S-Tec buy a boost for UK’s Cobham

 - December 28, 2007, 5:36 AM

UK aerospace and defense firm Cobham’s decision to buy autopilot maker S-Tec from Meggitt for $38 million could signal the emergence of a revitalized competitor in the market for integrated GA avionics systems.

A Cobham official said S-Tec’s Mineral Wells, Texas operation and its workforce of 180 employees will be added to the company’s portfolio of avionics businesses in North America, which also includes Chelton Flight Systems, Wulfsburg, NAT and Artex. Whereas these businesses have operated more or less independently since Cobham bought each of them over the course of the last half dozen years, the firm’s strategy for the future will rely on closer integration and tighter control.

“Cobham’s long-term vision is to build a broad-line avionics company much like a Collins or Honeywell that can offer turnkey integrated systems,” said Gordon Pratt, vice president of business development for Cobham Avionics and Surveillance. “In fact, internally it’s known as the Cobham Cockpit.” The U.S. Navy has selected the Cobham avionics package for upgrades in its TH-57 helicopter training fleet using EFIS displays and the HeliSAS autopilot developed by Chelton Flight Systems. More military contracts are in the pipeline, he added.

S-Tec designs, certifies and manufactures autopilots for a wide variety of general aviation airplanes. Pratt said production of the HeliSAS helicopter autopilot will likely move to S-Tec’s factory later this year to bring all autopilot work under one roof. “They’re ideally suited for it, they’ve got the capacity and they meet the FAA’s stringent inspection requirements for flight-control systems,” Pratt explained.
While a major focus for engineers at Chelton Flight Systems in the months ahead will be the Navy TH-57 contract covering more than 100 helicopters, Pratt said the GA market will become an increasingly important segment as Cobham seeks tighter integration of its avionics businesses.

Pratt is the cofounder of Sierra Flight Systems, the experimental-airplane EFIS maker that Cobham bought and renamed Chelton Flight Systems in 2001. Chelton turned that product line into a fully certified synthetic-vision EFIS with integrated FMS software and terrain awareness system. The FAA chose the EFIS as the centerpiece of its Capstone avionics demonstration program in Alaska. Approved for installation in more than 600 types of helicopters and Part 23 airplanes, the Chelton FlightLogic EFIS is flying today in thousands of aircraft, from homebuilts and helicopters to Cessna Citation 500s. Next Chelton plans to seek approval for its first Part 25 installation by fitting FlightLogic in a Citation 550.

Meggitt said it no longer considered S-Tec core to its operations. The UK firm bought the autopilot maker and bundled its products with the Magic EFIS originally certified in the Piper Malibu Meridian turboprop single. That product suffered in the market with the emergence of glass cockpits from Garmin and Avidyne and has been discontinued.