HAI/Robb Cohen Photography
New manufacturer offers iconic aircraft and commitment to customer service.
July 2021 was a month of significant, hard-earned milestones for Schweizer RSG. On Jul. 19, the FAA issued a certificate of airworthiness to the company for the first Schweizer S300C helicopter off its production line. Three days later, Schweizer RSG delivered the helicopter—the first new aircraft to bear the Schweizer name since 2016—to Foreign Asset Trade Co. for use by the Senegalese Air Force.
The road to this day was long and littered with obstacles that would have made more than a few seasoned aerospace veterans reconsider their life choices. Yet, Schweizer RSG President David Horton pressed on with enthusiasm and dedication to an aircraft he refused to let die on his watch.
Originally certificated by the FAA in 1959 as the Hughes 269, this iconic piston aircraft was popular in the civil market and, as the TH-55A Osage, was for decades the US Army’s primary helicopter trainer. The helicopter also underwent a number of design and ownership changes over the years (see sidebar at bottom of article). Schweizer RSG, a US-owned company based in Fort Worth, Texas, purchased the Schweizer 269/300 and 333 lines from Sikorsky in 2018.
Labor of Love
A veteran of the helicopter industry, Horton knows a thing or two about helicopter manufacturing, maintenance, supply chains, customer service, and sales. He’s served as a director at Bell, a vice president at Safran Helicopter Engines, and as president of three aviation companies, Heli-Dyne Systems, Uniflight, and Composite Technology. He was also president and general manager of Schweizer Aircraft Corp., under Sikorsky ownership, from 2008 to 2010.
While there, he developed a deep passion for the aircraft and its customers. Besides being the helicopter that thousands of pilots first trained in, the lightweight Schweizer was designed as a cost-effective platform for many other missions, including law enforcement, photography, and agriculture. When Sikorsky announced plans to sell the Schweizer lines, Horton dug deep into his contacts to pull together a company, a team, and the financing to bring the aircraft under his watchful eye once again.
Announced in January 2018, the sale of the Schweizer lines to Schweizer RSG came at a time of unprecedented low confidence in the aircraft. It had been years since a new aircraft had rolled off the line, and spare parts were hard to come by.
“Basically, Schweizer operators were cannibalizing aircraft to stay in the air,” Horton says. “The supply chain was a mess. We were under the impression when we purchased the type certificates that a world-class supply chain was in place. It wasn’t. There were parts that hadn’t been available for years. For example, there were customers who put down deposits for driveshafts who’d been waiting five years. We inherited a lot of work.”
Horton and his team determined their first and best action was to rebuild the supply chain to a level that would support the estimated 2,900 Schweizer S300 series helicopters flying around the world. He brought in experts in drivetrains and those highly experienced in building intricate parts from original engineering drawings or even reverse engineering them from actual parts.
Yet, each step seemed to bring a new obstacle. Some questions arose about the original engineering drawings, bringing things to a halt until those questions were resolved. It was sometimes hard to find a vendor willing to work with a new company when significant orders were coming in from their other customers. For instance, Schweizer RSG lined up a supplier to manufacture main rotor driveshafts. Six months into waiting on those parts, that company dropped the contract to focus on larger orders, leaving Horton and his team scrambling for a new supplier.
In another instance, the single and only Sikorsky contractor for performing overhauls of the S300 main rotor transmissions went out of business. Schweizer RSG had to find a new vendor in short order and then help them apply for and receive FAA approvals to perform the work.
“It has sure been an adventure,” Horton laughs, with a hint of Southern diplomacy. “We chose to stick with it, though, and persisted. And we focused on changing things from the way they were done before. There isn’t just one company that can do important things like overhaul transmissions now. We have three on three continents.
“In time, we won the hearts of those vendors who weren’t sure about taking a chance on a new company,” he says. “Today, we have some great vendors who’ve really supported this product with us and believe in it as much as we do.”
