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Big Plans

By By James T. McKenna | September 1, 2006
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Change is the watchword.

HelicopterFor decades, perhaps since it was incorporated in 1939, Schweizer Aircraft has been about change. It started out building gliders. Then it worked on some of the earliest versions of unmanned aircraft, then reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft, agricultural aircraft, light commercial helicopters, a new generation of recon and surveillance aircraft and a new generation of unmanned vehicles.

Look again at all the commas in that last sentence. They represent the work in between those big programs, subcontracted parts for other aerospace manufacturers—doors for Bell, tail planes for Gulfstreams, fuselage sections for this one, wing sections for that, even the odd centrifuge.


“What has characterized this company over the last 25 years is we’ve been incredibly entrepreneurial in the way we’ve approached our business,” said Paul Schweizer, president of Schweizer and one of the trio of second-generation Schweizers that help run the company today. “We were always looking for opportunities where we thought we had a competitive advantage or something to offer. That’s led us into a bunch of different fields.

“We’ve made incredible products that haven’t happened by luck,” he said. “They’ve happened because of a lot of hard work. We were willing to take a risk. We went out on our own dollar, spent money and tried to make something happen.”

His cousin, Les, concurs.

“I think one of the things that’s important is that this company, over its history of 60-some years, has seen so much change, that most of the employees here are used to change,” he said. “Our people are really the strength of this company. Our people are what makes this place go.”

The Schweizers and their people will need their strength and willingness to accept change, for there is a whole lot to come.

They’ve all dealt with a lot of change in the last two years as a result of the company’s 2004 acquisition by Sikorsky Aircraft. That brought the deep pockets of Sikorsky parent United Technologies Corp. and the technological hunger of Sikorsky to the innovative development and manufacturing complex in Horseheads, near Elmira, N.Y. It also brought the corporate policies and practices of UTC to what for 65 years had been a family-owned business. That’s not a bad thing.

“The biggest difference that I see now is a lot of things have to be in writing,” said Bijan Moazami of Bijan Air, a Schweizer sales and service center in Ann Arbor, Mich. “A lot of things have to be more formalized versus the past. Of course, this is not a criticism, because really to be very informal is not the best anyway.

“Previously, I could pick up the phone and say, ‘Okay, I need a 300 for such and such a date.’ I didn’t have to put it in writing, I didn’t have to fax it and so forth. So it has changed from being a family-run company into a bit more formal company. And there is nothing wrong with that.”

But the corporate bureaucracy required adjustments that are still under way. (The executives in Horseheads joke about General Manager Randy Simpson, who came from Sikorsky with the buyout, taking out a hatchet and chopping off Sikorsky’s bureaucratic tentacles, and the inability to get them all.)

“To become part of Sikorsky required some changes in the way we do business,” Paul said. “Maybe Sikorsky had to come to some acceptance, too. They clearly didn’t want to destroy the uniqueness of Schweizer. So we’ve been going through a period of transformation, which is exciting and also difficult. There clearly have been some challenges there. I think we are coming through that.”

There is more change ahead.

Schweizer has a prominent role in development of Sikorsky’s X-2 Technology Demonstrator, a coaxial helicopter intended to fly at 250 kt and higher that is now expected to make its first ground run in October. Les Schweizer, who is a key player in the X-2 effort, said he believes that, once it is flying, the demonstrator could produce grist for engineers and researchers for 5-10 years.

Schweizer brothers (below, l. to r., Bill, Paul A. and Ernest)
Since the Schweizer brothers (below, l. to r., Bill, Paul A. and Ernest) founded the company as a glider maker, Schweizer Aircraft has changed to pursue market opportunities like unmanned aerial vehicles like the Fire Scout (below) and surveillance aircraft like the RU-38B.
Fire Scout

Sikorsky also is building the Hawk Works @ Schweizer, where crews from Schweizer will undertake major completions work for variants of the H-60 and S-70 helicopters destined for customers other than the U.S military.

With the initial pieces of its plan for Schweizer in place, Sikorsky is now undertaking an internal study of how to make the best use of Schweizer and its capabilities. In addition to the Hawk Works, Sikorsky has named Schweizer its center of excellence for rapid prototyping (a main reason it bought Schweizer) and for unmanned air vehicles and reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft. An obvious question is, what about light commercial helicopters?

“I want to be clear,” said Sikorsky President Jeff Pino. “There are three things Schweizer’s going to do regardless—UAV and reconnaissance center of excellence, rapid prototyping and military derivatives. What we’re reviewing is how much the current work, how much of the commercial, how much of the sort of subcontract work that they have, do we want

to keep there and why. That’s the heavy review right now.

“Remember, I said UAV/reconnaissance center of excellence,” Pino added, “so anything they do for the Fire Scout that’s related to the commercial products, that will probably stay there. But the rest of it is all up for study and we’re well into that study right now.”

Pino said there is no rush to complete that review. It will take 3-4 months to get the Hawk Works building constructed for derivatives. (Sikorsky expects to send the airplanes there for completions by year’s end. “So we’ve got some time to sort this out.”

