A vibration-damping system, duPont explained, gives the helicopter benign handling and a smoother ride than pilots of other small, single-engine helicopters might be accustomed to. The 480B’s autorotation characteristics are outstanding, and the low disc loading combined with the high-inertia rotor system means a relatively low rate of descent and plenty of reserve thrust left at the bottom to safely land the helicopter. Enstrom’s rotor system has more than 3 million flight hours without catastrophic failure, duPont said.
The result is a helicopter that’s perfect for anything from training and low-time pilots to demanding missions. I certainly fit the category of a “low-time” helicopter pilot since this would be one of my first times at the controls of one. But when it was my turn to fly the 480B, I had absolutely no trouble zooming up and down the picturesque Upper Peninsula coastline or, back at the airport, practicing hovering. I had duPont demonstrate an autorotation and was a bit surprised: It was a nonevent that basically seemed more like a slightly steeper-than-normal approach with a gentle touchdown on the taxiway back at KMNM. If I’d the $1.1 million it costs to buy a new 480B, I might have written duPont a check for one right then and there. Simply put, flying the 480B is a blast.
The docile nature of the machine, coupled with the fact that none of its parts are life-limited, perhaps helps explain the Model 480B’s sudden popularity in Southeast Asia, where the Royal Thai Army and Japan Ground Self-Defense Force have recently placed bulk orders that will keep the Enstrom production line humming, it is hoped, until the U.S. economy improves. I had the chance to check out three 480Bs at the factory that were just being packed for shipment (on a ship) to Thailand. The word that comes immediately to mind to describe these new helicopters is gorgeous. Everything about them seemed to confirm that this is a company committed to delivering a first-rate product.
The overseas sales — including 28 helicopters for Thailand — couldn’t have come at a better time, Enstrom CEO Jerry Mullins says. Invariably when somebody mentions the name Enstrom Helicopter, a familiar question arises: “Are they really still in business?” Mistakenly assuming that the tiny company faded from existence long ago — another victim of the sour economy — is understandable. After all, Enstrom built only six helicopters last year. The company hasn’t introduced a new product since the Model 480B’s debut 20 years ago. Along with Robinson, the company is one of only two helicopter makers in the world that doesn’t sell its products to the U.S. military, making economic down cycles even harder to handle.
“It’s been a rough couple of years,” Mullins says, “the worst I’ve ever seen.”