Swiss manufacturer Kopter may not be exhibiting at this year’s edition of the Air Medical Transport Conference, running Nov. 4 to 6 in Atlanta, Georgia, but it believes its upcoming light single SH09 has the potential to change the helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) sector in the U.S.
The company has been working with a customer advisory committee focusing on the U.S. HEMS market, with representatives from about 10 different operators that fly a combined total of around 40 aircraft.
“We’re working with them, trying to get their expectations, understand what their needs are, and we’re trying to funnel all that information back to our engineering folks to do as much as they can to integrate those needs into the aircraft for certification,” said Larry Roberts, the company’s senior vice president, U.S. business development.
Kopter pitches the SH09 as providing the cabin size of a twin-engine aircraft, but with the acquisition and operating costs of a single-engine helicopter. And Roberts said it was the aircraft’s cabin size that proves particularly appealing to the EMS market.
“We have unobstructed patient access due to the big cabin, and that’s tremendous for the flight crews because the number one goal for them is to treat the patient, so full patient access is very important,” he said.
Additionally, he said the enclosed tail rotor provides a safety benefit for working in unprepared landing sites, and the ease of access provided by the large clamshell doors at the rear of the aircraft were also appealing aspects for EMS workers.
“Putting all these things together, we have a lot of folks that are looking at the aircraft, and they are very interested,” he said. The next step, he said, was to give people the opportunity to fly the aircraft.
“I think that when that starts to happen, you’ll see what I will consider a shift in the EMS market to the SH09,” said Roberts. “And if you ask us what we see in the U.S. in the next 10 years, we see very easily in the number of around 200 [SH09] aircraft [delivered to the EMS sector].”
Earlier this year, Kopter signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Metro Aviation, one of the largest EMS operators in the U.S., for five SH09s, and Roberts revealed that the company has also signed an agreement with another EMS operator for 15 of the type.
So far, the manufacturer has signed MOUs for a total of 32 SH09s for operators across all sectors in the U.S., with options for a further 10.
As part of the company’s commitment to the region, in March this year it announced it would be basing its U.S. subsidiary, Kopter North America, in Lafayette, Louisiana. The 84,000-square-foot facility, located at Lafayette Regional Airport, will house a final assembly and customization line for the SH09, as well as be the base for customer support in the region.
The facility’s previous tenants, Bell, had originally planned to use the facility to produce its 505 Jet Ranger X, but ultimately ended up using it for cabin assembly of the 525. According to Roberts, Kopter has held meetings with the same engineering firm that designed the original facility, and they have provided plans for modifying it to make it “SH09 friendly.”
However, the company is still months away from beginning operations in Lafayette, with the facility likely to see activity in the second half of 2020, and the first fully U.S.-assembled SH09 scheduled for delivery from Lafayette in 2021.
“We made no secret when we announced the rental of the facility that there won’t really be a start of operations before next year,” said Roberts. “We need the program to move forward a bit in Switzerland before we actually start our operations in Lafayette.”
Recruitment of staff to work in the facility will begin in 2020, with 120 staff ultimately expected to work there by 2025, when production should reach around 100 SH09s per year.
In terms of the program’s overall development, Kopter is still aiming for certification from the European Aviation Safety Agency at the end of 2020, with Federal Aviation Administration approval set to follow a few months afterwards, in 2021.
The third SH09 prototype (P3) began flying with a new main gearbox casing in September, which has allowed the gearbox to run more smoothly. “By modifying the gearbox, it took us some time, but now we have a gearbox that we plan on offering the market with an overhaul time of 5,400 hours,” said Roberts.
With the new gearbox casing in place, the manufacturer is now able to further extend the type’s flight envelope. “We’re testing some different aerodynamic modifications that are proving to be quite efficient,” said Roberts.
The aircraft has already reached 11,000 feet and 135 knots, and will continue to build hours with intense flight testing over the winter in Sicily.
Kopter will soon finalize the design of pre-serial aircraft four (PS4), with the aircraft set to join the flight test program for certification flights in mid-2020.
“I think the important thing for our customers to know is there’s genuine progress on the aircraft,” said Roberts. “There are things you have to go back and redo in the development and certification process, but we’re making pretty significant gains and we’re doing that in an environment that really pushes us on the edge of certification. There are good things happening and we are very confident that when the aircraft is certified and it comes out to the industry, it’ll have a certain level of maturity to meet the market.”