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Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Swiss Helicopter Progresses With Precision

In the well-founded rotorcraft market, the idea of a new helicopter conceived and made in Switzerland seems bizarre to some, a passing novelty to others. But now the first prototype has been built and the idea of Swiss precision being applied to a competitive helicopter should mean they are now taken seriously.

By Andrew Drwiega, International Bureau Chief

Switzerland may be known for many things; its financial institutions, fine chocolate, hand-made timepieces and tremendous scenery including one of the most foreboding mountains in Europe, the Eiger. But one thing that would not be on many lists would be an indigenous helicopter.

So the unveiling of the first prototype of its light single-engine SKYe SH09 helicopter by Marenco Swiss Helicopter has already begun turning heads – including many of its potential competitors. Originally announced at Heli-Expo Dallas in 2012, the SKYe SH09 (SH means Swiss Helicopter, 09 for the year it was conceived) is a smart-looking aircraft that would not seem out of place among the ranks of its international competitors.

The company is the brainchild of CEO Martin Stucki, a self-confessed helicopter enthusiast. Stucki set out to build a helicopter in 2002, but that meant creating a company, a process, a team and an infrastructure in Switzerland.

The concept was borne as a 3D model around 2002. Stucki then took the idea to the market, talking to as many operators as he could, while starting to seek out an investor who would believe as he did and help to take the dream forward. In 2009 when the economy crashed, after a very hard year, at last an investor was found. While the identity of the investor was not revealed at the launch, it is a foreign investor handled through a Swiss financial institution: “It was a relatively small investment for him,” said Stucki.

The cost of owning a SKYe SH09 is going to be around $3 million, revealed Stucki. That buys a 2.5-ton composite fuselage, five-bladed, brand new helicopter.

Mathias Senes, chief commercial officer (CCO) whose extensive rotorcraft industry experience which includes more than 11 years with Eurocopter, went into detail about the design of the helicopter: “The Sagem Avionics glass cockpit (ICDS 8A PFD/EMS) is sold as standard. We found they had great expertise and fabulous reactivity to our project which was important.” The Sagem cockpit allows engine displays to be customized; it will read 21 channels of FADEC data and 38 channels delivering other airframe and engine parameters. This will be the first time that the Sagem ICDS has been interfaced to the Honeywell HTS900-2 1D FADEC engine.

The SKYe SH09 has been designed with visibility front of mind, with a large clear center panel between the two cockpit seats giving a view straight down through the nose and floor of the helicopter. The clear optional door panels also drop below floor level. “The idea to increase visibility this way meant that we developed this door which bulges beneath the frame and the floor plain from the left and right sides to deliver excellent vertical references,” explained Senes.

There are also five carbon fiber main rotor blades. “I love this because they provide maneuverability and less vibration. The EC155 has one of the best signatures in terms of vibrations and our engineers determined that there is a real drop in vibration when you go from four blades to five,” claimed Senes.

The aircraft has three fuel tanks with two side tanks feeding the lower tank.

Then there is a short but high tail boom on the end of which is the Maestro, the Marenco shrouded tail rotor. The importance of safety, particularly in the EMS role, was an important factor for the design team. “We have improved the shrouded tail – it is around 40 per cent bigger than that on an EC120 which is around 80 cm in diameter; we have a 1.2 m diameter. The idea of the short, high tail boom is to allow people access to the rear clamshell doors while reducing the cross wind effect on the aircraft,” explained Senes.

How does a fledgling helicopter manufacturer with no track record persuade companies to join in with the ideal? Senes noted: “The aviation suppliers we are working with did not have to be persuaded. There is strong agility in Switzerland for small series production. We found people motivated – one company we work with is even at the end of the road. It you take away the Zodiac-supplied seats [from France] and the Honeywell engines, then we are around 80 percent Swiss manufactured.”

Interior of the SKYe SH09.
See more photos on page 32.
Marenco is “done with the component testing,” said Senes. “The P1 airframe has been assembled and we move on to P2.” The next major test will be conducted using the whirl tower where the rotor head is spun with the blades attached. Then follows the ground tests and after that the company will be chasing EASA for permission to begin flight tests, the first of which it expects to have flown by the end of first quarter 2014. For this they have engaged seasoned test pilot Dwayne Williams who will perform testing both in Switzerland and the U.S. in the Lake Tahoe area.

“At this stage the detail needs to be done. We still have a lot of equipment to develop and each aircraft will have its own area of tests – some for the options and avionics and of course a crash test. It is unlikely that any of the expected three test aircraft will be sold to customers,” said Senes.

Marenco will begin building its helicopters at the Mollis airfield site where there is ample room for expansion. The company is looking to build a new facility there, which will have 75 meters of floor space with offices above it. The current location for most of the Marenco team is in the nearby town of Pfaffikon although some of the staff already have contracts that take into account a move. In has 14 certification verification engineers working in Germany solely to ensure the helicopter passes EASA certification when it needs to, which is set to be during 2014. The ambition is to deliver the first 10 helicopters in 2015 and then continuously build to between 80 and 120 machines per year.

Marenco has 47 letters of intent which are spread across four continents, from EMS operators to a sightseeing company in Hawaii. Senes is under no illusion of where his market lies. The competition, as he sees it, rests with Eurocopter’s AS350B3, Bell Helicopter Textron’s 407 and AgustaWestland’s AW119 Koala – and his is a brand new aircraft: “Single-engine helicopter owners want to do four missions per day: they want to keep the helicopter working to make money. We have operators that have fleets of 40-50 aircraft – and have had the idea take one of our SKYe SH09s and try it out.”

The company has examined ways in which it might market the helicopter to an international audience. “In key markets we want to have a footprint, but we also need a global network,” explained Senes. “We have already signed a distributor agreement with HeliFlight in Australia. I am proud they chose us as they have been pioneers in the industry and have always looked to the future.”

Is there a military market waiting for the company and its products down the road? “Nearly every aircraft has been painted in khaki at some point in its life,” he stated. “Clearly the [military] helicopter industry [owes much] to the difficulty the United States had during the fighting in Vietnam; if they had fought in Belgium, we would all have stayed in cars.”

Senes summarized the company: “Our job is working with passion. Martin is our leader and he is completely into helicopters. He has put an experienced team together and we could become pioneers, at least in what we do.”

The new markets are appealing to Marenco. The Chinese market is in a construction boom in areas that include building its electrical network in the form of power lines, which of course need to be monitored. Regarding EMS, Senes believes that China is also looking at the American model and will come up with a pragmatic decision in the end.

“Asia is clearly a huge market but the large helicopter OEMs are pushing their products so there is a feeling in Asia and China that you should buy a twin instead of a single,” he said. “But the market will realize that single is appropriate in certain areas of work and that twin engine helicopters are expensive. You are spending around three times the cost of a single when you add pilot training and maintenance. But what is important is we can live with the single engine market as it is and if Europe one day decides it can use single-engine helicopters in HEMS that will be good news for us.”

 

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