Estimated reading time 19 minutes, 21 seconds.
In amongst an apple orchard, deep in the rolling hillsides of Switzerland, lies an unassuming farmhouse that contains a remarkable secret: after decades of producing apple juice and cider, it’s now home to a company that’s seeking to redefine the global single-engine helicopter market. That company is, of course, Marenco Swisshelicopter, and the product it’s fermenting in its barnhouse in Pfäffikon — about half an hour’s drive from Zurich — is the SKYe SH09.
First introduced to the industry at Heli-Expo 2011 in Orlando, Florida, the SH09 has an eye-catching clean-sheet design, including a full carbon-composite airframe, a shrouded tail rotor, a large fuel tank for extended range, and an attention-grabbing “high-visibility” cockpit.
But while the SH09 has become an increasingly familiar presence within the industry, the company behind it remains something of a mystery to many. Vertical travelled to the manufacturer’s facilities in Switzerland to discover the company behind the product — and get an update on one of the most exciting developments in the industry.
The story of Marenco Swisshelicopter is entwined with the story of Martin Stucki — the company’s engaging founder and CEO (the name Marenco comes from Martin Engineering and Consulting). A mechanical engineer by trade, and a pilot through passion, he worked for a few different companies in Switzerland before founding an engineering company — Marenco — in 1997. (This company still exists today as a separate entity to Marenco Swisshelicopter, and provides its expertise to its sister company on an ad-hoc basis.)
But while engineering was his day job — and one in which he was clearly gifted — the world of rotary-wing flight had never been far from his thoughts. He sketched his first helicopter designs while still in school, and took his first one-hour helicopter training flight (a gift from his mother) before he began his engineering degree. As his career progressed, his spare time was spent earning his private and commercial pilot licenses, and then flying freelance for local helicopter companies. But while he enjoyed his time in the cockpit, he became frustrated with elements of the design of much of the light single fleet — a fleet that hadn’t seen a clean-sheet entrant for decades.
“If you fly helicopters, you see a lot of sometimes small things where you think you can do better,” he told Vertical. And so, in 2002, he began creating the aircraft he would like to fly on computer-aided design (CAD) software. Market research into the various market segments revealed a viable market in the 2.5-tonne class, and Stucki formed Marenco Swisshelicopter in 2007 as the project became more serious — and the search for funding to enable the aircraft’s development began in earnest. Stucki admits this was no small task, but he eventually found a group of investors who saw the potential in his design, and the development of the SKYe SH09 officially began in 2009 (enshrined in the “09” of “SH09”).
At this time, there were just seven people working on the project. This had grown to just 15 by 2011, but 2013 marked a period of four years of intensive growth. Today, the company employs about 120 people, and it expects that figure to grow to 150 by the end of the year.
From the beginning, the company’s investors provided the funds to attract the best and brightest to the project — including Mathias Senes, the company’s chief commercial officer, who joined following a decade at Eurocopter (now known as Airbus Helicopters) where he had sold helicopters in more than 45 countries and introduced seven new aircraft types to the market.
“We have a great team of shareholders who have given us the opportunity to hire experts in each domain and I think this enables us to build a sound infrastructure in parallel to a fantastic product,” said Senes. “It’s a market with very high barriers, and you don’t just come into a client’s door and bring in a new product like that and claim superiority and walk away. You have to have a bit of a relationship, and [have had] credible success in the past.”
As the company has grown, it has welcomed a mix of youth and experience into its ranks to provide the benefits of both.
“For some parts of the project it’s important for us to have people who have not had years of thinking along the same tracks, so you really can generate innovation,” said Stucki.
On the Apple Farm
Marenco’s operations in Switzerland are split between the small towns of Pfäffikon and Mollis. The former is the site of the company’s headquarters and engineering facility, while the latter, located about an hour’s drive southeast of Zurich, hosts its flight test operations — and its fledgling assembly plant.
