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Bringing Enstrom Helicopter back

By Oliver Johnson

Published on: November 7, 2023
Estimated reading time 31 minutes, 34 seconds.

It's been a rollercoaster last couple of years for Enstrom Helicopter, but with much needed investment and positivity from new owner Chuck Surack, it is set for a bright future. Vertical visited the manufacturer in Menominee, Michigan, to find out what it has planned.

Walking through the Enstrom Helicopter headquarters in Menominee, Michigan, it’s hard to escape the sense of history about the place. It’s built on the same site as the original Enstrom hangar in 1960, in which the company developed its first production helicopter, the F-28. Many elements of that legacy remain — some more obvious than others.

In a hallway near the training rooms, a laminated wood main rotor blade from one of company founder Rudy Enstrom’s first attempts at building a helicopter is proudly on display. The original hangar door to the factory is still in place, too. It’s now at the top end of the production line, about halfway across the building.

Enstrom Helicopter declared bankruptcy in January 2022, but led by new owner Chuck Surack (bottom, center), it has restarted its production line and is set for a bright future. Brent Bundy Photo

“Every Enstrom helicopter ever made has gone through these doors,” Dennis Martin, the company’s VP of sales and marketing, told Vertical during a recent tour of the facility. “Even now, with the factory like this, they still go through these doors at some point. I think that connection to history is good for us.”

There are many fascinating personalities among the helicopter industry’s pioneers, and Rudy Enstrom was certainly one of them. He had no background in aviation and was a mining engineer by trade, but became fascinated by the new technology of rotorcraft in the 1940s. He then decided to build his own helicopter — despite having only seen them in the grainy black and white photos of the time. Remarkably, though, he did just that – in a garage near his father’s home.

Over the subsequent decades, Enstrom Helicopter has built more than 1,300 aircraft, and over 760 are still flying today. In its 1970s heyday, more than 100 aircraft a year were rolling off its production line.

Helicopter Association International president and CEO Jim Viola (right) visited the company shortly after Chuck Surack bought it in 2022. Brent Bundy Photo

The company’s capabilities are extensive, allowing it to produce over 90 percent of each aircraft in-house. From sheet metal work, to composites, landing gear, tail cones, blades and paint, it’s all made within the facility in Menominee. Enstrom even creates the glass used in its aircraft windscreens.

“First of all, we want to employ people here [rather than outsource the work],” said Martin. “Second, it really helps us control our costs. But probably the biggest thing is it really helps us control our inventory — particularly on the product support side.”

Today, the company produces the three-seat piston 280FX and five-seat turbine 480B. While Enstroms have seen some success in law enforcement and certain utility operations — such as powerline patrols and survey work — the primary markets for the types are private owners and flight training.

Rudy Enstrom, the company’s founder, stands next to his home-built helicopter in February 1959. Traverse Family Collection Photo

“Both the 280 and 480 are really easy helicopters to own, because hardly anything in the aircraft is life limited,” said Martin. “It doesn’t cost you money sitting in a hangar. And it’s easy to fly — people can fly it once a week and feel comfortable in it.”

About 20 years ago, Enstrom switched its focus to military training fleets, winning major orders from Japan (30 aircraft), Thailand (22) and Pakistan (19).

“All the things that you want as a private owner, these militaries want, too,” said Martin. “You don’t have a lot of calendar-life parts, so it’s easy for them to budget around. It’s super safe. It’s super robust.”

Todd Tetzlaff was appointed as Enstrom president in February 2023. He first joined the company after he left college, working in the engineering department. Brent Bundy Photo

A rollercoaster past

The company has had clear peaks and troughs in its past, but appeared to be heading for better times when it was acquired by Chinese company Chongqing General Aviation Industry Group (CGAG) in 2012. Enstrom spent $8 million upgrading its headquarters in 2013, adding 77,000 square feet of production and office space to create a 173,000-square-foot facility.

