From left to right- Doug Guichard, Terry Kratovil, Steve Smith.Three employees who began working for the company in Pennsylvania in the early 1980s reunite 30 years later – all still working for Airbus Helicopters - to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Airbus Helicopters, Inc. in Grand Prairie, Texas.
Four decades ago, a hub of helicopter operations opened among the rolling hills and farmlands of Pennsylvania.
Called MBB, the German aerospace company launched its U.S. base in 1979 in West Chester, a small town in the state’s Brandywine Valley some 30 miles west of Philadelphia. Today, MBB is part of Airbus Helicopters after a merger with Aerospatiale in 1992.
About 30 employees relocated to Grand Prairie, and a handful of those employees remain at Airbus Helicopters Inc. They recall MBB as a close-knit community nestled in a bucolic setting.
“We were a family,” says Larry Chappell, who worked as a flight instructor and demonstration pilot for MBB. Chappell is now a senior technical instructor for AHI.
MBB was best known for developing the BO105, the first light, twin-engine helicopter in the world and the first rotorcraft that could perform aerobatic maneuvers.
Initially, the company opened a string of rented offices in downtown West Chester and a warehouse in a nearby industrial park, where it stored spare parts, tools and even the occasional helicopter.
Wes Moore, President and CEO, would joke that he started the company “with two pencils and an eraser.” By 1982, MBB had outgrown the rented offices and built its own state-of-the-art facility on the grounds of the Brandywine Airport, just three miles northeast of West Chester.
“You could look out the window and see corn fields and beautiful pastures,” says Terry Kratovil, a senior technical representative for AHI who oversees the Northeast region. “We called it the country club.”
At its peak, MBB’s U.S. operation employed nearly 200 people who worked in aircraft completions, training, maintenance, sales and marketing. Business was booming, and the company built a second hangar in 1986 to accommodate growth.
“There was a very strong sense of community,” says Jeff Donahue, who now works in asset management and sales. “This was more than just business to us.”
The company achieved a major milestone in 1983 when it delivered the first BK117, a medium twin-engine helicopter, which would eventually become the H145. At the time, MBB worked largely with emergency medical service providers and off-shore operators, but the rotorcraft industry was prime for growth in other sectors.
“Helicopters were just beginning to come into their full potential, and we were part of that development,” Donahue says. “It was an exciting time to work in aviation.”
Visitors can now tour the old MBB headquarters, which was transformed in 1996 to the American Helicopter Museum and Education Center as a way to commemorate the region’s contributions to the rotary wing industry.