Kopter SH09
Kopter SH09

Kopter SH09

When you’re young and full of yourself, you might be inclined to think that you can do better than the folks who came before you. Those in a position to test that belief often learn otherwise, however.

We’ve seen numerous examples of this phenomenon over the years in aviation, perhaps most famously with billionaire aviator Howard Hughes. Some of these dreamers generate flashes of brilliance along the way; but in the end, the cash generally evaporates; and the aircraft—like Hughes’s fabled XF-11 spy plane and mammoth Hercules “Spruce Goose” amphibious transport—either never go into production or prove so unprofitable that the enterprise folds.

Twenty-five years ago, I worked with an aircraft manufacturer controlled by one of Europe’s leading industrialists, a private pilot convinced that he could build better light airplanes than established manufacturers. He would no sooner finish one design than he would be on to the next, before the previous effort was ever fully refined, and he gave short shrift to customer support for the few aircraft he managed to sell. Needless to say, the story ended right where they tell you it will in business school—with an insolvency filing. 

A similar finish seemed possible for a young Swiss national named Martin Stucki, a neophyte in rotorcraft design and manufacturing, who came up with an idea for how to build a better helicopter. It centered on a simple value proposition: offer the public a single-engine ship with a cabin as big as or even larger than those of some light twins on the market, build it from lightweight composites, fill it with the latest technology, and sell it for less—around $3 million. As they say in the old beer commercials, “tastes great, less filling.” 

Stucki, who initiated work on the design in 2002 and unveiled a prototype in 2011, made a variety of pronouncements about the helicopter’s development schedule—chiefly that deliveries would begin in 2015, which turned out to be wildly overoptimistic. When the first prototype took to the sky years late in 2014, major problems with the design became evident. The helicopter suffered from vibrations so severe that its maximum forward speed was limited to a crawl, as opposed to the promised 140 knots, a shortcoming that required redesign of the main rotorhead.

From a marketing standpoint, the helicopter’s name presented even bigger problems. Stucki branded it the “Marenco Swisscopter SKYe SH09,” a slew of words, letters, and numbers that only an aficionado of European Commission bureaucracy could appreciate. One can imagine advertising copywriters scratching their heads before uncorking taglines like, “The sleek single with the improbably long name you can’t remember.”

The redesign delayed first flight of a second prototype until 2016 and burned through unplanned millions in development capital. By early 2017, the manufacturer had spent upwards of $250 million and more than 250 employees were on the payroll. Stucki and Marenco needed an angel investor to keep the program alive. 

They found one: Russian oligarch, political fixer, and “friend of Vlad” (Russian President Putin) Alexander Mamut, whose $2 billion–plus empire includes precious metals and mining. Mamut—who has had stakes over the years in internet media projects, banks, movie theaters, a fertilizer producer, and a mobile-phone chain, put a reported $270 million into Marenco through his Cyprus-based holding company Lynwood. That was enough to make him the largest individual shareholder—and it led to Stucki’s ouster at the end of 2016.

Mamut’s team moved quickly to rename the company Kopter Group, attract additional investment capital, and bring in an experienced helicopter company management team. It includes Eurocopter alumni Andreas Lowenstein as CEO and senior sales executive Larry Roberts, as well as technology vice president Michele Riccobono, who joined from Italian helicopter maker Leonardo.

Kopter SH09
Kopter SH09

The new team appears to be moving quickly to right the program: a third prototype took to the skies last November and appears to be performing well; and at press time, a fourth aircraft was due to join the test program shortly. Meanwhile, the company is attracting serious orders, and Roberts tells me that plans to build a U.S. assembly plant and establish a training facility are in full swing. Kopter now expects to gain European certification for the SH09 sometime in 2019 and American FAA approval shortly thereafter. The company anticipates having 500 employees by 2021 and an annual production rate of 50 by 2022. Through 2018, Kopter has attracted more than 120 customer letters of intent, and Lowenstein insists that the first two to three years of production are already sold out. 

Exploiting the helicopter’s speed and comparatively large cabin size (flat-floor seating for seven passengers and one pilot), Kopter hopes to make serious inroads into the executive transport and emergency medical services markets typically served by light and medium twins. Passengers, patients, and cargo can be loaded through two ample side fuselage sliding doors or two enormous rear clamshell doors. The SH09 also features a five-blade main rotor that promises to deliver reduced vibration at high speeds, a ducted tailrotor that will lessen its external noise signature, and a full suite of modern digital avionics. The Honeywell HTS900-2 turboshaft engine (1,020 shaft horsepower) offers the promise of excellent high/hot performance, will be fitted with full authority digital engine controls (FADEC), and requires less maintenance than comparable engines. 

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Over the last year, the prospects for Kopter’s success have brightened considerably. If the company succeeds in delivering on its promises, the SH09 will be a game-changer in a market sector that has essentially been stagnant for more than 15 years. 

2019 Kopter SH09 at a Glance

Estimated price:                      $3.5 million 

Crew:                                     1–2 

Passengers:                            5–7 

Engine:                                   Honeywell HTS900-2, 1020 shaft horsepower 

Avionics:                               Safran/Sagem all-glass cockpit 

Maximum cruise speed:          140 knots 

Range (with standard tanks): 430 nautical miles

Maximum takeoff weight:      5,842 lb 

Fuel capacity:                         198 gal

Main rotor diameter:               36.1 ft 

Source: Kopter Group