And on the first day of HAI Heli-Expo 2014, Enstrom unveiled a brand new type: the two-seat TH-180 training helicopter. However, the first prototype was destroyed when a piece of flight test instrumentation forced a hard landing in 2016, and while a second prototype carried the program forward later that year, the program was mothballed as the company’s wider progress stalled.

Enstrom’s headquarters is in Menominee, Michigan, which sits along the shore of Lake Michigan, just north of the border with Wisconsin. Brent Bundy Photo

“It was a slow, painful death for years,” Todd Tetzlaff, the company’s president and CEO, told Vertical. “From a max amount of employees of over 200, it slowly dwindled with layoffs and changes — or people seeing the writing on the wall and looking for greener pastures.”

This long slow decline ended with Enstrom declaring Chapter 7 bankruptcy in January 2022. It issued a press release saying that “several financial difficulties” had forced CGAC to close the Menominee company’s doors.

However, it was quickly apparent that this wouldn’t be the end of the Enstrom Helicopter story. A potential buyer was announced a couple of months after the company declared bankruptcy, and they retained some of Enstrom’s staff as consultants under contract to help bridge the gap until a purchase was finalized.

Chuck Surack (center) holds a press conference at HAI Heli-Expo 2023, flanked by outoing president Matt Francour (left) and incoming president Todd Tetzlaff (right). Brent Bundy Photo

Martin was among those, and spent the time working to reassure the company’s military customers, in particular, that their fleets would continue to be supported.

“It was leveraging years of relationships to go out and say, ‘Hey guys, you’re going to be OK. Stay the course. Give us a couple of months and we’ll be back,’ ” said Martin. “I had to really believe it in order to say it, because it’s their national security you’re talking about.”

Things took another unexpected turn when the original buyers’ financing fell through. But then Chuck Surack entered the picture.

A selection of some of the parts Enstrom is able to produce. Its manufacturing capabilities are extensive, allowing it to create over 3,000 parts. Brent Bundy Photo

The Fort Wayne, Indiana-based businessman made his fortune with Sweetwater Sound, the world’s largest online musical instrument and audio equipment provider. He started the business from the back of his VW van, building it into a $1.4 billion company employing 2,300 people.

Surack learned to fly helicopters in an Enstrom 280, and his first rotary-wing purchase was an Enstrom 480B.

“I always had a real love for Enstrom,” he said. “I had been to the factory a couple times in the past, and I know the loyalty of the employees — they have an amazing workforce. I just thought there was a lot of potential… particularly if we were able to modernize the helicopter.”

With the original buyers no longer able to complete their acquisition of Enstrom, Surack was offered the opportunity to do so.

“A lot of the companies I have were in distress one way or the other [beforehand], and I love the idea of fixing them,” he said. “To me . . . it’s pretty easy to see what it takes to fix it: provide great customer service, make sure you have a great product and market, and just treat people the way you would want to be treated. And that’s been the philosophy I’ve used in all my companies.”

And in taking ownership of Enstrom, Surack has brought his infectious enthusiasm and optimism with him.

“It’s been decades since there was someone passionate at the helm,” said Tetzlaff. “And Chuck’s passionate: passionate about helicopters, passionate about the people here. And that’s kind of contagious.”

A factory reset

Matt Francour, the company’s then-CEO, helped guide the company through its regeneration.

“We had been closed — lights out — for four months,” said Tetzlaff. “Matt called every individual [staff member] who we wanted to bring back, and over 90 percent of those people came back. That’s just incredible — it’s an incredible amount of trust in Matt and what Chuck is doing, and shows the love for this company.”

A look down the flight line at Enstrom’s facility. The aircraft on the right are at the flight testing stage. Brent Bundy Photo

With the stage set for the company’s exciting new chapter, Francour decided to finally take a long-planned retirement (though he is staying on in an advisory role as the company gets running again).

Enstrom needed a new CEO to take it forward, and Tetzlaff was announced as the company’s choice in February 2023.

Originally from the Green Bay, Wisconsin, area — which is only about an hour’s drive south of Menominee — Tetzlaff first joined Enstrom over three decades ago, entering the engineering department straight from college. He left to work in engineering positions at Boeing and Raytheon, before returning to Enstrom for a seven-year stint as the company’s manager of flight test engineering between 2001 and 2008. This was followed by 15 years at Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. Then Surack called.

