The Enstrom Model 480B‘s blend of forgiving flight qualities, turbine power and an almost six-foot-wide cabin help make it one of the most surprising light helicopters on the market today. Pilots love it, for all of the reasons just listed, as well as for its low operating costs and an exceptional safety record since its introduction in the early 1990s.
On the outside, the 480B is smallish-looking, kind of like a miniature AStar, yet it boasts a roomy interior that provides plenty of elbowroom for three adults, and space for up to five in a pinch. Powered by a derated Rolls-Royce 250-C20W turbine engine mated to a three-blade main rotor, the combination gives the 480B the handling qualities of a much larger machine, not to mention excellent high, hot and heavy performance.
The helicopter I flew had a full-up Chelton synthetic-vision EFIS, comfortable leather seats that can be removed, rearranged and installed again in minutes and — best of all — a demeanor in flight that makes this Enstrom model perhaps the easiest to fly of any small helicopter on the market today.
In this light, slow sales of late seem a mystery. The sour economy would certainly seem to provide one explanation. Another could be the emergence of the Robinson R66, another five-place turbine-powered helicopter that sells for a few hundred thousand dollars less than the 480B while boasting similar performance numbers, a higher useful load and the terrific Rolls-Royce RR300 engine.
There might also be a certain stigma attached to what many perceive as an “old” design, owing to the fact that the 480B is derived from helicopters first conceived and built in the 1960s and ’70s. Poke your head into the cabin of a new Enstrom, breathe in the smell of the high-quality leather interior, check out the fit and finish of the materials inside and out, study the gorgeous PPG paint, and your ideas about the helicopter, and the company that builds it, will quickly change.
At least they did for me when I visited the Enstrom Helicopter Corp. factory recently and had a chance to fly a 480B with company demonstration pilot Bayard duPont. Departing to the east from the company’s headquarters at Menominee-Marinette Twin County Airport (KMNM) on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the company’s demonstrator 480B, duPont showed why flying this helicopter can seem about as effortless as a circuit in the pattern in a Piper Cub. Adjusting the controls for a gentle climb and setting the trim, duPont let go of the cyclic, held his hands in the air as though he were a magician about to perform a trick for his audience, and then placed them in his lap. The 480B dutifully continued on its trajectory without belying for a moment its true identity as a helicopter and not a docile fixed-wing airplane. Credit Enstrom’s fully articulated main rotor system, which is a work of engineering art. Weighing 300 pounds including the rotor hub and blades, the system provides exceptionally high inertia, which means the blades want to keep spinning even in the event of a power loss, affording the pilot more time to react in emergencies.
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.”
The Enstrom Story
The Enstrom factory in Menominee is little changed from its earliest days, with tooling that has been around since the 1960s and an experienced work force. Still, in spite of the old-school feel of the place (or perhaps because of it), you can tell immediately that these are skilled craftsmen building a quality product. They do it almost entirely by hand, spending about 13 weeks building a 480B from the start of construction of the steel tubing surrounding the cabin (steel’s bad for weight but good for crash survivability) to the creation of the aluminum tail section and composite fuselage, the fitting of the rotor blades (made on site, also by hand) and finally the installation of engine, avionics and a trip to the paint booths.
The history of Enstrom Helicopter is a fascinating tale of perseverance, dedication and a little bit of luck. Most interesting is the company’s progression from the seed of an idea for a homebuilt helicopter (built in the founder’s basement) to an ownership pedigree that has included a famous lawyer, a famous inventor and, now, a reclusive Swiss investor who doesn’t even allow his name to be attached to the company he owns.
Enstrom Helicopter got its start in the 1950s, when a Michigan mining engineer named Rudy Enstrom decided he wanted to build a helicopter. By all accounts, Enstrom’s initial design wasn’t a very good helicopter, even by the standards being set in the day. But Enstrom’s vision attracted the attention of some local Upper Peninsula businessmen, who recruited experienced aeronautical designers to develop prototypes for a helicopter the company could sell. They formed the R.J. Enstrom Corp. in 1959 and launched development of the company’s first product, the piston-powered Enstrom F-28, which they certified in 1965.
Sadly, Rudy Enstrom was forced out of the company before sales of the new helicopter even started, but the business retained its visionary founder’s name and went on to achieve successes selling the F-28 and derivative 280 and 480 models, with a production run of more than 1,100 helicopters, including 142 of the Model 480. As an historical aside, after departing Enstrom Helicopter, Rudy Enstrom started a small heating business and ran it for a decade before again trying his luck in the helicopter business. In 1979, at the age of 63, he joined Hillman Helicopters in Phoenix as chief engineer, working alongside enthusiastic amateur builder Douglas Hillman on the development of the three-place Hillman 360. Tragically, Hillman died a few years later in a crash while flight-testing the helicopter, and the project was abandoned. Rudy continued tinkering with all things aeronautical in his machine shop but never realized his dream of leading a successful helicopter company. He died in 2007 at the age of 89.
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.
As mentioned earlier, the 480’s exceptional safety record is a testament to the helicopter’s build quality, maintainability and superb flying traits. A review of the NTSB accident database turns up only three serious accidents, two resulting in injuries and a third, in the Dominican Republic in May 2009, in one fatality to the helicopter’s pilot.
Strength of the 480B comes from a welded-steel central pylon. An extendible tail rotor and removable wheels can be used for ground operations. The helicopter is also fitted with top and side windows, two removable doors, composite materials and fuel tank enclosed with hinge bracket.
The 480B’s Rolls-Royce engine is capable of producing 420 shp, but Enstrom has chosen to use only a fraction of that power (305 shp for five minutes and 277 shp continuously), which gives the pilot the luxury of having plenty of power in hand and of retaining that power in demanding hot-and-high environments.
There is no hydraulic system in the 480B, which keeps things simple but also requires a trim system to absorb feedback from the rotor and to reposition the stick datum as required by the pilot. If the trim system fails, the forces required by the pilot to overcome them are about 15 pounds — not excessive, but the pilot would want to land fairly quickly. Unlike most helicopters, the 480B’s pilot flies from the left seat.
During my demonstration flight, the usual sideways and backward maneuvers, and landings and takeoffs into and out of wind, were straightforward. The rotor disc is responsive in all phases of flight as well as in turbulence, with controls that are nicely balanced and, as mentioned earlier, a trim system that’s easy to use and quick to react.
That Enstrom has managed to cobble together enough orders to stay afloat during what has been an extremely difficult time in the company’s 52-year history is a testament to the ownership and senior executive team led by CEO Mullins, who heads a work force of around 110 that still takes enormous pride in its work. It’s an American story, one that was written more than a half-century ago and, with hope, will continue to write itself for many years to come.
“I have the design for our next helicopter in a binder in my office,” Mullins confides. “We all hope we get to build it one day.”