Meet Kopter

The doors of the new design office were large enough, so the first prototype of the helicopter had been brought inside. In the small, snowy Swiss town of Wetzikon, Andreas Loewenstein was making a speech that marked “a big moment” in his company’s history. Meanwhile, three miles away, that company’s founder was probably busy with a complex engineering problem for a customer in biotechnology or solar energy — anything but rotorcraft.

The second prototype of the SH09 (P2) during flight tests at Kopter's facility in Mollis, Switzerland. Benjamin Diekmann Photo
The second prototype of the SH09 (P2) during flight tests at Kopter’s facility in Mollis, Switzerland. Benjamin Diekmann Photo
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When he opened the Feb. 1 event, Loewenstein had replaced Martin Stucki a mere 13 months before. The latter returned to his original company, Marenco Swissengineering, from which he had spun off Marenco Swisshelicopter to design the SH09 large-cabin single. The name change of the would-be manufacturer, to a more catchy Kopter, caps a year of profound evolution at the helm of the enterprise.

First, the symbols. Marenco is an acronym for “Martin Engineering and Consulting.” Its previous headquarters and design office, in Pfäffikon, was inside Stucki’s family house. But Stucki is no longer connected to the company, now based in nearby Wetzikon. Hence the need to both physically move the office and change the original name.

Kopter, the new moniker, is short, gives immediate product recognition and can easily be pronounced on international markets, Loewenstein emphasized. “As we are an unmistakably Swiss company, the use of a “k” — instead of a “c” — gives the Kopter a strong, Swiss-Germanic feel. It has the feeling of solidity and dependability — two things that are essential in our industry,” he added.

Second, the people. Last year, 112 new employees joined Kopter, growing the headcount by 50, to 250. Among them were some former executives of Airbus Helicopters and Leonardo’s helicopter division.

P2 has been used to
P2 has been used to “troubleshoot and derisk” the SH09 program, said Kopter CTO Michele Riccobono. The aircraft had flown about 70 hours by early February. Rino Zigerlig Photo

Loewenstein officially began in his new position — which he describes as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — on Jan. 1, 2017. In his earlier career, he had spent 13 years with then-Eurocopter (now Airbus Helicopters), notably as senior VP for development and strategy.

Christian Gras, a practiced salesperson, is the new chief customer officer. He used to be the CEO of American Eurocopter. He joined last spring.

Chief operating officer (COO) Jan Nowacki joined in September and his previous job was with Airbus Helicopters, too. He was the head of the rotor blade and airframe divisions.

CTO Michele Riccobono, who started working for Kopter in October, is a former Leonardo flight-test engineer. Shaun Dunn, another former Leonardo employee, is the new head of design organization.

Cecile Vion-Lanctuit is now Kopter’s head of communications and marketing. She used to be the director of communications at Eurocopter.

All joined a team that already included some industry veterans. Philippe Harache, a former senior executive VP at Eurocopter, became chairman of the board in 2015. Another ex-Eurocopter employee, chief commercial officer Mathias Senes, was on the team before the program was even unveiled.

When CTO Riccobono joined, he immediately saw that a telemetry issue engineers were struggling with was “trivial.” The problem is now solved, thanks to his strong background.

Andreas Loewenstein, Kopter's CEO, introduces the company's name change from Marenco Swisshelicopter at a special event on Feb. 1, 2018. Kopter Photo
Andreas Loewenstein, Kopter’s CEO, introduces the company’s name change from Marenco Swisshelicopter at a special event on Feb. 1, 2018. Kopter Photo

This event perfectly illustrates why so many experienced executives have been brought on board. Being “a bunch of seasoned professional helicopter experts,” as Harache describes the group, they hope to convince the company’s shareholders that it can succeed in a third wide-ranging evolution. In short, they have to transform a design bureau into a fully-fledged helicopter manufacturer.

