When Marenco Swisshelicopter unveiled the mock-up of its radical-looking, single-engined light helicopter at Heli-Expo in 2011, critics were quick to pass judgment.
They questioned the business model and the ability to keep costs low while building the aircraft in a country considered to be the most expensive in Europe.
But now, almost three years later, the company is ready to answer its detractors. On Nov. 28, the company unveiled the first prototype Skye SH09 helicopter at the company's facility in Mollis, southeast of Zurich. Marenco will soon announce that its order book has swollen to 48 aircraft, a backlog large enough to push production into its third year.
The company believes several of these customers could top-up their orders once they have seen how the aircraft performs.
Marenco and its investors say they have spent just €50 million ($68 million) on the aircraft's development so far, a drop in the ocean compared to development programs byor . The company is highly confident it will quickly find a niche, taking a lesson from the Anglo-Italian manufacturer's AW139 and AW169 products.
“AgustaWestland has learned that you do not need to preserve old product lines,” says Mathias Senes, chief commercial officer at Marenco Swisshelicopter and a former Eurocopter sales executive. “Their AW169 will sell well because it's a new model in a market competing with an old design but is also biting on the product in the level above as well. This is how we see the Skye SH09, for us. The competition was designed in the 1970s, and the industry is ready for a newcomer.”
Senes sees the aircraft competing against Eurocopter's AS350 Ecureuil, the Bell 407 and in the future, AgustaWestland's new 2.5-metric-ton helicopter developed in partnership withand potentially “biting” into the light-twin market as well.
Despite having suffered from supply setbacks during late 2012 and 2013, the company is now focusing its attention on the next major milestones. Marenco just finished work on a whirl tower at a RUAG-owned facility at Ennetmoos, near thefactory at Stans and will begin dynamic component testing shortly. Once complete, the engineers plan to begin ground testing the first prototype as early as January with a first flight later in the month. Work has also begun on the assembly of the second prototype. A third is planned to build the hours for certification flying as well as testing of optional equipment.
“We know we face a challenge,” Senes said. “This will be the first aircraft in this category thathas certified that is not produced by one of the big OEMs.” The told Marenco it will be able to start the certification process for the Skye SH09 in March.
Key tenets of the project have been to ensure the aircraft delivers a multi-mission capability with good visibility for the crew and strong performance even in hot-and-high conditions. The company also has studied how to improve the residual value of the aircraft, a consideration which Senes believes has been overlooked by other manufacturers in the light-single market. He points to new models of aircraft acquisition through leasing companies such as Milestone, Waypoint and LCI, where the residual value is a key factor in the decision process. Design features reflecting this include a cargo hook dampener that reduces the loads on the airframe structure.
Each aircraft will be fitted with a usage monitoring system (UMS), and the company is working on creating a support network. It has already established Australia-based Heliflite Pacific as its dealer for the Oceania region and is actively looking for other partners. It also is studying power-by-the-hour concepts for MRO, recognizing that services and support are now a critical part of the income for any helicopter OEM.
Development has been supported by many small and medium-sized local companies, and Marenco says that once theHTS900 turbine is taken out, 80% of the aircraft is Swiss.
“We have found the local suppliers to be more agile and reactive to small or unique orders for our requirements,” says Senes. “In Switzerland we can still compete on costs. The salaries are higher than France, but we are taxed less so it balances out. And as a small company, we have a more flexible working environment.”
Marenco has an ambitious schedule to keep with the aim of achieving certification for the Skye SH09 in 2015, building 10 that year, doubling output in 2016, and building between 80 and 100 helicopters a year by 2020.