Building a Supply Chain
By mid-2020, Schweizer RSG had brought its supply chain back, with a host of regularly requested parts—including main rotor driveshafts, blades, mast assemblies, and bearings—fully stocked at the factory and at service centers around the world for immediate shipment upon customer request. However, like many manufacturers, it has since experienced delays in deliveries from suppliers as a result of the staffing shortages, material shortfalls, and production delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Horton hopes to see those pandemic-related delays reduced in the coming months.
Schweizer RSG will maintain its spare-parts inventory and grow it to match increased production of aircraft, Horton says. What’s more, while the spares inventory mainly supports the C and D models of the aircraft, the company wants to continue supporting A and B models.
“When demand for support for A and B is at a meaningful level, we’re certainly going to support them,” says Horton. “For instance, there are specific main rotor thrust bearings for As and Bs. We’ve asked our service centers to determine if there is real demand for them. If so, we will certainly make the financial commitment to have them made and supported.
“We’re being financially responsible, putting our resources where our customers need them most,” he continues. “We want our focus to be on strengthening the latest models, but we will work with customers of our older models to support them, too.”
Schweizer RSG has also improved the availability of spares for its turbine-powered Schweizer 333. With the majority of this aircraft’s customers being military, however, Horton says it’s been harder to anticipate their needs to ensure the right parts are available when requested.
“They’re close to the chest with their future maintenance requirements, but when we go out for visits, we can have a look and ask around,” he says. “We were able to anticipate some rather long–lead time, expensive needs that way. We made the investment, and sure enough, about the time the parts were ready, the customer needed them.”
While the supply line took shape, Horton and his team worked to build their own system of Schweizer-authorized service centers around the globe to support customers. Today, there are 14 service centers, strategically placed to serve customers in every region. In addition to these facilities, Schweizer has appointed representatives to handle sales and spare-part support in specific countries.
“It’s important to have support in the same time zone, monetary system, and language as our customers wherever possible,” Horton explains. “When we took over the company, we hand-selected those centers. Some were from when I was president of Schweizer in Elmira [New York]. Others reached out to us. We took the time to review each carefully to ensure they would be the best fit for the level of service it was imperative we provide moving forward.”
Return to Production
As some on the Schweizer team worked to rebuild a global supply chain, others were addressing aircraft production. Working closely with the FAA’s Fort Worth Manufacturing Inspection District Office (MIDO), Schweizer RSG set up a manufacturing line and built its first aircraft, with the FAA validating that each process will produce aircraft that meets the requirements of the type certificate.
Because Schweizer already possessed a production certificate for parts and AS9100 certification, the process of working with the FAA to open the production line for new helicopters moved efficiently. Horton also credits the “tremendous” support received from the MIDO inspectors for helping the company meet the requirements for the certificate of airworthiness for the first S300 produced as well as for its production certificate.
Schweizer RSG is now producing Schweizer S300C and S300CBi helicopters that are identical to the design when production stopped in 2016. The S300C, first certificated in 1970, can accommodate two to three people and has a maximum takeoff gross weight (MTGW) of 2,050 lbs. The right-hand-drive–only S300CBi, with seating for two, has a MTGW of 1,750 lbs. and is designed for the training market.
Schweizer RSG plans to produce eight aircraft in 2021, with the first several undergoing step-by-step validation by the MIDO, as is standard practice, before it receives an unrestricted production certificate. Once the company can produce aircraft unrestricted, Horton foresees the ability to produce 50 to 60 aircraft a year, with each aircraft taking 60 to 90 days to manufacture.
At the same time, the company is in the process of establishing its own FAA Part 145 repair station, with the hope of having approval by the end of 2021. This will further increase Schweizer RSG’s offerings, allowing it to offer full refurbishments of aircraft as well as providing main- and tail-rotor gearbox overhauls and other repairs in-house.
“We want to give our customers as many options as possible, including the option of working directly with the factory on overhauls and repairs,” Horton says. “Many customers want to work directly with the OEM, and some, such as governments and military, require that equipment be overhauled and tested on the OEM’s test bed before being put on their aircraft.”
A Part 145 certificate will also give Schweizer RSG another edge. “Due to the cannibalization of aircraft before we purchased the certificates, we’ve been able to acquire a certain number of incomplete airframes to provide factory refurbishments,” says Horton. “Along those lines, if a customer wanted to bring us an aircraft for refurbishment, we’ll be able to do that, too.
