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The original item was published from 5/23/2017 4:03:00 PM to 8/4/2021 4:12:49 PM.

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Economic Development

Posted on: May 23, 2017

[ARCHIVED] Doing Business in Pierce County - HeliTrak


HeliTrak was incorporated in 2007 by longtime friends, aeronautical engineers, and avid pilots, John Mercer and Peter Hambling. Their goal was to create the most advanced safety devices and autopilot systems for rotary wing aircraft (e.g. helicopters). Originally located in Kent, the business moved to the Pierce County Narrows Airport in 2011. The airport provided what they needed: adequate office space for the 20 engineers developing the Collective Pull-Down (CPD) device and autopilot systems, a place to flight test instruments, plus access to additional space to later produce the instruments.

What is a CPD and why would a helicopter pilot want one? According to the International Helicopter Safety Team (, “Helicopter Facts,” the most predominant occurrences of fatal helicopter crashes result from loss of pitch control of the main rotor blades and inadequate or no autorotation. This is REALLY important to helicopter pilots and their passengers! The details are beyond the scope of this article, but to learn more, please read: In short, when a helicopter loses power, the pilot often has less than one second to recognize the situation, and set the collective pitch of the main rotor blades to begin a controlled decent using naturally occurring autorotation of those blades. According to the company, HeliTrak’s CPD does that automatically within half a second, eliminating the recognition time for the pilot and providing a cue to the pilot by pulling the collective pitch in the proper direction. This provides almost immediate reaction in loss-of-power events, giving the pilot more time to react and safely land. After a long development and certification effort, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued design approval for HeliTrak’s CPD device in late 2016 and manufacturing approval in early 2017.

Not Your Typical Commute Led to Another Idea

When the company was located in Kent, John purchased a home on the Key Peninsula. Commuting by car wasn’t a viable option, so he flew his Robinson 22 helicopter to and from work. Flying the helicopter took time that John would rather use on other things, so the idea of an autopilot for this type of aircraft was born. The idea was further aided by another process the owners developed at their other company, Digital Control, Inc (DCI). DCI pioneered the guidance systems used in the Horizontal Directional Drilling process. The HeliTrak Autopilot System development is nearly complete, and is in the FAA approval process. The company expects to begin production immediately after certification.

Suzanne Steiner, Vice President of Marketing & Business Operations, has been with HeliTrak since its founding. During a recent trade show she commented, “The reaction to this new product has been extremely positive.” These thoughts are echoed by Chris Nehls, President since May 2016, who is moving the project from prototype to production. Nehls sees challenges and opportunities ahead as the company moves solidly from the engineering phase to production, and he and Steiner plan to take full advantage of their market position. Both are now vigorously marketing these state-of-the-art instruments to the helicopter flying community.

The CPD and Autopilot have both national appeal and international appeal. Pierce County’s Economic Development Department is facilitating the collaboration of state and federal agencies to assist in marketing to the federal government and potential international customers. The company sees a great future for these products, as well as other products currently in the development pipeline. Learn more about the company at

We’re proud to have HeliTrak products made in Pierce County. 

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