Interview – Century Helicopter – Peter Chao – August 2012
I caught up with Peter Chao, President of Century Helicopters at the 2012 IRCHA Jamboree. We spent about an hour talking about Century and gas helicopters and looking over his latest products
GPT: Hello Peter, thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. First let’s talk about some history. Can you give us some background on Century helicopters itself?
Peter: Century started in 1987 simply as a helicopter retailer. We sold other companies helicopters and product. Over time we saw an opportunity to make our own products and we started selling to other vendors. In 1988 we opened Heli-World and started wholesaling our own brand names. We’ve been in business for 25 years now!
GPT: When did Century release its first gas helicopter and what was it?
Peter: In 2002 we released the Predator which was our first gas helicopter model which was based on the Zenoah G231
GPT: Any idea how many total gas helicopters you have sold in rough numbers (unless you consider that proprietary)
Peter: Century considers this proprietary but the number is in the thousands
GPT: Do you (or other folks within Century) fly gas helicopters?
Peter: Yes I actually fly gas helicopters, I’ve flown every model we’ve built. It’s my hobby as well so I have a great job! If I see something I want, I build it. I have my own factory so I can build what I want. Not many people get to do that, it’s fun!
We talk with customers to get ideas, design it, manufacture it, wholesale it, and sell it!.
We also have some team members who focus only on gas helicopters, Garret Oku is one of our gas helicopter pilots
GPT: In general terms, about how long does it take you to design, manufacture and release a new helicopter? I remember seeing the first prototype at the Jamboree for the Radikal about 2 years before it was released
Peter: That depends. We work on a design until we are satisfied with it. Since we have our own manufacturing facility I can have prototype parts made overnight if I need to. However most products evolve over time until we think they are ready
Most things begin as an idea, for example we wanted to change people’s thinking on gas helicopters and build something very light. This was how the design for the Radikal began.
We saw the 50 size (600 class) as an area where there wasn’t anything available for gasoline power so we started there with the Radikal 20.
Because of our company’s size, we are able to work with manufacturers to produce parts that aren’t common. An example was for the Radikal 20 we needed 620-640mm rotor blades and they weren’t readily available. We went to Funkey and had them make 620 and 640 wide chord blades.
When we were done the Radikal 20 design worked well enough to grow it into what is now the Radikal 30.
GPT: Do you use a design team for the gas models or do most of the ideas come from specific people or a person?
Peter: I’ve done the initial design on every model. I do the basic drawings and then work with our team of engineers to build it like I want. I am an engineer by trade so I help with all of the mechanical design throughout its lifecycle. I don’t do electronic design though.
GPT: Who are some of your gas helicopter experts?
Peter: Bill Meador, James Kovachs, and Mike Zellars are some of them in the US.
GPT: Very good, so let’s talk about some of your current offerings for gas helicopters and what is the target market for each?
Peter: Well first let me talk about the Predator line. After 10 years we recently ended production of the Predator because the structure was limited and we didn’t think we could take the airframe any further.
In terms of gas powered helicopters we currently sell the Radikal and Condor.
GPT: Which one is the most popular?
Peter: The Radikal 30 is currently the most popular
GPT: Some manufacturers focus on particular use cases for their gas helicopters, what’s your target or ideal customer for your models?
Peter: We have focused on all aspects of the gas helicopter market but with our revised models and new line of performance motors we’re going to really focus on high performance pilots. And we are also starting to focus on the UAV/AP market with larger specialty models like the Condor
GPT: What do you think are the biggest advantages that your gas helicopters have over their competition?
Peter: We can engineer the complete system. We design and build the helicopter, we have our own rotor blades made to our specs, we make our own exhaust systems and now with the HWC engines we are making our motors. So the entire system can be matched for the best performance
GPT: Understood, well since you’ve brought up the subject of motors what powerplants do your gas powered models use?
Peter: All of our current models are based on the Zenoah PUH line of motors
GPT: Power systems are often the limitation on gas helicopters, Have you made any efforts to use a different power system or even design your own? if so any success?
