Enstrom Helicopter Corporation has a rich history of creativity – from the founder’s basement emerged a global enterprise. From there, design innovation led it to become a world leader in the light helicopter aircraft market, reports Dan Harvey.
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For most people, a basement-built helicopter means glued-together pieces from a small-scale model hobby kit. But for Rudolph J. “Rudy” Enstrom, it meant the real thing: a full-fledged aircraft. True, what he designed in his basement in the early 1940s was of a rather crude, schematic design – and his resulting crafts weren’t tested until the late 1950s – but Enstrom’s passion led to the creation of one of the world’s leading light helicopter producers: Enstrom Helicopter Corporation.
His accomplishment is considerable when you realize that Mr. Enstrom was an iron mine mechanic with little knowledge of helicopter design, and he even started with wooden helicopter blades.
“What drove him to succeed was his desire to fly,” says Jerry Mullins, the company’s current president of chief executive officer. That desire led to his patenting of three designs to form the basis of what became the safest, most reliable and very affordable crafts in the company’s markets.
While based in Menominee, Mich., Enstrom Helicopters is a global organization, with models (both piston and turbine) sold on six continents. The company serves a variety of customers, meeting specifications for law enforcement, emergency medical, and military operations. It also serves the private market – that is, customers who purchase the company’s models for private use. Along with its superior product, the company provides training, support and maintenance.
SUCCESSFUL TEST FLIGHT
From the basement, Rudy Enstrom’s designs went into testing in 1957. “Businessmen were invited to witness the first vehicle flight,” relates Mullins.
Initial test of his homebuilt helicopters took place in a Michigan quarry in Crystal Falls, and the businessmen came from the state’s Upper Peninsula region. The purpose of the invitation was to secure financial backing. Mr. Enstrom didn’t have a lot of money, just a headful of ideas, indicates Mullins. As such, Enstrom sought investors. Fortunately, the witnesses were impressed with what they saw, and that launched an ongoing flight. According to the company, the assembled group recruited experienced aeronautical engineers and, in 1959, incorporated the precursor (the R.J. Enstrom Company).
In 1960, Enstrom demonstrated a N195D, a two-bladed experimental helicopter called the F-27. From there, the company was taken over several times. In today’s business parlance, we would call this a “start up” taken over by investors. By 1965, the emerging company introduced its first product: a piston-powered F-28 model. By this time, the visionary founder was no longer involved, but the company appropriately continued to use his name in its marquee.
What followed was a complex narrative that included different principals and famous personages – such as lawyer F. Lee Bailey.
In 1968, the company’s controlling interest was purchased by Purex Industries, a business development that eventually led to creation of a turbine-powered product version. Meanwhile, Bailey purchased the Purex share. Not only a celebrated lawyer, Bailey was an entrepreneur with an avid interest in aviation, and he helped develop and certify new models. He helped increase production and also coordinated development and certification of a 1974 introduction, the sleek 280 Shark model. This further led to development of a 280L Hawk model. But Bailey became frustrated with technical and economic problems – he witnessed a depletion of company reserves – so he sold the company in 1979. Subsequently, ownership changed hands several times. One owner was Dean Kamen (who later gained fame by developing the Segway technology). Striving to improve product, Kamen helped introduce the turbine-powered 480 model, initially developed to address financial and technologic issues related to military helicopter training. November 1993 saw the introduction of the 480 series of Enstrom turbine helicopters – a craft that became the best value-for-the-money aircraft in the light turbine class.
This was an important step forward. “The turbine craft has become one of our biggest sellers,” reveals Mullins. “One of the reasons that recent sales have exploded is that customers use turbines for military training, which is becoming a robust market.”
By 2000, the company was sold to a Swiss investor. Business started a steep ascension in 2003. “That was the year of our first really big sell,” recalls Mullins. Enstrom delivered 18 of its 480B models to the Indonesian National Police. Subsequently, Enstrom sold the first of 30 of its 480 models to the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force for pilot training (in 2010). In 2011, Enstrom sold 16 of its 480B helicopters to the Royal Thai Army, also to be used for pilot training.
