Read More: Where Is the SH09? Kopter Gears Up to Deliver
August 06, 2018

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.

Read More: HAI Welcomes 2018–19 Board of Directors
August 03, 2018

More than 100 people helped HAI welcome its new Board of Directors on June 25 as the association held its annual reception to mark the end of the fiscal year and the installation of the new board. Old friends and new connections mingled over hors d’oeuvres as they congratulated the board on another year of serving HAI members.

During the reception, outgoing Chairman Daniel B. Schwarzbach of the Houston Police Department passed the gavel to James O. Wisecup of Air Methods Corporation, who on July 1 took over as chairman of the Board of Directors (read more about Wisecup in his profile on p. 12 and his chairman’s column on p. 4).

HAI President and CEO Matt Zuccaro also honored Schwarzbach and outgoing board members Torbjorn “TC” Corell and Chuck Aaron with plaques to commemorate their time as HAI volunteer leaders.

Read More: Jim Wisecup: HAI’s New Chairman
August 03, 2018

“One of the good guys.” “A real gem.” “What happens when our industry gets it right.”

These are the types of comments I heard about Jim Wisecup as he was elected to the HAI Board of Directors and then was selected by his fellow directors as chairman of the association for the 2018–19 term. And spending an afternoon with Jim helped me to understand why he is so respected in the industry.

Jim is a highly experienced 16,000-hour pilot with a deep understanding of industry issues and an even better grasp of how we will solve every one of those problems: through people working together.

Deciding on Aviation

Jim grew up in the Houston area. After high school, he attended the University of Houston for a year, but he says that at 19 he was “too impatient” for college. (Fifty years later, Jim has more patience: he is finishing up his studies at Southern Utah University and expects to get a bachelor’s degree in aviation science in spring 2019.)

Even as a teenager, Jim knew that he wanted to fly for a living — his first ride in an airplane taught him that — so he joined the US Army. Unlike other services, the army did not require its pilots to have a college degree.

During his year in Vietnam, Jim flew for the MACV-SOG unit, which conducted special ops missions. Characteristically, Jim turns his year of living dangerously into a funny story, remarking that he had three engine failures caused by FOD (foreign object damage). The first was caused by a mortar round, the second by an artillery shell, and the third by a rocket-propelled grenade. He earned several decorations, including a Purple Heart, Silver Star, Bronze Star, and multiple air medals along the way.

Jim was discharged in April 1971 and then went to work for the US Department of the Interior. He had used his GI Bill benefits to get his fixed-wing ratings and was also working as a fixed-wing instructor. But his real goal was to find a job flying helicopters.

At this time, the helicopter industry was flooded with US Army–trained pilots and maintenance technicians, so finding a job in the helicopter industry wasn’t easy, even for an experienced pilot. Luckily, one of Jim’s fixed-wing students mentioned that he would soon be quitting his job at Offshore Helicopters in Sabine Pass, Texas.

Armed with that intelligence, Jim applied for a job at Offshore but was told that there were no openings. Jim didn’t share that there soon would be, and sure enough, he was offered the newly open position.

He started flying offshore in 1974 — pilot #5 of five pilot positions. After three years, when Offshore’s chief pilot left, Jim was offered the position. “I was probably the only one of the four pilots left who showed any desire or aptitude for the job,” says Jim.

Over 10 years of operations, Offshore went from five helicopters to 40, and from five pilots to 85. In 1979, when Bristow Helicopters bought Offshore Helicopters, Jim became chief pilot for Bristow’s US operations. After spending a year-and-a-half working for Bristow in the Gulf of Mexico, he was transferred to Bristow operations in Scotland and then to Malaysia as a training captain.

In 1984, Jim moved to Arctic Air as chief pilot — after several years abroad, he was eager to get back to the United States. He was working in California in 1987 when he got a call from Larry Kelly, whom he had worked with in the Gulf of Mexico (and with whom he later served on the HAI Board of Directors). Kelly urged Jim to apply for a job in Tulsa, Oklahoma, flying air medical missions for Rocky Mountain Helicopters.

Jim’s interview for the job was with John Heiskel, vice president of air medical operations for Rocky Mountain. Heiskel turned out to be someone who had interviewed with Jim for a job in the Gulf — and then didn’t get it. Luckily, Heiskel didn’t hold a grudge.

Jim has been flying in the helicopter air ambulance (HAA) sector ever since. Rocky Mountain Helicopters was acquired by Air Methods in 2002, and Jim is now an assistant chief pilot at the company, which operates 300 bases serving 48 US states.

Flying air medical has its own rewards, says Jim, who no longer flies patient transport flights. “I miss it sometimes, but not at four o’clock in the morning when it’s 10 degrees outside.” From thousands of transports, three or four patients have returned to say thanks, says Jim, and that makes it all worthwhile.

Read More: Flying in the Grand Canyon: A Dream Job with Unique Challenges
July 03, 2018

The helitack team at Grand Canyon National Park has to be prepared for anything. With weather conditions ranging from sun and 125-degree heat, to snow, wind, and dust, it takes more than just skill to operate in the canyon — it takes hard work and dedication. The combination of weather, remote terrain, and canyon flying requires advanced mountain flying skills.

