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.