As these sales demonstrate, Enstrom is a global operation. “We are now in more than 50 countries,” says Mullins. Looking at the future, he adds: “Asia should be our prime market for the foreseeable future. China, for example, possesses less than 10 percent of the number of helicopters owned by the United States. They want to increase that number. As China now has money, it wants to make more helicopter purchases.”
Just this year, the company sold 12 units in that nation, to different customers. “On the commercial side, the biggest demand appears to come from China,” observes Mullins.
But Enstrom is more than just about serving the commercial sector. “For military training, we expect more business from other countries,” says Mullins. “When Japan purchased our 480B for their training, that proved pretty important. Japan is very particular about their needs, and the fact that they chose Enstrom said a lot to the rest of the world.”
As far as markets, Enstrom is versatile.
First, look at the police/first response sector. For law enforcement, the Enstrom helicopter multiplies force power and capability. Consider the situations where its technology provides advantages: high-speed chase, crowd control, search for fugitives that elude ground control, border control, and general surveillance. An Enstrom helicopter can cover hundreds of square miles that would be too costly for ground units to search.
All of this it provides with its turbine-powered 480B and piston-powered F28F and 280FX models. The crafts provide the necessary power, speed and durability. Wide-cabin and comfortable seats allow officers to remain focused on the immediate task. The vehicles accommodate transport of special equipment. At the same time, the crafts provide great visibility, endurance and ease of use. Also, when you take in numerous factors – such as low acquisition and operation costs, and available municipal lease programs – the helicopters are budget friendly.
In the military/government sector, Enstrom’s crafts provide perfect training vehicles for armies throughout the world. Indeed, the turbine-powered 480B was originally developed with an eye to the demanding specifications of the US Army. The piston-powered F28F and 280FX offer a superbly cost-effective military training helicopter solution. Further, when not used for training, the helicopters can be quickly repurposed for SAR, transport, cargo and other uses.
Other markets take in:
- Commercial/Agricultural/Civil – In the corporate, transportation, agriculture or tour operation business, pilots fly one of the most versatile, cost effective aircraft.
- Private – With crisp handling and its well-styled and roomy interior, Enstrom helicopters remind a user of a sports car. In fact, that is Bailey’s legacy to the company. “When he owned the company, he sought a sportier looking helicopter, so he streamlined the piston,” says Mullins. “Remember, the first crafts looked like utility helicopters. So Bailey sought to streamline. You’re essentially getting the same helicopter – as far as technological advances – but Bailey was looking to make the product the sports car of the helicopter world. Mr. Enstrom’s initial design was considerably changed. You’re talking about moving away from two blades, and into a new rotor system – into a three-blade, fully articulated rotor system.”
CURRENT PRODUCT LINE
Today, the Enstrom product line includes unique configurations. The three-seat, piston-powered F28F and 280FX are popular training, sport, and light commercial aircraft. The larger turbinepowered 480B is available as a three-place advanced trainer and patrol aircraft, or as a three-to-five place executive transport.
The current line includes:
- The Turbine 480B – This flagship aircraft was developed to US Army New Training Helicopter (NTH) requirements. Combining power and weight with light agility at the controls, the aircraft can outmaneuver and outperform in any situation. Features include an energy absorbing landing gear, a comfortable five-seat cabin configuration, custom paint designs, a powerful Rolls Royce 250 C20w turbine engine, 240-degree pilot visibility, the high-inertia rotor system that greatly benefits auto rotation capability, an unblocked tail rotor that provides excellent control in high winds from any angle, and low maintenance – as well as high skids that allow for police, agricultural spray and military equipment.
- The Piston F-28F and 280FX models – The piston-powered “Falcon” F-28F and “Shark” 280FX are named for their sleek aerodynamic styling. Overall performance is powerful, aggressive and provides superior handling agility. The turbo-charged power plant provides excellent high altitude performance. Stability and safety are delivered through a high inertia, fully articulated rotor system. The unblocked tail rotor provides exceptional yaw control in the windiest conditions. That’s not to mention the spacious cabin (which can comfortably accommodate two or three occupants) with NASA-styled seating. Further, these models offer the advantages available in the 480B, such as the high degree of visibility.