Peter: We realized sometime back that more powerful motors were needed so we worked with the popular engine modifiers like BH Hanson and TRM Power. We sold a lot of these so I started thinking about” why don’t we make engines?” Most of the modifiers don’t have factories and can’t easily support large volume production. I have helicopters, I have blades, I have mufflers, I have a factory so hey, why don’t I make motors?
People want high performance motors and Century wants some share of that business but we want to coexist with the existing engine modifiers. Because of existing distribution arrangements we can’t buy entire motors from Zenoah but we can get the parts and modify them to our specs Zenoah has actually visited our factory in China and our facilities in California.
Here’s an an example of the motor packaging with muffler. This particular one includes the motor, air cleaner, pull starter, custom EI system and muffler in a nice looking package.
By combining the power system: engine, muffler and ignition we’ve been able to make small additional changes which make a difference in overall performance.
An example of this is the pressure tap for the fuel pump in the carburetor. Most engines just use the internal port in the cylinder/isolator block to drive the pump. We found that at very high RPM this port didn’t have a consistent vacuum pulse so the pump couldn’t deliver fuel at the desired rate. So we added an additional pulse port from the crankcase directly to the fuel pump. Now we get more consistent fuel delivery regardless of RPM.
Again because I have a full manufacturing facility for both the helicopter and for assembly of the motors If I want something changed, I can have it made immediately.
GPT: You’ve expanding your engine accessories to include reed valves and EI systems. Can you talk about their advantages? Are you going to add more engine accessories?
Peter: We started by using reed valves but found at high rpm they didn’t really help with performance, they made a difference mostly in the mid range. I don’t care about midrange power, I want power/torque in the 13-15K range. Using the cylinder based reed valves required lots of additional machining and just didn’t provide enough of an advantage so we dropped the reed valve configuration for our motor program.
The standard Zenoah ignition system doesn’t have any advance so the timing can’t be optimized. It has to be retarded to a point that the motor will start easier which is not the best timing for high RPM operation. We have our ignition systems custom programmed so that they properly advance the ignition timing all the way up to 25,000RPMs. Although these motors don’t turn that fast Its another small change that when combined with other changes improve the performance of our motors.
GPT: You manufacture a couple of different exhaust systems, the Torpedo and Torpedo slim mufflers. can you talk about their advantages over other exhaust systems?
Peter: Yes we’ve optimized them for use with our helicopters, they fit properly, are light weight, balance correctly on the model and provide a good mix of power vs. Sound.
GPT: Have you considered manufacturing a tuned pipe for helicopters?
Peter: Tuned pipes do help make a lot of HP but I don’t think the average helicopter pilots can tune the motors with them. Most pilots just want to bolt on the exhaust and go fly not spend time getting it tuned for their particular setup. That’s why you see more sport pilots in gas helicopters, it can be made to work by just bolting components togeterh. In my opinion this is one of the big advantages of the Zenoah RC format motor, it’s pretty much self contained, just bolt it in and go fly it.
A large portion of current gas helicopter pilots don’t want to do 3D anyway so our standard exhaust systems work well for them
GPT: How do you go about testing your motors
Peter: Its been very difficult to get motors properly tested. We’ve let our pilots do testing but depending on who is doing the testing their expectations may be very different so what one person likes or thinks is good another may not. So we’re moving more towards using test equipment where we can get more objective results.
GPT: Do you expect to release any new gas helicopters during the remainder of 2012 or in 2013? if so any comments about them at this time or do we have to wait?
Peter: First, we’re releasing a V2 version of the Radikal 30 that includes lighter c/f landing gear, a new canopy and an almost all new tail drive system.
We’ve also started a new division, Century UAV which will focus on building UAV’s and AP platforms. We sell the DJI control systems which are now on their 3rd generation so this platform is advancing quickly.
This new division will work on new or variants of the Condor models (which are an extension of the Radikal 30) but with more robotic features for AP or UAV. It has configurable fuel tanks and will come with a painted full fuselage and rotor blades
Overall look for bigger models from us instead of new smaller ones. We don’t think we can compete with smaller import models as they have set set an unrealistic market expectation in terms of pricing.