The majority of the company’s employees — about 90 to 100 — work in the sprawling converted farmhouse and adjoining barns that form Marenco’s headquarters in Pfäffikon. It’s certainly a very picturesque location, perched on the top of a fairly precipitous hillside overlooking the sleepy rural town. And, given that the building’s conversion has left the exterior relatively untouched — with the wooden façade remaining in places — it’s still something of a surprise to pass through the front door and find a bustling open-plan office. The farmhouse has been in Stucki’s family for four generations, and remains his home — and not just spiritually. His family name is on a plaque hanging from an otherwise nondescript door on the ground floor of the office building — and the only real indications that it’s not his office, but his house, are the proudly displayed drawings from his young daughter pinned alongside it.
“For me, it’s OK; it’s fine,” he said of living within his office. “I can also switch [the working mentality] on and off at home. It’s also an advantage — I can hop into my apartment and have lunch with my family, so there’s not just disadvantages.”
New sections of the barns adjoining the farmhouse are converted to accommodate the company’s growth as needed.
Within the office, the company uses Advanced Rotorcraft Technology’s Flightlab simulation software to study the stress loads and effects during testing, and for those working on the aircraft’s component design, the facility contains a laser printer and a five-axis CNC machine. These allow engineers to immediately prototype parts if timing is likely to be an issue with a supplier.
“In the end, we want to be an assembler — like Boeing and Airbus — so it gives us the flexibility to change the supplier if the quality is not good, improve the component, or even plan in the future local assembly lines,” said Senes. “[But] until a supplier is selected, we still have our own capacity of production, which gives us a bit more autonomy, and are able to — especially with the testing — proceed without delays.”
The original Marenco — Stucki’s engineering company — also works from the same building, and can be brought in to work on parts when needed.
At the beginning of the program, Marenco utilized a wind tunnel in South Africa to confirm the design of the aircraft. Today, the aircraft’s dynamic components are evaluated using equipment including the company’s own whirl tower to test the rotorhead, blades and tail boom; a Stucki-designed gearbox testing machine; a rotor blade test bench; and a hydraulic test bench.
The Mollis facility is largely run from a rented hangar space alongside an airfield, but at the time of Vertical‘s visit, Marenco had just broken ground on the assembly plant that is to be created in a series of modules alongside its current location.
The final part of the Marenco Swisshelicopter organization is in Germany, where the company’s office of airworthiness is located. This facility, established in 2012, contains 15 compliance verification engineers who work to ensure a smooth certification process with the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).
A Clean-Sheet Design
Stucki explains his design philosophy for the SH09 as creating “a helicopter from pilots for pilots.” The result of this is an aircraft with attributes such as a large cabin, a flat floor, a high ceiling, large clamshell rear doors, pilot seats that are adjustable in height and length — and, of course, that high-visibility cockpit. Clearly, ergonomics and comfort are central to his thinking. “We’re looking at what is the operator’s need and how can we can fulfill it,” he said. With this in mind, the aircraft has been designed to fly as impressively as it looks, with excellent hot and high performance (provided by its 1,020-shaft-horsepower Honeywell HTS900 engine), long endurance, smooth flight, and a low noise signature.
At present, Marenco is looking to certify the aircraft at an empty weight of 1,300 kilograms (2,865 pounds), with a maximum takeoff weight (with an external load) of 2,800 kg (6,170 lb.). Perhaps the most eye-catching performance metric is its sling-load capacity of 1,500 kg (3,300 lb.), which is maintained while in hover in ground effect up to 3,000 meters (ISA plus 20 C).
Senes said the aim is for the SH09 to be a “vertical takeoff platform” for operators.
“For our operators to make money with a single engine, they have to be able to benefit from a platform concept, where they can go from three-seater to a shuttle eight-seater, back to a rescue kind of platform, and back to maybe an electronic newsgathering aircraft,” he said. “This is really the essence of making the aircraft profitable for our clients.”
And while Marenco doesn’t anticipate a substantial market for the SH09 among air medical operators in Europe (given their preference for twin-engine aircraft for the role), Senes said the emergency medical services market in North America “is going to be very important” for the company — with the SH09’s clamshell rear doors, shrouded tail rotor, and high tail boom all appealing aspects for patient loading and unloading.