The helitack team is drawn from Grand Canyon National Park staff and employees at Papillon Airways, working under contract with the park. Its MD 900 is on 365 days per year, while an AS350 comes on May 1 to add fire season support for about 90 to 150 days per year.

The helitack team performs a variety of missions inside the park during daylight hours. What started as park maintenance support in 1972 has expanded to firefighting, search and rescue, and utility work. The team also helps support management of threatened and endangered species by flying in personnel and equipment for research management, and even animals when appropriate.

With only a small staff available for any given mission (there are four employees on staff in the winter, and six more are added in the summer for the fire season), it’s not uncommon for the team to get pulled in many different directions. “We’ll be working on a pipeline break and literally switch hats and do a medical mission or respond to a fire, or even all three in one day,” says Eric C. Graff, Grand Canyon Flight Crew helicopter program manager.

Read More: Bell Sets a New Course
May 13, 2018

For a company focused on multimillion-dollar aircraft sales to government, military, and commercial clients around the world, Bell was behaving curiously. Its big reveal at HAI HELI‑EXPO 2017, the FCX-001, was less aircraft than a customer-experience concept vehicle. Bell followed up that mold-breaking exhibition by becoming the first aircraft company to ever make a big splash at the annual, quirky, and hip display of cutting-edge consumer technology that is the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

There (and at HAI HELI‑EXPO 2018), Bell displayed a cabin mock-up of its proposed entry in the race to develop the world’s first commercially successful air taxi. And though that mock-up looked more like a smallish, more angular, and cooler version of a passenger cabin in one of Bell’s helicopters, the company assured everyone that the vehicle will be a very, very different kind of machine, one powered by hybrid electric engines and capable of operating quietly, quickly, and in an environmentally friendly way within urban environments.

What next? On February 22, the company announced its first name change since 1960, when Textron Inc. acquired the Bell Helicopter division of Bell Aircraft — evolving from Bell Helicopter to simply, “Bell.” Of course, some — maybe even most — rebranding is merely cosmetic. But for Bell, shedding the one word that has defined not only its products but its very essence for the last 60 years is game changing.

Read More: Business Bounces Back at HAI HELI-EXPO 2018
May 13, 2018

The mood at HAI HELI‑EXPO 2018 in Las Vegas was one of optimism, with several small signs — and one big victory — pointing toward bluer skies ahead for the helicopter industry.

This year, more than 17,300 attendees walked the halls, visiting 705 exhibitors and 51 helicopters. What’s more, 2,368 people attended the HFI Rotor Safety Challenge education sessions, doing their part to make the industry safer.

“The exhibitors really loved the activity on the floor, and the ability to bring in aircraft using our temporary heliport just outside the doors was a real benefit,” says HAI President and CEO Matt Zuccaro. “From an HAI perspective, we were able to do what we wanted most — focus on safety. We rolled out our online certificate program for safety managers and were able to provide 50 free Rotor Safety Challenge courses, where in many of them it was standing room only.”

While business was brisk on the show floor, a victory in Washington, D.C., on February 28 also fueled the fires of optimism. U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Schuster (R-Pa.) withdrew his proposal to privatize US air traffic control (ATC) services from the House FAA reauthorization bill, ending, for now, talks of privatizing ATC. Under the proposed scheme, US ATC would have been run by a private board dominated by airline interests — a group unlikely to prioritize services for general aviation (GA).

“This is a great example of what can happen when people unite and speak with one voice. I offer my deepest appreciation to the entire GA community for its tireless work defending our industry,” Zuccaro said in an email to all HAI members shortly after the announcement. “HAI stands committed to working with Congress to modernize the FAA to maintain its world-class level of service and safety.”

Read More: Pilot and Mechanic Shortage Looms
May 13, 2018

During the next 18 years, the US helicopter industry will experience a shortage of more than 7,600 pilots, according to a study conducted by the University of North Dakota (UND), in partnership with Helicopter Foundation International (HFI) and HAI. The study also projects a shortage of 40,600 aviation mechanics in the United States during the same period.

Presented at a news conference at HAI HELI-EXPO 2018 in Las Vegas, the UND-HFI Rotorcraft Pilot and Mechanic Supply Forecast confirmed industry suspicions regarding labor force trends and highlighted the need for drastic changes to ensure industry growth and viability into the future.

Compiled from a survey of 250 helicopter companies and operators and tying responses together with historical data and forecasts, including FAA records of current pilot and airframe and powerplant (A&P) licenses, the study is the most comprehensive to date focusing on the helicopter industry’s labor trends. (Visit rotor.org/UND-HFI to view or download the study results and the executive summary; more study results are on pp. 54–55.)

“We commissioned this study because we wanted to provide documented proof of the shortage, not just ‘heard on the street,’” says Matt Zuccaro, who is president and CEO of both HAI and HFI. “The numbers indicate we have the potential for a serious shortage. We as an industry must start addressing this issue and finding creative ways to attract and keep our workforce in the helicopter industry.”

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