We’re also going to build a version of the Radikal 30 based on the Zenoah RC based motor. But we’re going to offer a specially modified HWC RC motor for it that weighs less. It will have a custom cooling fan and our HWC EI system
GPT: The electric and glow powered markets are constantly evolving, what do you think is the next evolution for gas helicopters?
Peter: Earlier this year Century was invited to Japan with about 10-11 others to talk directly with Zenoah engineers about a future new motor. They want a bigger motor (31-35cc) to compete with the motors coming out of China and Korea like the CY, RCMK and DLE.
Lots of discussion topics like plating materials, parts coatings, port shapes and how to make the engines easier to modify for custom purposes. I don’t know a time frame for these motors to be released, historically development of something like this takes some time.
GPT: Do you see any big change coming in the platform that might be considered revolutionary?
Peter: The HWC line of modified motors. We think that HWC engines will change the dynamic by making performance engines that are matched to a helicopter more readily available.
GPT: What about the new GT15 motor that OS Max is testing?
Peter: OS sent us samples to test. Like all OS Max products it’s well made but we’re concerned about keeping it cool. It uses a steel sleeve which will reduce the transfer efficiency of heat to the cylinder. We think that the typical . 90 size helicopter cooling fan is probably not going to be adequate. Also the Ignition system they use doesn’t have any advance.
Because its only a 15cc displacement, it doesn’t make enough power for a high performance 700 class model so it needs to go into mid size class helicopter. We’ll look at maybe putting it in 640/660 size model.
I’m also worried about price. If it’s typical of other similar OS products, it will retail for $600-$700. Not sure how that’s going to be accepted by the helicopter community.
GPT: Glow and Electric platforms are by far the most popular helicopters, do you think gas powered helicopters will increase in popularity? And if so what do you think are the drivers for that?
Peter: In my opinion, the big drivers to grow the gas helicopter portion of the market are:
● setup complexity
● level of marketing.
Unless these change significantly I’m not sure that the percentage will increase.
Overall price is biggest hurdle to increase market share. Our goal with our new engines is to introduce performance increases and make them simpler to operate.
GPT: Do you think we’ll ever see someone compete in 3D masters or XFC or F3C/F3N events with gas helicopters?
Peter: Probably won’t appear in major competitions due to power disadvantage. No way to compete with 14-17HP electric motors
GPT: So lets talk about support. Do you sponsor a team or team members of field reps specifically for gas helicopters?
Peter: Yes we have gas helicopter focused members, and I’d like to grow our gas helicopter team. I’d like to get more hard 3D pilots flying them to demonstrate the new capabilities of the models.
GPT: I see a lot of frustration from gas helicopter pilots especially people new to liquid fuel power. Whats your biggest challenge in supporting the typical gas helicopter customer?
Peter: By and large we don’t have enough knowledgeable people to help, or answer customer questions however we do the best job we can.
To be more specific, the two biggest issues we see are:
● building issues – customers don’t always follow or even read the directions
● Tuning issues – customers don’t always bother to do tuning or they have issues because of differences with tuning for glow fuel.
GPT: What do you think could be done to lessen the challenges?
Peter: In general terms, we need more knowledgeable pilots for our gas powered platforms to help support them.
GPT: The gas forums available on the internet seem to be a mixed bag. Some provide good support but an awful lot of noise and bickering. Are they useful to you or do they cause as much grief as help?
Peter: It seems to me that the gas guys on the forums HATE EACH OTHER! They have lots of anger at each other for some reason. It seems to me that more people are visiting Helifreak instead of RunRuyder both because there seems to be less bickering there and of course your Gas Powered Thoughts forum is there.
Everybody has their own opinions and there are different ways to do things and they often are all correct. We build our helicopters they way I want them built and the way our customers ask us to build them.
GPT: You’ve got gas conversions now for the Align Trex 600/700 models using the drivetrain components from the Radikal. Do you expect to expand the line into other types of conversions?
Peter: We plan to extend those conversions to include support for the Zenoah RC motor format which HWC will also offer in modified form
GPT: Any other information you’d like to share?
Peter: I’d just like to say thanks to our customers who have kept us in business for 25 years! We look forward to many more years of producing gas powered helicopters that fit the needs of our customer base.
Source: Carey Shurley and Paul Pan