In the 1940s, Russian-born engineer Igor Sikorsky designed the R-4, the first large-scale, mass-produced helicopter in history. Shortly after Sikorsky became the first American to successfully fly a helicopter of his own design, Frank Piasecki became the second, flying his PV-2 in 1943.
Today, both men’s legacies live on: The former’s Sikorsky Aircraft is now the vertical lift subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, while the latter’s Piasecki Aircraft Corp. (PiAC) continues to manufacture rotorcraft and vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft.
This week, one firm’s former manufacturing plant is on the path to become the other’s state-of-the-art facility. PiAC on Wednesday announced it has acquired Sikorsky’s 219,000-square-foot Coatesville, Pennsylvania center—which closed in 2022—and plans to turn it into a research, development, and testing site for VTOL aircraft, unmanned aerial systems (UAS), and other emerging aviation technologies.
More specifically, PiAC will use the Coatesville facility to execute several ongoing projects. Those include production and testing of the company’s forthcoming PA-890 aircraft, a slowed-rotor, winged compound electric VTOL (eVTOL) helicopter. PA-890, when completed, would be the world’s first zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell rotorcraft.
The facility is slated to reopen this fall and expected to attract around 400 workers within five years.
“We chose to expand our development capabilities in the Delaware Valley because of its deep roots within the helicopter industry, its highly talented workforce, and its robust supplier network,” said PiAC CEO John Piasecki, Frank Piasecki’s son, who now leads the company alongside brother and chief technology officer Fred Piasecki. “PiAC is committed to creating local jobs by fostering cutting-edge innovation, and we’re excited to support a community that has long prided itself on delivering aviation excellence.”
PiAC’s use of the Coatesville center—which contains facilities for engineering development, aircraft assembly, paint and finishing, flight testing, and delivery—has the support of Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, former governor Tom Wolf, Sen. Robert Casey, Rep. Chrissy Houlihan, and the local Chester County Economic Development Council.
Much of the site’s resources appear to be concentrated on the PA-890, the production of which is being supported in part by the U.S. Air Force. Currently, PiAC is working with partner ZeroAvia to incorporate its High Temperature Proton Exchange Membrane (HTPEM) hydrogen fuel cell tech into PA-890 and other VTOL applications.
Ultimately, the eVTOL is expected to reduce noise and cut direct operating costs in half compared to today’s fossil-fuel-burning turbine helicopters. Its applications will include emergency medical services, on-demand logistics, personnel air transport, and other commercial use cases. The aircraft is expected to begin crewed flight tests later this year.
“It’s incredibly exciting to see a company like (PiAC), a longtime aviation industry innovator, continue their commitment to developing new technologies like the PA-890 hydrogen fuel cell-powered helicopter right here in PA’s sixth district,” said Houlihan. “These advancements have the potential to transform vertical lift flight and help eliminate carbon emissions.”
In addition to supporting work on PA-890, the Coatesville facility will progress other PiAC projects such as the Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES), a multi-use, tilt-ducted VTOL aircraft that can fly crewed or uncrewed missions.
ARES was first developed with Lockheed Martin and is funded by the Air Force, the U.S. Army, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). PiAC is now working with Honeywell on a triplex fly-by-wire flight control system, which it hopes will enable ARES flight testing later this year.
Another PiAC project in development is Adaptive Digital Automated Pilotage Technology (ADAPT), a flight control software package designed to improve safety and affordability. The intelligent system automatically reallocates commands between redundant control effectors—devices that generate control forces or moments on the aircraft—to respond to changes in flight, such as aircraft damage or reduced performance.
After the Coatesville center is up and running, PiAC will continue to conduct ground testing, design and engineering operations out of its current facility in nearby Essington. At the moment, the firm has no plans for a full relocation.