He added that his vision is “to expand our product line. I don’t want to get rid of any of them.

“But I want to clearly make it make absolute sense in terms of where we build them, how we build them,” he said. “Frankly, we’re looking at some product improvements on those helicopters. So there will be Schweizer and Sikorsky light helicopters for a long time. We’ve just got to make sure we know how and what we’re building and where.”

The Hawk Works @ Schweizer will be a 100,000-sq-ft facility focused on rapid prototyping as well as completions of UH-60 military derivative aircraft. It is being built adjacent to Schweizer’s plant at Elmira-Corning Regional Airport.

The center will serve as the primary completion center for all Black Hawk and Naval Hawk derivative aircraft, mostly for foreign military customers. Black Hawk derivative helicopters requiring customized configurations for a range of specialized missions will be manufactured at Sikorsky’s Connecticut facilities and then transported to the center for completion.

The center also will add capacity for additional future military work and for other special-mission aircraft currently manufactured at Schweizer, such as the Fire Scout unmanned air vehicle and fixed-wing reconnaissance aircraft.

It will be located about a quarter-mile from Schweizer’s current facility. The facility is expected to add 100 jobs at Schweizer.

“The creation of Sikorsky Hawk Works @ Schweizer Aircraft is an important step in our long-range corporate strategy to increase capacity in order to meet growing demand for military products,” Pino said. “It allows Sikorsky’s Connecticut facilities to focus on production of standard-configuration aircraft while taking full advantage of Schweizer’s rapid prototyping capabilities.”

The import of the new center became clear at the Farnborough Air Show, where Pino announced the launch of two new programs—the pared down and less expensive International Black Hawk and the Battlehawk armed attack and command-and-control version of the H-60. Both are targeted at international markets.

Schweizer and Sikorsky’s was a marriage of necessity. As Bill Schweizer, one of the founders of the company that bears his name and its current chairman, explained, when he and his brothers Paul A. and Ernie ran the company, they developed the business to the point where they could borrow money without having to sign personally for the loans.

“In the last 5-10 years, the banks have been squishy about government operations and so forth and they want the management to sign if you’re not a public-owned company,” he said. “The result is that the younger generation felt this was too big a risk to be taking, to put everything on the line. So we looked for a partner and we picked out Sikorsky as the partner and then, lo and behold, they liked us and we were able to work out a merger.” (He consistently refers to the transaction as a merger.) “They’re the leading transport military helicopter builders and we expect to be the leading small helicopter builder,” Bill added, saying that having Sikorsky behind it is helping Schweizer’s sales. The numbers bear that out.

“In terms of helicopter deliveries, we delivered 58 units last year,” said Paul, who is Bill’s son. “That’s up from 39 units in 2003 and 48 units in 2004, so it’s a 20-plus percent gain between 2004 and 2005.

This year, the company expects to deliver 78 helicopters. It booked 37 orders at this year’s Heli-Expo alone.

“Our big problem within the company is we are just not able to produce helicopters, we haven’t been able to produce helicopters at the rate we need to satisfy customers,” Paul said. “We’re building one aircraft every four days now. We’re ramping up production such that we soon will be building one aircraft every three days. Next year, we expect to be at a rate of one aircraft every two days.“

For its part, Sikorsky was looking for help, as Randy Simpson explained.

“I was at Sikorsky from 2001 on, working for Paul Martin,” the Sikorsky senior vice president who came out of Lockheed’s famous classified program hothouse, the Skunk Works.

“We always had this dream of setting up a Hawk Works at Sikorsky, but we could never figure out how to do it there. It wasn’t easy. And then when this opportunity with Schweizer came along, we were just salivating at it because it was a perfect opportunity to create that.”

Sikorsky’s X-2 Technology Demonstrator
Sikorsky’s X-2 Technology Demonstrator (above) and the Hawk Works @ Schweizer Aircraft (below) are just two of the areas in which the Horsehead, N.Y.-based manufacturer is helping its new parent.
Hawk Works @ Schweizer Aircraft

Schweizer brought “a great vertical integration capability” to Sikorsky’s mix, Simpson said. “They can make any kind of part you can dream of, and do it very quickly and very efficiently. So right after the acquisition was consummated back in September of ’04, we started scheming on what would be the next project.”

That project became the X-2 Technology Demonstrator, which both Simpson and Paul Schweizer are convinced could not have launched by Sikorsky alone.

“If Schweizer wasn’t in the Sikorsky fold,” Simpson said, “we really wouldn’t have done it.” Sikorsky, he noted, “was too costly and too slow.”

(Sikorsky is not the only one looking for Schweizer’s help in pursuing advanced technology prototyping and development. Its parent, UTC, is also calling on Schweizer for help on what Simpson called “some really way-out-there projects.”

There were no signs of the X-2 aircraft when I visited Schweizer’s factory.

“The bits and pieces have all been hid,” Les Schweizer said when I met him. “I can tell you perfectly frank. It’s because you were coming.” He said it with a hearty laugh. But I did not get the sense he was joking.

