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Swiss manufacturer Kopter has revealed it will begin flight testing the third prototype (P3) of its SH09 light single aircraft in “a couple of weeks,” with a target certification by the end of 2019 still in sight.
In a wide-ranging media briefing ahead of Helitech International 2018 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, Kopter CEO Andreas Loewenstein and CTO Michele Riccobono confirmed the aircraft will complete about two weeks’ worth of flights at its test and production facility in Mollis, Switzerland. The flight test campaign will then move to Sicily during the Swiss winter.
Both P3 and the fourth prototype/pre-serial aircraft (PS4) will be used to complete the type’s certification flights. PS4 will be “fully representative” of the production aircraft, said Riccobono, incorporating the Garmin G3000H avionics it announced it was switching to in May 2018.
Another difference between P3 and PS4 is the type of carbon fiber used in the construction of the airframe, with the type used in PS4 providing enhanced durability.
Having solved an issue with a main gearbox component that had delayed the type’s development by about six months, Kopter is currently completing an extensive ground testing campaign with P3.
“We have already around 20 final hours where we tested all the different systems — including pulling some power to test the flight controls, hydraulics, blades, [and] assessing all the loads,” said Riccobono.
While it completes P3’s ground tests, Kopter is also working with the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to clear the way for the aircraft to begin flight tests.
PS4 was originally due to join the flight test campaign by the end of 2018, but with the delays in preparing P3 for flight, it is now scheduled to do so by the end of the second quarter of 2019. This is to enable the manufacturer to gather data from P3’s early flight tests before it freezes PS4’s design, said Riccobono.
“We have a couple of points [on which] I need some answers from P3,” he said. “Some systems may need some tweaking, and then before certification we [will] put the same systems on the two aircraft so that they will run in parallel.
Making moves at Helitech
Kopter now has 65 orders and about 100 letters of intent for the SH09, which is pitched as providing the cost benefit of a single-engine aircraft with a cabin the size of a light twin-engine aircraft — enabling it to accommodate up to seven passengers. It also incorporates some of the most modern technologies and materials available.
The manufacturer brought the aircraft to Helitech in the form of its first prototype, which was presented in the livery of new customer Systematic Aviation Services (SAS), based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Kopter has secured a number of bookings in Asia, but the newly-announced deal marks a debut for the aircraft in Malaysia.
“[It’s] an important order because the Malaysian market is quite dynamic market, and they are one of the dynamic actors in this market,” said Loewenstein. “So, we consider that this is a good first step into this market.”
Kopter believes orders from customers in Asia — excluding China — will account for about a quarter of its total sales, with tourism and passenger transport flights in the region likely to grow substantially. This belief doesn’t appear misplaced, given that the region already represents a quarter of the SH09’s order book.
Loewenstein said he was happy with the overall balance of the book, which he said represents “exactly the distribution of the global [civil helicopter] fleet.” That balance is also reflected in the spread of orders per operating sector for light singles — across tourism, utility, law enforcement and emergency medical services (EMS). Mock-ups of the aircraft in EMS and law enforcement configurations were brought to the Heli-Expo and APSCON tradeshows, respectively, earlier this year in partnership with Shreveport, Louisiana-based Metro Aviation.
“[The order book] shows, to me at least, that this aircraft is really suitable for all the mission types we are targeting,” said Loewenstein. “So, it’s a true multi-mission aircraft which is fulfilling the requirements in all the areas where we targeted.”
Helitech also saw Kopter record a bumper order from Swiss Helikopter Norway AS for four SH09s. The newly-formed company, a spinoff from Helitrans with the same shareholders, was named Kopter’s Nordic distributor (covering Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Greenland), and its founders said they expect the aircraft will mostly fill a need in sling load operations. The aircraft are scheduled for delivery in 2021-22.
The company is Kopter’s eighth distributor in a fast-growing network that the manufacturer hopes to ultimately expand to “double digits,” said Loewenstein. The network already spans Australia and New Zealand, Japan, Central America, South Africa, Eastern Europe and Northern Europe. “Our sales philosophy is that we will rely heavily on distributors for single orders,” he said. “We will cover, ourselves, major fleet customers, and we will have [the ability] to cover military or paramilitary business ourselves.”
In parallel to the expansion of its distributor network, Kopter is busily developing its product support program, which involves the establishment of a core team at the manufacturer’s headquarters as well as the deployment of service centers around the globe. Many of the distributors are likely to also serve as service centers.
As part of its efforts to build its support program, Kopter is building what it says is an “extensive” training services offering together with “recognized, international” partners. Loewenstein ruled out using a simulator for training at the beginning of the program, but promised “innovative approaches” that would be revealed next year.
A gradual production ramp up
The orders Kopter has received to date almost cover the first three years of production, with the manufacturer planning to “gear up quite slowly” when it begins deliveries of the SH09 — scheduled for “just after” certification is secured in the first quarter of 2020.
Four aircraft will be produced in the first year, 18 in the second, and 44 in the third. Beyond that, it aims to reach “triple digit” numbers at its production line each year, said Loewenstein. “The cruising speed would be somewhere between 170 and 220,” he added, saying the likely limiting factor for deliveries would be Kopter’s capacity to produce more, rather than a lack of demand.
The building for the final assembly line in Mollis has been completed, and Kopter is now in the planning and authorization process for its final pre-assembly and manufacturing building; Loewenstein said there is a “high probability” this will also be in Mollis.
The manufacturer had previously announced the creation of a U.S. subsidiary, Kopter North America, which will focus on boosting the aircraft’s presence in that key market. North America is expected to provide close to 50 percent of the aircraft’s sales.
The subsidiary will also have a final assembly line, with the site to be selected within the next six months. A third final assembly line is planned for Asia. Production of all dynamic components will remain in Switzerland, said Loewenstein.
In the meantime, the company has been busily growing in size to accommodate the change from prototype designer to airframe manufacturer. It now has almost 300 staff, many of whom have joined the company having gained vast experience across the helicopter industry.
“We’ve united quite an interesting team, and all these ladies and guys [are] bringing innovative ideas,” he said.
Kopter’s production facilities will be kept lean, with an estimated 250 to 300 staff to be added in Switzerland over the next three years as manufacturing ramps up.
“This is a great window of opportunity for this product at the moment, and I think this is very motivating for the team,” said Loewenstein.
Loewenstein hopes to utilize the expertise of Kopter’s growing team as the manufacturer begins to plan beyond the SH09, with a previously stated aim of becoming one of the top three civil helicopter manufacturers.
“When you have one helicopter and you have established a great team of people who have done it, it would be a pity not to use this knowledge and to use this dynamic in order to get one step further,” said Loewenstein. “You cannot stay a little niche player in the corner. . . . If you want to be sustainable, then you have to have more than one product at this scale.”