Enstrom Helicopter Corporation will celebrate its 60th anniversary on 22 December. From humble beginnings in the woods of northern Michigan, Enstrom has grown to become a reputable aerospace manufacturer, having produced more than 1300 aircraft operated in over 50 countries around the world.
Rudy Enstrom was a mining engineer in Crystal Falls, MI, who dreamed of building his own helicopter, despite never having seen one in person! That didn’t stop him, however, and throughout the 1940s and 1950s he constructed a number of prototypes in his garage, hovering them in a local quarry. Jack Christensen was a tool salesman from Menominee, MI, and called on Rudy’s mine often. In the late 1950s he had the idea of putting Enstroms into production, and raised funds from local businessmen to start a company. The R J Enstrom Corporation was founded in December of 1959, with Christensen as CEO, and a 60-year legacy was born.
Rudy soon left the company, but not before engineer Alb Balaur was brought in to refine the design. Along with Paul Shultz and a handful of other talented engineers, the dedicated team laboured through the early 1960s, developing the F28. In the meantime, Christensen continued to raise money by selling stock to local individuals at county fairs. In fact, today it is still possible to talk to people in northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula who were original Enstrom stockholders. The F28 was FAA certified in 1965, and won Michigan Product of the Year. That was no small feat, considering that was the same year the Ford MUSTANG was introduced.
Compared to the spindly Bells and Hughes of the day, the fully cowled F28 was a sports car and became a quick success. The 1970s brought additional refinements, including a turbocharger for excellent ‘hot and high’ performance, as well as the restyled 280 variant. The 280 went on to win multiple industrial design awards, and continues to be considered one of best-looking helicopters ever designed. The late 70s were the heyday for general aircraft (GA) production, and Enstrom would build more than 100 aircraft per year out of its tiny Menominee, MI, factory. Unlike a lot of small aircraft companies, Enstrom survived the great GA bust of the 80s, and went on to develop the 480 series turbine helicopters in the 90s. This led to renewed prosperity in the 2000s, and the company today continues to produce its popular turbocharged piston F28F and 280FX siblings, as well as the turbine 480B.
The company was eventually privatized, and would pass through multiple owners. This included a few famous personalities such as trial lawyer F Lee Bailey, and inventor Dean Kaman. The factory has grown over the years, and is now a state-of-the-art 160,000 sq ft FAA-approved production facility. However, the company never moved, and has continued to manufacturer and support aircraft out of its Menominee home.
“It’s really an incredible story,” says Enstrom’s CEO Matt Francour. “I mean, how many small aircraft manufacturers have been in business for 60 years, continuously, with no bankruptcies, mergers, etc […] While the aircraft have changed dramatically, we have the same type certificate and production certificate we’ve had since 1965. It’s really a testament to the people we have here, our workforce and our local community. Their dedication has led to an incredible international legacy. I just want to thank all of our past and present customers for supporting us all these years. We hear so many great stories of things people did in their Enstroms, how the helicopters affected their lives. We are really proud to be a part of that.”
Founded in 1959, Enstrom Helicopter Corporation is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Chongqing General Aviation Industry Group Co., Ltd. (CGAG). The company designs and manufactures light single-engine helicopters for the global market, for missions including training, police and wildlife patrol, aerial photography and tours, agricultural spraying and livestock management, as well as personal transport.
@CAP: Although the buildings and facilities have changed dramatically since the original building shown in the headline photo, the location remains the same. (Photo: Enstrom Helicopter Corp.)