Coatesville Factory Seeks To Build Drone, Tilt-Rotor, Hydrogen-Powered Aircraft

June 1, 2023

May 31—Piasecki Aircraft Corp., a Delaware County-based helicopter hardware and software developer, announced plans Wednesday to step up development of its PA-890 helicopter powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, as well as battery-powered tilt-rotor and unmanned aircraft, at the former Lockheed Sikorsky factory near Coatesville it purchased last winter.

New aircraft designs are drawing interest from military and civilian buyers, said John Piasecki, president and chief executive of company, founded by his father Frank 80 years ago.

The company plans to hire 400 workers over the next five years at the 215,000-square-foot Coatesville site, while also keeping its 50-person, 70,000-square foot facility in Essington, Delaware County.

Piasecki is a family company: The late founder's seven children, beside John, include Fred, Piasecki's chief technology officer, and Greg, a director. Third-generation family members have also been employed.

Suppliers and potential users of the new aircraft and government officials were on hand Wednesday to welcome the new plant and hope for speedy Federal Aviation Administration approval for the products, some of which have been under development for many years. Rapid changes in aviation, spurred by the cost of existing aircraft and the proliferation of unmanned aircraft in recent wars in Libya, Syria, Armenia and Ukraine, have given the field special urgency.

John Piasecki said he's especially hopeful about the PA-890, which he said will be able to handle the work done by conventional helicopters with carbon-fueled engines at about the same purchase price, but half the operating cost.

Mike Stanberry, chief executive of Metro Aviation, which flies 160 emergency medical helicopters in 29 states, said that once approved by the FAA, the hydrogen-powered helicopter could prove far more affordable to operate for hard-pressed hospital budgets.

And Martine Rothblatt, the Sirius XM radio developer who now heads United Therapeutics, which is developing artificial human organs, told the crowd Wednesday that she expected the Piasecki-built helicopters would reduce the cost of rushing organs to hospitals where they are needed.

"Remember, Orville Wright said helicopters were impossible," Rothblatt said. " Frank Piasecki proved them wrong, and his sons are proving that what can be conceived, can be scientifically addressed."

The new space, including three buildings for research and development work, a main manufacturing center, paint shop, and other special areas, will allow Piasecki to simultaneously work on different stages for a series of rotorcraft — parallel instead of sequential production, John Piasecki said in an interview.

Not counting the cost of the new facilities, the company paid $10.5 million for the former Sikorsky works, which laid off around 300 workers last year after owner Lockheed Martin Corp. consolidated production and left Chester County, where it had built civilian helicopters, as well as the Marine One choppers used to ferry U.S. presidents and other dignitaries.

Piasecki relies on federal Defense and Energy Department contracts for much of its work; it also partners with companies including Boeing, which employs 4,100 at its Ridley Park manufacturing and engineering complex.

The Boeing plant itself traces its origins to a company Frank Piasecki sold to the plane maker in 1960, after he developed the now-familiar tandem, two-upright-propeller heavy-lifting helicopter design. The Boeing plant's Chinook and Osprey product lines face an uncertain long-term future as Pentagon officials and U.S. allies decide on how many new and refurbished aircraft their armed forces will need.

Chester County officials cheered the decision by Piasecki to keep the site in the aviation business, instead of turning it into warehouses, self-storage, or strip shopping space, like so many other former Philadelphia-area industrial sites.

A 2014 state grant had helped pay for the Sikorsky expansion. But Sikorsky's purchase by Lockheed Martin the next year left the plant competing internally for orders against larger plants in Connecticut, New York, and elsewhere.

The Philadelphia region is a historic center of helicopter production, one of the last heavy industries to survive the exodus of steel, railroad, and electrical equipment and petrochemical plants in recent decades.

In Northeast Philadelphia, there is the Leonardo (formerly AgustaWestland) helicopter factory, which employs about 1,000 workers building Thrasher trainers for the military, among other civilian and military aircraft. It is also developing Grey Wolf, a military version of one of its existing civilian helicopters, in partnership with Boeing.

John Piasecki said his company is unusual for its longevity and prides itself on projecting technology developments decades into the future. He compared the long development cycle and detailed FAA approval process to the Food and Drug Administration's similarly difficult path for new drugs.

"There are just a handful of companies like ourselves that are operating in the fuzzy front end of technology development and demonstration," Piasecki said. "You have to look 20 years ahead to see the problems that are to be solved and the technologies that meet that capability. Because we are privately owned, we can take that long vision."


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