The newcomer to the world of the helicopter does not want to lose a minute: even before the certification of its SH09 model, the swiss company announces the creation of an final assembly line in the United States. Kopter does not hide its ambition to be a leading player in the heart of the world’s largest helicopter market.
“We found the ideal site in the United States”. By this simple sentence, Andreas Loewenstein sums up the industrial adventure that begins with a lot of enthusiasm for the company he runs. The announcement of a final assembly line in Lafayette, Louisiana, was a highlight at the recent Heli Expo show in Atlanta, Georgia. While the certification program continues intensely with three prototypes (see box), the management team is already preparing the industrialization of the helicopter worldwide.
At the heart of the world’s largest market
Kopter expects an annual production of 200 aircraft over the next five years, 50 in Switzerland, 50 in Asia (as part of a partnership that remains to be finalized) and 100 in the United States.
The Mollis site in Switzerland will constitute the heart of the industrial scheme and will ensure the production of all dynamic assemblies and critical parts. The US site will be dedicated to the assembly, personalization and support of the helicopters. As a first step, Kopter does not plan to manufacture primary parts in Lafayette, but will install a logistics and maintenance center at the heart of what is today the world’s largest market for single-engine helicopters. Kopter also posts the goal of using more than 50% of US components inside its helicopter.
The opening of an industrial site in the United States is the logical continuation of the creation, in July 2018, of the American subsidiary, Kopter North America, headed by Christian Gras, also vice president of Kopter Group, in charge of sales , support and services.
“We studied 38 sites in the United States before choosing Lafayette,” explains Andreas Loewenstein. Negotiations with Louisiana Economic Development began in October 2018 and everything went very quickly. ” Note that an American delegation came to Mollis to evaluate the industrial capabilities of Kopter and judge the seriousness of its offer.
The Lafayette site is really adapted to Kopter’s activities simply because it had already been linked to the world of helicopters. Indeed, after a public investment of more than $ 26 million, it had been occupied by Bell in 2015. The US-Canadian helicopter manufacturer was to manufacture its future Bell 505, then known as Jetranger X. But even before the beginning of the production, the manufacturing had been transferred to Mirabel, Canada. Bell then discussed the possibility of assembling B525 fuselages and working on the MQ-8C drone, but these plans were also abandoned. The state of Louisiana was therefore left with empty facilities that it had largely helped to finance. The Kopter project was therefore an opportunity to consider a new win-win solution for both parties.
For Kopter, the Lafayette facility was an exceptional opportunity to seize. Indeed, the Swiss manufacturer finds a practically operational plant of 7870 square meters located on a regional airport. “Building or even developing a complete industrial site in a foreign country represents a significant investment, thousands of hours of management, not to mention the severe environmental requirements in the US,” says Andreas Loewenstein. “Lafayette’s facilities already meet our needs and the highest standards globally, which will save us a lot of time and energy.”
However, Kopter is planning major investments to expand or refurbish existing workshops, set up specific tools and install production and support services. Beyond the plant itself, Kopter also benefits from a favorable aviation environment around Lafayette. “This is a dynamic region that already hosts several key operators and many industry players,” says Kopter. “It’s also an important employment area that gives access to a qualified workforce”
Ironically, Andreas Loewenstein had in the past negotiated the installation of Eurocopter in Columbus (Mississippi). He was therefore in a good position to discuss with Louisiana people the tax benefits and training aids to be obtained from an industrial site in Lafayette. Eventually, the site will employ 120 people and the first recruitments will start in 2019. Some managers will go to Switzerland to get acquainted with the SH09 and with the industrial Kopter organization. Conversely, a team of Swiss managers will supervise Lafayette plant start-up. Kopter Group currently employs a little over 300 people and plans to hire a hundred more this year to prepare for the industrialization of the SH09.
Last countdown to certification
The PT1, first prototype of the SH09 flew on October 2, 2014. Then, the PT2 flew on February 26, 2016 and the PT3 on November 22, 2018. This third prototype is now in Sicily where it benefits from more favorable weather conditions than in Switzerland. The aircraft is participating in a flight test campaign to clear the flight envelope and test the FADEC of the Honeywell HTS900 turbine to an altitude of 5000 ft and a speed of over 120 kt.
These three prototypes will be joined by the two pre-production helicopters, the PS4 and PS5, which are close to the final standard configuration. The PS4 will remain in Europe to continue the certification tests. The PS5 will be sent to the United States to undergo cold weather and hot weather tests. According to Kopter, the EASA certification of the SH09 is expected in 2020 and the first deliveries will immediately follow. The company announces it has registered more than 60 firm orders and a hundred letters of intent.