Enstrom the helicopter company, meanwhile, turned out more than 300 of its original F-28A helicopters. The company sold stock to local residents, who bought more than 10,000 shares before the company was sold in 1968 to Purex Corp., which at the time operated one of the nation’s largest commercial aviation support organizations. Purex’s stated goal in buying Enstrom centered on development of a turbine model, but technical problems forced the company to abandon its ambitions and sell the company.
In late 1970, F. Lee Bailey, the famed attorney perhaps known best for his role on O.J. Simpson’s defense dream team, bought the R.J. Enstrom Corp. and renamed the company Enstrom Helicopter. Perhaps more than anything else, Bailey was a terrific marketer, and aided by a surging general aviation market, the factory in Menominee was soon turning out more than a hundred helicopters each year.
Bailey oversaw the development of a new Enstrom model, the aero-dynamically streamlined 280 Shark, which entered production in 1974. The 280 was an immediate hit, and a strong order backlog encouraged Bailey to expand the Enstrom factory and commission the development of turbocharged versions of both of the company’s production helicopters. Not content to stop there, Bailey told his designers to develop a stretched four-place helicopter to be known as the 280L Hawk. The ambitious plan turned out to be Bailey’s undoing when technical problems with the design drained cash just as the helicopter market was experiencing a downturn in 1980.
Bailey sold the company to an investment group that initially focused on adding power to the F-28 and 280 models, which were still selling reasonably well to private individuals, flight schools and police departments. By 1984, famed inventor Dean Kamen, known as the creator of the Segway people mover and hundreds of other technologies, joined Enstrom as an investor and technical adviser. Kamen was instrumental in helping to improve the company’s products and in introducing the 480, originally conceived as the TH28, to compete for a U.S. Army training helicopter program.
The 480B in Detail
Bell Helicopter eventually won the military contract with a version of its Model 206 JetRanger, but the hard work Enstrom put into the project allowed the company to go ahead with the commercial introduction of the 480 in 1993. Seven years later, the private, unnamed Swiss investor bought the company, although Kamen remains as an influential adviser and, as an owner of two Enstrom helicopters, an important customer as well.