Key to providing both the performance and size required to make the SH09 the multimission platform Marenco hopes it will become is the aircraft’s fully carbon composite airframe.
“There’s no other material today that brings the benefits of rigidity, strength, and light weight,” said Senes. “It made it possible to come with a multipurpose platform that can really go from VIP to passenger transport and have superior performance to the competition. Without carbon we couldn’t do it. It was too heavy to reach the volume that you see in the cabin.”
Aiding that vision of volume is the fact that the aircraft’s crashworthy Kevlar-threaded fuel tanks have been built into the walls and floor of the cargo hold, opening up space underneath the crashworthy individual rear seats. This allows them to be fully adjustable — even in height — and still leaves a sizeable cargo hold that Marenco claims will fit up to 10 pieces of luggage with four passengers on board. Despite remaining hidden, the fuel tanks are ample, providing 750 liters of fuel, which could provide close to five hours’ endurance.
The aircraft will be offered in different layout configurations, with the baseline version including four passenger seats plus two pilot seats. The high-density configuration sees five seats in the rear, as well as two passenger seats alongside the pilot — but this configuration requires covering the floor window. Interestingly, Senes said the aerial tourism operators he has spoken with said they’d rather forego the extra seat in order to keep the floor window.
Several aspects of the SH09’s design are aimed at reducing its noise signature, including the swept back tip on the aircraft’s five main rotor blades (which also provides extra lift), a relatively narrow tail boom, and the “Maestro” — Marenco’s shrouded tail rotor. Compared to other enclosed tail rotors, it has a relatively wide diameter and a thinner chord — with the aim being to increase its visibility to the airflow, and thereby give the aircraft greater tail rotor authority.
The Honeywell engine will be provided with no time between overhaul (TBO) limits, in keeping with the condition-based maintenance policy that will be applied to the entire aircraft (the SH09 will be delivered with a health and usage monitoring system). “The TBO has a strong impact on the cost of operation because it creates a cost of maintenance at a fixed time, and creates downtime for the aircraft,” said Senes. “Having this no TBO policy, it’s basically continuous maintenance — no peak moment. It flattens the cost line and it flattens the downtime.”
Stucki said this has been a major consideration as the aircraft’s design has evolved, as ease of access for technicians must be optimized. “It’s really daily work to get it to the point where maintenance is easy,” he said, “so you can get to the parts without having to remove five other parts to repair something.”
The prospective lower maintenance cost is one of the aspects Marenco is hoping will offset any sticker shock at the SH09’s $3.5 million price tag — substantially higher than the Airbus Helicopters AS350 AStar, which is the major presence in the single-engine utility market. However, this price still makes it competitive with other six- to eight-seater single-engine aircraft such as the Bell 407, Leonardo AW119, and Airbus Helicopters H130.
Vertical arrived at Marenco’s flight testing facility in Mollis, Switzerland, as the program was finishing its first block of tests. Located in the base of the Linth valley, surrounded by mountains, it’s a spectacular backdrop to watch a brand new aircraft being put to the test. The day before, it had notched a considerable milestone — a new fastest flight speed of 120 knots — and morale was high among the testing team.
The team includes chief flight test pilot Richard Trueman, flight test pilot Dwayne Williams, chief flight test engineer Dominic Cheater, and flight test engineer Peter Wittwer. Williams
performed most of the flying on prototype 1 (P1), which completed its first flight on Oct. 2, 2014, and Trueman has done the majority of the testing on prototype 2 (P2), which began flying on Feb. 26, 2016.
“It’s an absolute delight to fly,” Trueman told Vertical. “It’s a big single-engine helicopter — the size of a [H]135. The cockpit environment is very light and airy, with lots of transparencies, and a very good field of view. It’s got very simple controls — it’s very quick to start. Yesterday, from hitting start to being ready for takeoff, was two minutes — and this was a flight test aircraft.”