Just as much as it is focused on innovation, the company is as strongly attentive to safety. Indeed, safety is one of the company’s main differentiators. Enstrom has the reputation of building the safest crafts in operation. Statistics demonstrate its success. This company can boast:
- More than 4,000,000 flight hours on the main rotor system without catastrophic failure;
- Fail-safe, belt-driven transmission on more than 1,100 aircraft;
- Its energy absorbing landing gear;
- A high-inertia rotor system that benefits auto rotation response time; and
- An unblocked tail rotor that provides excellent control in high winds from any angle.
As the company reports, compared with other single-engine helicopters – utilizing NTSB accident data from 1996-2010 – Enstrom’s piston and turbine models ranked as the safest when scored for fewest fatal accidents per 100 registered aircraft in 2010.
“We ingrain safety into all of our helicopter design. Elements are unique to our company,” says Mullins.
As the company describes, its aircraft are the safest option for safe landings, auto rotations in the event of an emergency (e.g., engine failure), and the best performance in windy conditions. Specific safety features include:
- The smallest area of flight avoidance (“Dead Man’s Curve”) and, in turn, the largest area to conduct safe operations;
- Higher intertial rotor system obtained by heavier, stronger rotor systems and blades, making the Enstrom craft the best auto rotating helicopter in its class. Since auto rotation is a key part of training and a necessity in case of an emergency, it plays a major role in lowering accidents and saving lives;
- Unmatched flight stability by any light helicopter; and
- Tail rotor design, which means this rotor is unblocked by the tail of the helicopter, thus allowing maximum tail rotor authority/effectiveness.
Safety focus doesn’t stop with design. “I also send out accident reports to owners, and these reports itemize incidents,” reveals Mullins. “This helps users avoid the type of accidents described. This is important, as nearly 70 percent of accidents result from pilot error. So, communication is also very important to safety.”
The company is proud to be a “Made in USA” enterprise. It is located at the Menominee-Marinette Twin County Airport in Michigan. “There, we do all of the work, as far as fabrication and main assembly in 80,000 square feet,” describes Mullins. “We also have an experimental building, where the engineering development happens. In other buildings, we house our paint and repair stations. In addition, we have a training center for pilots and mechanics.”
The production facility has sheet metal capability. “We have been doing very well in the past year, so we’ve been able to invest in CNC routers for sheet metal and several CNC machines,” says Mullins. “Investment has also helped us increase our paint shop efficiency. We now have three booths.”
Welding is another strong capability. “We weld the main pylon where the engine is fitted,” continues Mullins. “We also have a large machine shop. Its size allows us to do about 90 percent of our machining in house.”
But that’s not all.
“In our blade shop, we make our own rotor blades,” reveals Mullins. “We also have a fiberglass shop for cabin structure and an avionics shops for the interior wiring. Our sub-assembly area, as its name implies, sub assembles the components that go into the helicopter.”
As far as the location, he says, “the Twin Country Airport is very low-use, and it includes a 6,000-foot runway. We love the place. Because it’s low use, we feel like it’s our own.”
Currently, the company has 150 employees. The roster increased by 50 percent in the last 12 to 14 months, which underscores the growth of this robust company.
“We are a small company but with a huge impact. It has been difficult to compete with companies that have had military funding or government contracts. But we are doing fine. We had our best-ever year in 2011, and we are expecting another great year,” says Mullins.
“Meanwhile, we look at the training market, and we feel that there will be a high demand in Asia for the training helicopters. So we are reassessing our models, to see if we can do anything more to make them more competitive in that market. After all, the Vietnam-era helicopter pilots are reaching retirement age. Also, with the growing Asian markets, customers aren’t going to have the pilots they need. They’re already short, and with China starting to purchase more helicopters, we are looking at how that issue will impact us.”