Enstrom ‘Is Back’ After Financial Rescue

Enstrom 480B helicopter
Enstrom 480B helicopter
Credit: Colin Underhill / Alamy Stock Photo

ATLANTA—Bolstered by new ownership and fresh investment, Enstrom Helicopter Corp. has resumed production of its turbine and piston rotorcraft and is studying larger products, upgrades and alternative propulsion concepts.

Rescued from bankruptcy by an investment group led by new owner Chuck Surack, the first new-build 480B helicopter made since production restarted was on display at the Helicopter Association International Heli-Expo convention here. “This came off the line a few weeks ago, but there were several in line right behind it. So Enstrom is back and back in a big way,” Surack says.

The Michigan-based manufacturer was acquired by Chinese firm Chongqing General Aviation Industry Group (CGAG) in 2012, but after declaring Chapter 7 bankruptcy announced it was closing in January 2022 after 64 years in business. The company’s final delivery of a pair of 280FX helicopters for the Peruvian Air Force was completed in December 2021. Production of spares and technical support also ceased in January last year. 

Although a rescue package was announced in February 2022 by Texas-based MidTex Aviation, the death of the main investor prompted the group to contact Surack, an online music entrepreneur and helicopter pilot, to secure the deal. “Somebody came to me in the spring and said there might be an opportunity,” Surack says. “I checked into it, and I was so impressed by all the people in Menominee, Michigan, who had made these helicopters that I stepped up and said, ‘Yes, I want to save the company.’”

Todd Tetzlaff, new president and CEO of Enstrom, says progress to recover the company has been swift. “It’s unbelievable,” Tetzlaff says. “Ten months ago, the doors were closed, the lights were out and there were no employees. Now, we have 125 employees. We have a robust production line, and we’ve got inventory being built. All of our shops are busy and we have a very capable manufacturing facility.”

More 480Bs are in production now with plans to resume assembly of the 280FX and F28 piston helicopters next year, Tetzlaff says. “I have seen it as high as 36 helicopters or more per year, but we are ramping up in a measured manner right now, so that is not the production we’re anticipating or even our goal this year.” Production is expected to grow to two helicopters per month by midyear and three per month by year’s end, the company says.

Meanwhile, upgrade work is focused on completing tests and certification of updated interiors, avionics and crash-resistant fuel tanks—the latter of which is now mandated for new rotorcraft production. Tests of the improvements will be conducted using the recently produced 480B.

Further off, Enstrom plans to resume studies of newer, larger and faster helicopters—possibly powered by electric or hybrid-electric propulsion systems. “These types of helicopters will not be here for sale in 10 years. We are looking for the next step,” Surack says. “We have the aerospace expertise in house, and we’re certainly looking for more to take us to the next level.” 

Guy Norris

Guy is a Senior Editor for Aviation Week, covering technology and propulsion. He is based in Colorado Springs.