Trueman said pilots will likely find the SH09’s field of view and simplicity of operation its most appealing aspects. “The number one ‘wow’ factor when people sit in the aircraft is just looking at the view,” he said. “And it’s doesn’t just look nice, it makes your job as a pilot easier if you’re trying to get close to something on sloping ground, [or] you’re doing long-line work, [or have] passengers doing a tour over the Grand Canyon, who all want to look out.”
The aircraft’s development has been embedded within EASA’s certification process. Trueman said its flight envelope has been gradually opened up, with the aircraft having flown at 97 percent of its maximum internal load takeoff weight, up to 3,000 feet pressure altitude, and performed “very limited” autorotations.
The flight test campaign has been divided into three phases, with first — involving work over the airfield — completed at the end of August. The second is due to start in September, and will involve extended pattern flying. “We’re going to go for probably within plus or minus five miles of the field,” said Trueman. “We’ll shoot for about 7,000 feet, and speed-wise I hope to push it up to Vne, which we’ve got at 151 knots.”
Overall, there will be three aircraft used in the flight testing program, with P2 and P3 (the latter is currently in production in Mollis) working as the main vehicles for certification testing. According to Stucki, the two main design changes between P1 and P2 were in the rotorhead and control cables — with the latter changing from flex cables to push/pull rods.
P3 is due to fly before the end of this year, and Stucki said there wouldn’t be any major changes from P2. “We optimized the fuselage, [so] it’s now closer to serial production,” said Stucki. “We optimized weight, [and] we optimized manufacturing — there is no conceptual change or something like that. It’s really to have all the details changed and have it ready to go to the certification flight tests.”
Heading to Production
The construction of the SH09 assembly plant in Mollis will be completed in modules, and will be ongoing until the end of 2017, when the aircraft is slated for certification and first deliveries. Production numbers will be progressively ramped up from an anticipated 10 to 15 units in the first year, to eventually 100 units annually.
Senes said Marenco is aiming to have optional equipment certified in parallel to the aircraft.
Marenco has received about 90 letters of intent for the SH09, and it is now focusing on firming these up into full contracts. “We have letters of intent that are not firmed up, but the operators in question are so strong that if we do what we say, there’s little chance that they will turn their back to us,” said Senes.
The company is also looking to build up its launch customer base, which currently includes Swiss company Air Zermatt and Canadian operator Horizon Helicopters. “We are looking for
people who fly as much as possible so that we get the feedback from these flights — and the guarantee that this team will feed back to us all the information that they build up, if not on a daily basis, every two or three days,” said Senes.
Air Zermatt is a regular visitor to the flight test facility in Mollis to discuss optional equipment or provide feedback on the man-machine interface.
“There’s a strong customer focus at Marenco on the operator,” said Trueman. “We want to understand what they do, how they do it, and where there are opportunities to improve on their current platforms.”
The company is initially focusing on the North American and European markets, with Federal Aviation Administration certification set to follow EASA certification. That focus will likely see an assembly line established in the States.
“I think we will for sure do additional assembly lines,” said Stucki. “North America, that’s a more or less given, [with] 45 percent of the market, we will go for this and establish something there.”
Beyond this, the company has appointed distributors in Australia, Japan, and Guatemala to help develop the global market for the SH09. “We looked at what the competition has done,” said Senes. “We saw that the work with partners is a good way to grow a network, and you gain the local knowledge.”
Looking even further ahead, Stucki said a twin variant would be a logical next step, with “some genes of a twin” already having been incorporated into the SH09’s basic design.
Entering such a closed market has certainly presented its challenges, and Marenco faced a fair amount of cynicism as it sought to establish itself — and its product — within the global helicopter industry. “People said this will never happen, you will never fly, you will never get the gearbox, you will never get the rotor blades and rotorhead — it’s impossible,” said Stucki. “And especially in Switzerland there is nothing like the culture to develop new industrial project. Now we fly, so these voices are going down a little bit. Sometimes they are still there, but this is something you have to live with.”
For now, Stucki is pleased with how far the project has come, with the long journey from schoolboy’s sketchbook to certified aircraft almost complete. “We’re showing you can get to an end with such a project,” he said. “I’m achieving my professional dream — and for sure it’s really exciting!”