From design to production

The founder’s leaving, in December 2016, was understood to be the outcome of diverging views with the main shareholder — a fund managed by the Lynwood foundation (the latter entity was created by Russian billionaire Alexander Mamut). Lynwood may have been happy with Stucki demonstrating a breakthrough concept and dissatisfied with slow progress in the next phase — certification and production.

“We are not designing forever,” Loewenstein said. Kopter’s team aims to move to the production phase as soon as possible.
The CEO pledged Kopter will be among the top three civil helicopter manufacturers in 10 years.

First, it needs to secure certification from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). After several postponements, this is forecast for “the next 12 to 14 months.” The Federal Aviation Administration would then give its nod an estimated six to eight months later. The first delivery of an SH09 is slated for the second half of 2019.

P2 sits inside Kopter's facility in Mollis. The aircraft's time in the air is almost up. Going forward, it will be used for ground trials to certify the SH09's drive train. Thierry Dubois Photo
P2 sits inside Kopter’s facility in Mollis. The aircraft’s time in the air is almost up. Going forward, it will be used for ground trials to certify the SH09’s drive train. Thierry Dubois Photo

The to-do list before then is still long. Prototype 2 (P2) is about to complete flight-testing before P3 takes over this quarter, according to Riccobono. He described the earlier P1 as “a demonstrator” that flew a mere 1.5 hours, after 30 hours of ground evaluations. It proved “a Swiss company could build a helicopter and make it fly.”

But some features were impossible to certify, according to Riccobono. “The flight controls used cables and their friction was so strong that the pilot had to keep the cyclic stick moving, otherwise the breakout force would he been too high.” On P2, the issue was resolved with rods.

P2 is used to “troubleshoot and de-risk” the program, and has flown about 70 hours. The aircraft recently solved a major issue that had been keeping engineers busy — a resonance phenomenon that was causing strong vibrations and high loads on the flight controls. The problem disappeared thanks to “a new set of main rotor blades,” made “slightly stiffer,” said Riccobono. They were installed a few weeks ago and successfully flight-tested.

After Heli-Expo in February, P2 will become a “tie-down helicopter,” meaning it will spend 100 hours in ground trials to certify the drive train.

P3 will open the flight envelope, including reaching maximum speed and altitude by September. Then, it will contribute to gathering compliance data for EASA certification.

PS4, the first “pre-series” SH09, is planned to fly in the summer. The design will have been “ironed out” thanks to the work on P3.

The tail rotor of P1, which now resides inside Kopter's design office in Wetzikon. Thierry Dubois Photo
The tail rotor of P1, which now resides inside Kopter’s design office in Wetzikon. Thierry Dubois Photo

P3 and PS4 are anticipated to fly 250 and 100 hours, respectively. For both of them, Kopter will use a flight-test facility in Pozzallo, Italy, for its favorable weather. The flight-testing activity is scheduled to be complete by January 2019.

The relatively small number of remaining flight hours, around 350, is believed to be consistent with the complexity of the aircraft. The SH09 is said to be much simpler than the Airbus H160 medium twin which, at 550 hours in November 2017, was halfway its flight-test campaign. For instance, the Swiss design has no autopilot (yet).

Loewenstein said the versatility of Kopter’s engineers and the company’s ability to make decisions quickly would enable this quick pace of development — and keep costs low.

Preparing for market debut

The SH-09’s design features a broad use of a new composite material. Its supplier, Villmergen, Switzerland-based Connova is in charge of the fuselage, except the doors and tail boom. It has invested US$2 million and is planning on investing another US$8 million in manufacturing equipment for the SH09 program, said CEO Jon Andri Jörg. The new material is based on a TenCate pre-impregnated carbon fiber that, once cured, absorbs less humidity. In turn, the structure can be made lighter, Riccobono said.