It was the second time I had met Les. The first was shortly after the acquisition, as I was being escorted on a tour of Sikorsky’s plant in Stratford, Conn. He was with his wife, and we chatted for a bit. I asked what he was doing there and he replied that, same as me, he was getting a tour to familiarize himself with the new owners. As a reporter, I’m ashamed to admit it didn’t occur to me that there might be more to it. There was.

“It was just after acquisition,” Les said during my visit to Horseheads, “but we were laying the groundwork for how the X-2 was going to evolve.” Just how exciting a project that was became clear a few months after our first encounter, when Sikorsky revealed the X-2 initiative to the annual American Helicopter Society International gathering.

During our second meeting, Les talked a bit about X-2.

“This aircraft we are building is a technology demonstrator. We don’t have any customer for this aircraft,” he said. “We’re not trying to sell this vehicle as a finished product. This is designed to be a demonstrator and a research platform.

“If this is successful, it will fly for 5-10 years and end up in a museum someplace,” he went on. “When you look at the amount of research that you could get out of this, this things will be an invaluable vehicle.”

Of the many intriguing aspects of X-2, one is its fly-by-wire system.

“We’re starting basically with a white sheet of paper and creating our fly-by-wire system,” he said. There is certainly some technology that was learned in Sikorsky’s Cypher unmanned aerial vehicle program and others. “But basically we’re developing a fly-by-wire system to fly this aircraft. It will have no mechanical control capabilities at all. This fly-by-wire system is being developed only to fly this aircraft safely.”

While there are no plans to make the system into a production fly-by-wire system, “certainly if it’s got potential for that, we’ll pursue it.”

X-2 is far from the only exciting program at Schweizer.

Schweizer’s employees tend to embrace change. Workers in the helicopter frame shop, challenging to reduced costs and workflow time, reorganized their tasks to slash hours from production
Schweizer’s cart

Paul Schweizer is pumped about both the RU-38B reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft and the MQ-8B Fire Scout Schweizer is producing with Northrop Grumman for the U.S. Navy and Army.

“The RU-38B, I think, it’s going to change the way intelligence is gathered in this country and probably around the world,” Paul said. “We’re able to collect information that absolutely cannot be collected with any other vehicle or any other way and we’re able to do it at a cost that’s a fraction of the cost of traditional U.S. military systems.”

The impact of the aircraft didn’t dawn on the Schweizers until they were approached by another company.

“The first people who talked to us about this was one of the largest aerospace companies in the United States, which was trying to buy the product, and maybe more than the product,” Paul said. “They were the ones. , I think, we knew we had something special, but I think they really highlighted that.”

A descendant of the gliders that the Schweizers first produced and the quiet surveillance airplanes it developed for the U.S. Army during Vietnam, the twin-engine RU-38B is designed to loiter at a high altitude above an intelligence target and be completely unheard and largely undetectable on the ground.

“In fact, it’s happening today, everyplace where the U.S. government operates around the world, they use our surveillance airplane to support their actions,” Paul said. “It’s something we’re very proud of.”

The Fire Scout unmanned aerial vehicle based on Schweizer’s 333 turbine helicopter was nearly a dead program three or four years ago.

The U.S. Navy’s requirements had changed and the original design now lacked the power to meet them. After Navy officials explained that in meetings with Schweizer and Northrop Grumman, Schweizer proposed a redesign.

“The program was going to be closed down,” Paul recalled. “We met with the Navy, and this was pretty much Schweizer vs. Northrop Grumman, and we understood what their position was. They basically said the aircraft did not have enough performance to meet their requirements.

“So we then developed a new rotor system for the aircraft. We went to a fourth rotor blade and we changed the design of the blade,” he said. “By doing that, we took the gross weight from 2,650 to 3,200 lb. That 550-lb delta was almost all useful load, with a very small cost impact on the vehicle.

“That’s what put the program back into existence, the B version. So that’s the aircraft that we’re producing now. Because of that performance upgrade, we were able to win the U.S. Army’s Future Combat System Class 4 tactical unmanned aerial vehicle requirement.

“So today we have the Army and the Navy as customers,” he said. “If you look at their requirements, it’s well over 400 vehicles and that’s a big-deal program from Schweizer.”

The rotor and transmission improvements to the Fire Scout already are being rolled back into the 333 turbines Schweizer is delivering.

Fire Scout got another boost in August when the Navy awarded Northrop Grumman nearly $136 million to develop and build nine of the unmanned aerial vehicles.

The work is a $135.8-million modification to the contract for systems development and demonstration (SDD) phase of the project, which runs through 2008.

These and Schweizer’s many other projects highlight the company’s key advantage, Paul said.

“This company is different, really, from the rest of the industry in that we’re not just a helicopter company,” he said. “We’re heavily invested in very sophisticated surveillance aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, as well as helicopters.

That blessing is a challenge, too, he said.“We have a lot of pressures on us because the business is growing so fast. There are so many things happening. We are really committed to all of our core businesses. We fight a real battle around here to make sure not one of them becomes dominant over the other.”

That may get more difficult. Paul projects the RU-3B by the decade’s end will account for the largest share of Schweizer’s revenues. Click here for more Schweizer news from Rotor & Wing.

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