“The original 269 was designed where if all you had was the data plate, you could rebuild the aircraft,” he says. “Due to the lack of parts, insurance companies were totaling aircraft that could have been saved. We will soon be able to provide a service to rebuild those aircraft for customers.”
So far, interest is strong. In 2019, the International Defense & Aerospace Group (IDAG) ordered 25 S300CBis. Foreign Asset Trade Co., the purchaser of the first new-production S300C, has expressed interest in increasing its order to six aircraft, while Helifly in Australia purchased an S300CBi. There is also strong interest from several US and South American customers as well as non-US armed forces.
While overall demand has been increasing, it’s not to the level Horton expected just yet, he says. “I think people are being cautious, waiting to see if we’ll be here to support their aircraft. I believe as we build more helicopters and begin selling refurbished aircraft, confidence will build that Schweizer is here to stay, and people will commit.”
Some former customers, like the University of North Dakota, were forced to consider other options due to their aging fleet’s cost of operation and downtime caused by parts shortages. Alternatively, some customers have remained with the S300, and that has helped Schweizer RSG move forward.
“I think the Schweizer is the best training helicopter in the world, full stop,” says Bob Caldwell, CEO and co-founder of IDAG. “I’ve known Dave Horton for 30 years, and I’ve full faith and confidence in him, the product, and the company. We were having issues with parts, but Dave was honest and up front. He told us that was his priority, and he certainly made good on that promise. There were bumps along the way, and he was always forthright about them. It might not have been what I wanted to hear, but I deeply respect that he was always open. In the end, we have our parts and can keep our fleet flying now. We’re looking forward to working with him and the company to begin taking delivery of our order.”
With the Schweizer production line now up and running, the next step in the process is modernization.
“Our goal is to make airframe modifications to move away from analog instrumentation and into digital,” Horton says. “Digital systems are lighter, more reliable, less expensive to manufacture, easier to consolidate between aircraft, and less time- and cost-intensive to maintain. Our goal is that helicopters delivered in 2022 and 2023 will be digital.”
Updates will include a new flat-panel display with digital instruments that provide information on aircraft and engine performance. Schweizer RSG will also identify and certify digital options for communications and navigation, leaving the final decision on their installation in individual aircraft up to the customer.
Schweizer RSG is also tackling another customer concern: maintenance and operating costs. The maintenance schedule for Schweizer aircraft was designed in the 1950s. Other than subsequent airworthiness directives (ADs), it has changed very little. Horton hopes to help change that for the better.
“We’re looking at revising the maintenance schedule to bring it in line with modern aircraft and modern procedures,” Horton says. “For example, there’s a very short time between inspections on the lower coupling driveshaft—150 hours—and we’re asking the FAA to look at an AD to allow an increase in hours before inspection. They’ve made no commitments to do this, but we’re collecting and providing very positive information that supports increasing that inspection interval. Whenever we can increase those inspection times, we can help reduce overall operating costs.”
Another area Horton’s team is exploring is lubrication intervals and lubrication greases. “A lot of greases and lubricants have been vastly improved over the years,” he explains. “At some point, we plan to review the potential of changing grease and lubrication products that will allow for longer periods of time before servicing. These things take a bit of time to get through the approval process.”
The return to production of the Schweizer S333 is another story. While there have been some customer inquiries, Horton admits there would need to be considerable interest with multiple orders to support the investment required to start production of this aircraft designed for military training and law enforcement. The company would also need to secure a partner to help finance the line.
One opportunity for the S333 lies in the unmanned aircraft system (UAS) market. Northrop Grumman’s autonomous MQ-8B Fire Scout UAS was developed from the S333 platform. Horton believes there are opportunities to expand on the aircraft and technology as the civilian UAS market grows. Another possibility, he says, is converting the S300C to a turbine-powered aircraft for UAS use.
“We’ve already started down the UAS path, but we’re looking into securing a good partner to develop it further,” Horton says. “We’re definitely going to be a player in the UAS business.”