopter also plans to start final assembly lines in the United States and Asia as production ramps up.
Meanwhile the SH09 now has completed more than half of its flight-test program. Flight testing began in earnest in 2014 but had to be put on hold for more than a year when a problem with excessive vibration was discovered. A redesigned bearingless rotor and new, slightly stiffer rotor blades solved that problem, and flight testing resumed in 2016.
Kopter earned its Design Organization Approval from EASA back in February. That’s a necessary precursor to the SH09 earning its final type certificate, which the company expects to happen in 2019.
A Concept for Today’s Market
There was never a doubt that Stucki’s initial vision of a full cabin-class helicopter powered by a single turbine engine would have strong appeal in the market. The SH09 offers significantly more cabin space and flexibility than its single-engine Bell 407 and Airbus H125 competition — as well as more cabin space than the twin-engine Airbus H135 and comparable cabin space to the larger, pricier H145.
“We’re able to offer a helicopter with a cabin that’s as big as or bigger than the H145 at a price close to the H125 and the 407,” says Larry Roberts, a longtime U.S. helicopter sales executive with both Airbus and Bell whom Löwenstein hired in late 2017 to lead Kopter’s sales efforts in North America. “Twin-engine cabin and performance for single-engine acquisition and operating costs is a very, very attractive offering, we think.”
The combination of the SH09’s lightweight, all-composite monocoque body — which borrows heavily from the world of Formula 1 racing — and a powerful HTS900 engine from Honeywell capable of delivering 1,020-shaft-horsepower should give the SH09 excellent hot-and-high performance characteristics. That seems befitting for a helicopter whose originator, Stucki, actually flew medical rescue missions in the Swiss Alps.
And when it’s not tasked with flying in especially high altitudes, that combination of lightweight construction and a powerful engine will give the SH09 a significant advantage over the competition in terms of internal or external carrying capacity and range.
Assuming the production version meets its design goal of an empty weight of 1,300 kg (2,866 lb) — each of the four test vehicles has been overweight, but sequentially less so — the SH09 will be capable of carrying passengers, equipment, and cargo with a combined weight that slightly exceeds the aircraft itself. It’ll also be a fast helicopter, capable of cruising at speeds of up to 140 knots with a full load.
Those operating characteristics and its low purchase and operating costs versus its twin-engine competitors make the SH09 ideal for the North American helicopter air ambulance (HAA) market, Löwenstein says. European rules require HAA helicopters to have two engines. But no such requirement exists in the United States, where helicopter air ambulances typically are asked to carry heavier loads and fly greater distances to and from hospitals than their European counterparts.
More than a Big Engine
Technology plays a big part in the SH09’s competitive advantage. “It’s not only because of the engine,” Löwenstein explains. “When you compare the layouts of the competing aircraft you are comparing a 1974 Chevrolet with a 2018 Chevrolet. With the 2018 model you are using much lighter, but just-as-strong or stronger composite materials rather than steel and aluminum. That means you can use that weight savings to have a much larger passenger compartment.
“And greater cabin size means a much more capable mission envelope,” says Roberts. It can carry up to seven passengers in transport or sightseeing configuration. It can be a spacious executive transport. And in the EMS role you can add a second patient, if your litter configuration will allow it. Or you can put more medical equipment and/or a second medical person onboard.”
In addition to the SH09’s mission-stretching power and range, its economics hold the potential of changing the HAA helicopter business. With operating costs roughly 35 percent lower than twin-engine helicopters commonly used by HAA operators — not to mention its lower purchase price (2019 list price of $3.34 million), the SH09 quite literally could turn struggling HAA operations into profit-makers.
“Currently most U.S. [HAA] companies need to handle 35 to 40 flights per month just to cover their expenses on the helicopter,” Roberts says. “But our helicopter’s lower acquisition and operating costs will mean that their breakeven number on missions flown each month will be much lower.”
