For Switzerland's only helicopter manufacturer, the past 14 months have been a period of radical change: its founder and former chief executive has departed, to be replaced by a swathe of new management, much arriving from elsewhere in the rotorcraft industry; brand-new engineering and production facilities have opened; and the company has even rebranded.

Founded as the cumbersome Marenco Swisshelicopter by Martin Stucki, the business grew out of the engineering entrepreneur's vision to develop a helicopter that would shake up the light-single market.

While the rotorcraft that emerged – the equally long-winded SKYe SH09 – has a number of innovative features and promising performance levels, the business struggled to make the transition from a labour of love to a professional helicopter manufacturer capable of dealing with the realities of the market.

Against that backdrop, it was perhaps little surprise that Stucki departed suddenly in late 2016: Marenco Swisshelicopter announced that he had "retired from his functions" with effect from 5 December, while providing little detail on the split.

The manufacturer replaced its founding father with Andreas Löwenstein. A former Eurocopter executive, he the latest in a line of executives from the European giant to wind up at the Swiss firm: of the eight members of the senior leadership team, six are ex-Eurocopter employees.

But as the business had been founded almost as a hobby by Stucki, the thread of his influence was woven deeply into the company's fabric.

Take the name, for example: Marenco, as you might have worked out, is a contraction of Martin Engineering and Consulting and is also the name of Stucki's main engineering business.

In addition, the helicopter operation inhabited a corner of Marenco's offices in Pfäffikon, near Zurich – a building that had been in Stucki's family for generations.

Wrestling with these challenges has occupied the company for the past several months, although the actual impact on the development of the helicopter is unclear.

As an interim step to distance itself from Stucki, Marenco Swisshelicopter became MSH. In addition, December 2017 saw the opening of a new engineering facility in Wetzikon, just about 5km (three miles) from its former headquarters. That location also features the initial flight-test prototype of the SH09 in the middle of an open-plan office.

"We will keep it there," says Löwenstein. "When people arrive in the morning they know who they are working for."

But the last remaining step was to address the brand, and on 1 February, Kopter was born.

Löwenstein says it "is a name that is strong, modern and instantly recognisable" and is indicative of the business's wider transformation.

"We are changing from an engineering company to a fully fledged helicopter manufacturer," he says.

"We are a different company with a different business model. We have changed a lot of things over the last year."

In parallel with the rebranding, Kopter has inaugurated a new 4,200m² (45,200ft²) production line, alongside a training and test facility, in Mollis, 33km to the southeast of Wetzikon.

That site is a stone's throw from another plant in nearby Näfels which produces major parts such as rotor blades and other dynamic components.

Löwenstein says the new final assembly facility is a vital step. "It means that we now have a setup where we are ready to manufacture."

Employment in Kopter has also risen: 112 members of staff were added in 2017, taking the total to 260. More will arrive this year, promises Löwenstein.

An expanding workforce will in part be driven by the 2.5t SH09 (the SKYe part has been dropped) entering full-scale production.

Although European Aviation Safety Agency approval had previously been promised for 2018, the slow pace of test flights so far means that date is likely to slip into next year.

"We intend to finish the [flight-test] programme before the end of the year," says Löwenstein. "We expect to have certification in hand at the latest by the first quarter of 2019." However, service entry will take place on schedule in that year, he stresses.

Regulatory approval will be obtained with two helicopters: test article P3, which was rolled out last June, and pre-serial aircraft PS4, now in the early stages of production.

PS4 will fly at "the end of the summer", says Löwenstein, before it and its sister test aircraft transfer to Pozzallo, Sicily, where they will remain for about 12 months to complete their certification flights.

Previously, flight-test have been conducted from its site in Mollis where the fickle Swiss weather has limited sorties.

To date, the Honeywell HTS900-powered SH09 has accumulated 70 flight hours, plus "several hundred hours on the ground" as well as more than 1,000h of tests on its dynamic components.

Of course, further tweaks to the design are still in the works, says Löwenstein, although the SH09 handles and performs "to our expectations".

"If there were no design improvements we would already be certificated. Look at every development programme: the more you fly, the more you find that you can improve," he says.

Some enhancements will appear between aircraft PT2 and PT3, and eventually on the production-conforming aircraft.

"A fully fledged manufacturer equally has to think about production, and some of the things that engineers conceive are not always produceable," says Löwenstein.

Those changes – to the ease of maintainability, for instance – will be introduced on aircraft PS4 "and then we will be mature", he says.

Kopter has taken in 27 firm orders for the $3.3 million SH09; another 19 are conditional on obtaining certification and "more than 120" are the subject of letters of intent.

Production in 2019 will be a "single-digit figure", says Löwenstein, rising to "around 20" in 2020, "then we will gear up to what we can do given the market situation".

Kopter occupies a strange position in the industry: a Swiss start-up that is trying to take on products from some of the biggest names in the business.

However, Löwenstein is not too concerned about what its billion-dollar rivals think. "For them we are a kind of funny figure. I think the best measure is not our competitors but the commercial performance and the perception of the market.

"On the customer side people are starting to consider us as a real alternative," he says. Customers are drawn from all mission segments and geographies, he notes.

To date, the programme has been funded by Russian billionaire Alexander Mamut, but in October 2017 Kopter launched a new call for investment. That process is ongoing, says Löwenstein, with a positive response so far.

Kopter will arrive at Heli-Expo in Las Vegas a company radically changed, but Löwenstein argues that the change was anything but a gamble. "There are constraints within the aeronautical industry where hobby working is not possible. But you do not need 20,000 people for this," he argues, with a nod to his former employer. "People can assume responsibilities and take decisions quickly – this is the fun of a smaller company like ours."

Source: Flight International