The company's design team is looking to certify the aircraft with a 130-knot cruise speed and a maximum speed of 140 to 145 knots. Eugene Burgler Photo
The company’s design team is looking to certify the aircraft with a 130-knot cruise speed and a maximum speed of 140 to 145 knots. Eugene Burgler Photo

Kopter’s engineers target an empty weight of 1,400 kilograms (3,080 pounds), allowing for a very favorable ratio with the payload, which should stand at 1,250 kg (2,755 lb.). P2 has an empty weight of 1,600 kg (3,525 lb.) and P3 weighs 1,530 kg (3,375 lb.) but those last two numbers include the unspecified weight of the flight-test instrumentation. Meeting the 1,400 kg goal on PS4 involves some structural redesign, Riccobono acknowledged.

The aircraft features a fully redundant hydraulic flight control system. In case one of the two systems fail, the helicopter keeps the same flight envelope and the pilot can fly to the nearest practicable airport for the aircraft to be serviced.

Kopter’s design team is shooting for a 130-knot cruise speed and a 140- to 145-knot maximum speed. The fuel tank will contain 200 US gallons (750 liters) and the consumption is predicted at between 42 to 47 US gallons (160 to 180 liters) per hour. Those numbers are estimated to translate into four to five hours of endurance and 600 nautical miles (1,110 kilometers) of range.

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The SH09 is priced at US$3.3 million (at 2020 economic conditions) with “a good level of equipment.” A new avionics suite, to replace the current Integrated Cockpit Display System from Sagem, will be announced at Heli-Expo. Kopter will also unveil the name of its partner in pilot training at the show.

The company has now recorded 27 firm orders, a further 19 orders contingent on certification, and 120 letters of intent. Benjamin Diekmann Photo
The company has now recorded 27 firm orders, a further 19 orders contingent on certification, and 120 letters of intent. Benjamin Diekmann Photo

Loewenstein said Kopter has received 27 firm orders, 19 orders contingent on certification and 120 letters of intent. He said the geographic spread of the orders reflects the global single-engine fleet distribution — 45 percent in the U.S., for instance.

The SH09 is targeted at the replacement market of aging single types, like the Airbus Helicopters AS350/H125 AStar and H130 and the Leonardo AW119 Koala.

Chief customer officer Gras said Kopter intends to develop an IFR version for the emergency medical services (EMS) market in the U.S, where, thanks to its single engine, it will provide an option for operators facing increasing cost pressures.

The company also hopes the SH09’s speed, the visibility it offers, and its large cabin (Kopter says it is close to finding a way to squeeze eight passengers inside) will make it an attractive option for sightseeing operations. With SH09 sales in EMS, sightseeing and other markets such as law enforcement, Gras has a target of 600 orders from the U.S. from 2020 to 2030.

To meet Gras’ ambitious sales objectives, Loewenstein has plans for more than one final assembly line (FAL). In addition to the one being readied in Mollis (a 30-minute drive from the design office in Wetzikon), one will be built in the U.S. around 2022, and another one in Asia later. Hence the organization centered on a pre-assembly facility located near Mollis. It will feed the FALs with airframes, main rotor heads, gearboxes and rotor blades.

In Mollis, the production rate is planned at “less than 10” in 2019, “less than 20” in 2020, “at least 30” in 2021 and 50 (full capacity) in 2022, COO Nowacki says.

P2 on display during the company's rebranding in early February. In the background, CEO Andreas Loewenstein can be seen talking to board member Andre Borschberg. Thierry Dubois Photo
P2 on display during the company’s rebranding in early February. In the background, CEO Andreas Loewenstein can be seen talking to board member Andre Borschberg. Thierry Dubois Photo

In terms of future development, Loewenstein hinted Kopter might look into a hybrid-electric rotorcraft. A recent addition to the board of directors may help. Andre Borschberg headed the design of Solar Impulse 2, the fixed-wing aircraft that performed transoceanic flights on sun power.

Lynwood is now the only shareholder and, while Loewenstein believes it is here to stay, a capital increase is looming. Kopter is engaged in a capital-raising effort because “this is the right time — certification is approaching and the company is becoming more international,” he said. The company hopes to raise between US$150 and 200 million by year-end.

After a busy 12 months full of change, the next 12 promises to be just as interesting for the ambitious Swiss company.

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