“I was very pleasantly surprised,” said Tetzlaff. “I had heard good things with Chuck purchasing the company, and I worked with my predecessor Matt Francour for many years, so it felt like a good move. It was something I did not want to miss out on.”

He said Surack’s overarching plan for the company was very simple. “He said, ‘I want to do the right thing,’ ” said Tetzlaff. “I want to bring this product line back. I want to bring jobs to the Midwest of the U.S. and see this succeed.”

And Tetzlaff’s engineering background, he said, will help the company as it sets out to complete the various upgrades to the fleet that “we’ve wanted to do for years.”

However, the initial focus when the company opened its doors again was supporting Enstrom’s existing customers.

“We still have a few things that we’re behind on that we’re trying to catch up on,” said Martin. “But for the most part, priority one was getting those military fleets set up. We made personal promises to those people and we wanted to keep them — so we did.”

Enstrom is working to modernize its fleet through a range of upgrade projects. The first was the introduction of a glass cockpit for the 280 and 480. Brent Bundy Photo

The company initially aimed to have 24 aircraft produced in 2023. But the reality of re-starting in the current climate — with industry-wide supply chain constraints and a shortage of skilled labor (engineers in particular) — has meant that target has had to be revised. Six aircraft are set to come off the production line this year.

“The additional challenge we faced is that due to our slow, painful death, we had lost relationships,” said Tetzlaff. “We had not ordered for many years from some of our vendors, so you’re reintroducing yourself. That just adds to the challenge of getting components or raw materials back online.”

At the time of Vertical’s visit to Menominee in late August, Enstrom had close to 140 employees, but was still looking to expand its engineering department, in particular.

Slow certification from the Federal Aviation Administration has also put the brakes on Enstrom’s progress. Certificates — including production and repair station — were surrendered as part of the bankruptcy.

The process of regaining them has been “very, very painful — and much more workload than was anticipated,” said Tetzlaff. “But in the long run, it’s really a good thing. Our processes are being audited, they are being looked at and improved upon.”

The company is finalizing certification work on its crash resistant fuel system (CRFS) for the 480B — and Enstrom can’t sell the type in the U.S. until the CRFS is approved. It hopes to have the turbine version certified by the end of 2023, with a piston CRFS complete in 2024.

Finally, work is ongoing in regrowing Enstrom’s network of service centers, repair stations and dealer networks around the world, which Tetzlaff said had been “highly diminished” over the years.

A 280FX flies over the Menominee North Pier lighthouse near the company’s facility. Brent Bundy Photo

Future plans

The “new” Enstrom was publicly unveiled at HAI Heli-Expo 2023, with Surack and Tetzlaff answering questions from the press while showcasing the first aircraft created by the rebooted production line — a 480B. The show was a great success, with the company taking orders for 12 aircraft during the event.

With Surack’s arrival, investment is flowing into Enstrom’s facility — and he has also brought with him a desire to modernize the product line, with the company starting to work through a long list of upgrade projects.

“We’re constantly soliciting feedback from customers: What do you want? What do you like?” said Martin. “The difference is now we can do something about it.”

The aircraft on display at Heli-Expo was equipped with the first engineering project that the Enstrom team has completed since the company’s re-opening: an all-glass cockpit. Available for the 480B and 280FX, the cockpit is built around a Garmin G500H TXi EFIS display, with a Howell digital engine instrument system, and Garmin GTN 750 and 650 TXis. It is also offered with remote transponder, audio panel, and com radio options.

Another major project has been the development of an RPM governor for Enstrom piston helicopters, which helps pilots maintain and control rotor RPM using a digital controller and fast-acting servo motor. It’ll be available next year, Tetzlaff said.

More broadly, the company is targeting “efficiency gains” on the fleet, said Tetzlaff. “We’re definitely looking at a weight savings program across the board, which will lead to whatever we decide to do next,” he said.