The SH09 will come standard with a glass cockpit that features enhanced graphics, integrated navigation equipment that give it full IFR (instrument flight rules) capability, and a two-channel FADEC and four-axis autopilot that will expand mission capability, says Roberts. “With all the capacity, power, range, and technology that our helicopter will bring to the market, EMS operators will be able to accept more missions that they probably would have had to turn down previously.”
The Waiting Is the Hardest Part
Roberts admits to some impatience because he “can’t put anybody in one of our machines yet. But I do think that we’ve already got 31 to 35 [North American customers] who I’m pretty sure will want this helicopter.”
Yet those North American customers may have to wait until 2021 or so to actually take delivery of a SH09.
Nearly a year away from its expected first delivery, Kopter already has 63 firm orders on its books, plus around 100 letters of intent (LOI) from customers who’ve ponied up little or no cash, but who are keenly interested in getting their hands on the aircraft. Based on his experience and analysis of the global and regional economies, Löwenstein expects about 70 of those LOIs to turn into firm orders.
“We’re getting very close to selling out our first three years of production capacity,” he says. But, he adds, Kopter is keeping production goals for its first couple of years “reasonable and cautious” as its Swiss production team gains experience.
Löwenstein says Kopter’s “Swiss-ness” will be a key feature of the aircraft. Kopter is banking that the international aviation industry will find attractive the Swiss reputation for manufacturing precision, exacting engineering, operational reliability, and acute attention to detail. These qualities will undergird Kopter’s operations, beginning with its expectations for its suppliers and going all the way through production and final assembly. Indeed, even after Kopter opens final assembly lines in other parts of the world, Löwenstein expects the company to build most of its helicopters’ major dynamic subsystems and components in Switzerland before shipping them out to those assembly lines.
But because of the Swiss facility’s limited capacity and its distance from what the company expects to be its biggest markets, by year four of full production, Löwenstein expects Kopter to be turning out more than 100 aircraft a year from at least two final assembly lines, one in Switzerland and, most likely, one in the United States. In fact, one of Roberts’s responsibilities is scouting out U.S. locations where there already is the kind of helicopter culture that Kopter wants. The Dallas–Fort Worth area, home to both Bell and Airbus North America engineering, sales, and headquarters staffs, is a leading candidate, though Roberts also is scouting potential locations in Florida and New England.
“We will start delivering to our community of launch customers here in Switzerland and in Europe, which are highly stable helicopter operations with stable operating environments, out of our facility here in Switzerland. These operators will help us introduce our helicopter into the market in a stable and effective manner,” says Löwenstein. “But I do expect to be among the top three producers of helicopters in the SH09’s class within 10 years, so we will be ramping up rapidly after that.”
Demand in that market segment, Löwenstein says, “is strongly correlated to world economy. And we expect the economy to be strong.”
Looking Ahead (Just a Little)
Kopter foresees very strong demand for the SH09 among operators now flying competing aircraft designed 25 or more years ago. Those models, Löwenstein says, are reaching the end of their design life cycles. As a result, modern designs, like the SH09, will bring highly sought and much-needed new technologies, new materials, and lower operating costs to the market.
The Kopter SH09, he says, will benefit from being both the first clean-sheet design in its class in a quarter century and the first all-composite helicopter in that same class.
“The single-engine market is aging badly,” he says. “There will be significant replacement need. And I’m quite convinced now that we have growth driving the market, particularly in the single-engine market, around the world.”
The SH09’s expected success, Löwenstein hinted, likely will lead to a second new aircraft from Kopter sometime in the next decade. He won’t talk about specific plans but coyly talks about how “when you bring in a team of young and talented engineers, you will not leave them idle.”
For now, though, those engineers and Löwenstein’s management team are focused on reacting quickly to any new problems uncovered by the flight-test program. “Our engineering team is now mature enough to face the unforeseen event. That wasn’t always the case. And it makes me feel now that we can achieve in 2019 what we’ve promised” — delivery of a certified aircraft.
“Our rotor system has been turning for more than 500 hours now,” he added. “We have been doing lots of validation of major parts of the flight envelope. And we have had no indication that we will have to face any more major issues. But if we do, I believe we are prepared to handle it very well.”