Different power plants are being considered — including hybrid electric systems — as well as better configurations and further safety enhancements for the aircraft. Pilot assistance — potentially in the form of some kind of automation/autopilot — is also being looked at.

The Enstrom 480B takes off from the flight line in Menominee. The five-seat aircraft is powered by the turbine Rolls-Royce 250 C20w engine. Brent Bundy Photo

In terms of ramping up the facility’s production rate, Tetzlaff said Enstrom is positioned to ultimately achieve the 24 aircraft a year it had originally targeted for this year.

“We’re poised to be in the teens next year,” he said. “And then get into those higher numbers beyond. The goal is never to be the biggest. We know where our sweet spot is, where we can maintain a logical level of employment that’s sustainable and the number of aircraft we need to do that.”

Achieving this would require no further expansion of Enstrom’s plant, he said — just some tweaks in positioning of various workstations to enhance workflow and efficiency.

Looking at target sectors, Tetzlaff said military training fleets continue to offer promise.

“Those have been very successful for us, and as we go through and seek new fleets or new needs with new operators, we’ve got that as well as any attrition,” he said.

The competition for the 480B is largely the Bell 505 and Robinson R66, while the 280FX competes against the Robinson R44 and Helicopteres Guimbal Cabri G2.

Tetzlaff said the robust build of the Enstrom aircraft — and their three-bladed fully articulated main rotor system — were among the differentiators.

Alongside production and support, Enstrom has restarted its twice-yearly maintenance training programs. Brent Bundy Photo

“We actually see quite a bit of the training fleets for the foreign militaries, for public use, prefer that [full articulated rotor system] over the underslung or teetering system,” he said. “We’re very price competitive amongst those other players on the turbine side, and we do not have the overhaul requirements of others.”

Enstrom is also making a play for the private owner market, with a new interior and signature paint scheme offered from renowned artist Dean Loucks.

“Quite frankly, that [private pilot] side of the business suffered over the last 10 or 15 years,” said Martin. “We weren’t paying enough attention to it. We weren’t doing the marketing and the product development necessary to really do well in that market. . . . So that’s the side we’re really going to be building up.”

As for the TH-180, Martin said the type is “in a holding pattern.” The market for a two-seat helicopter changed during its development, to the point it didn’t justify the cost of continuing with the program, he said. The two prototypes are kept in a storage hangar at the company’s facility, and while Enstrom has no plans to do anything with them, Martin said there has been interest in the type’s potential as an unmanned platform.

Surack said his short-term plan for the company “has been tempered” by the delays in achieving FAA approval, but that the more general goal is to get the current fleet as modernized as possible. Further down the road, he hopes to work “on more of a clean sheet design” for the fleet.

Martin said it’s an exciting time to be working at Enstrom.

Shipbuilding is also a major industry in the Menominee area. The Menominee River, which separates Menominee from Marinette, Wisconsin, is home to the Fincantieri Marinette Marine shipyard. Brent Bundy Photo

“There’s a ton of momentum behind the company,” he said. “We go to the big shows and you get this steady stream of people, saying ‘I just want to shake your hand or shake Chuck’s hand and say I’m glad you’re back. I’ve been pulling for you. the world needs Enstrom.’ . . . And that’s pretty cool.”

Surack’s investment in Enstrom reaches beyond the facility and its products and employees; it’s an investment in the community.

“He’s already donated heavily to some organizations in the city, and he has tasked us to do the same,” said Tetzlaff. “We weren’t always able to do that — you’d get requests from a very worthy cause and we didn’t have anything to offer. We’re in a position and being supported by Chuck to do that now.”

Enstrom is beginning this new chapter in its storied history full of optimism and with enviable backing from its new owner. It has a sense of identity forged by its six decades of history, but the excitement of being forward-looking is palpable at the facility.

“I’m dreaming big,” said Surack. “I’m trying to work towards the future, not revel in the past.”

The helicopter world will be watching with a keen interest to see what that future holds, as one of the industry’s great names jolts back to life.

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