Paris Air Show

Bell Eyes Future While Wrestling With the Present

 - June 16, 2017, 8:24 AM

Bell Helicopter executives are enthusiastically promoting future technologies, including those embodied in the company's FCX-01 mockup concept helicopter and a potential new eVTOL aircraft to serve an emerging urban air market. At the same time, they acknowledge the challenge of managing their two current new helicopter programs, the 505 and the 525.

Nearly six months after the 505 light single received initial type certification from Transport Canada, the FAA validated that certification on June 8. Bell said that EASA certification should follow shortly. Bell (Static Display A2) delivered the first customer 505 on March 7, 2017 andholds 400 letters of intent (LOIs) for the model. Bell CEO Mitch Snyder recently said the company has had good success converting LOIs for the 505 to firm orders, but declined to offer specifics. “We can't give you numbers, but I would say that it has been a really healthy conversion,” he said. Snyder also declined to estimate what the 505's production run would be in 2017, although he gave an estimate of 50 during a press conference last December. “We haven't decided the exact production ramp-up yet,” he said. “We are very pleased where the 505 program is right now.” Bell is working on certifying a variety of options for the 505, including kits for law enforcement and electronic news gathering.

Snyder said that the commercial market has stabilized for Bell, driven by orders for the 505 and the 429 light twin and renewed international interest in the 412. “I wouldn't say the market has returned or anything like that, but for us, orders are coming in at a nice rate, so we're getting stability.”

More than 11 months after the fatal crash of a Bell 525 flight test aircraft, that program's helicopters remain grounded. Earlier this month, Snyder said the 525 would be “back up to flight in the near future. We continue to work on non-flight activities and the program is continuing to progress there,” Snyder said. “We continue to work closely with the NTSB and the FAA. We're preparing for flight. We expect to be in the air in the near term. That's pretty much what we can say right now. The aircraft are being built up in preparation. We have one aircraft that we are bringing back up on line and then the second one will follow shortly after that.” Snyder said that none of the remaining two test aircraft had engaged in ground runs during the stand down and that two additional test aircraft are being built up at Bell's Amarillo, Texas, plant. One of those will fly this year and the other early next year. “The current plan, assuming that we will be flying here pretty quick, is that we will get type cert by the end of 2018 and begin deliveries in early 2019,” Snyder said.

Bell's entry into the U.S. military's future vertical lift (FVL) competition, the V-280 tiltrotor, is 96 percent complete and preparing for rotor system installation and ground runs later this summer and first flight in September, according to Snyder. Bell's unmanned tiltrotor, the V-247, has passed systems requirement review and is headed for preliminary design review. He did not rule out developing a commercial variant of the V-280 if the aircraft succeeds with the military. “[If Bell wins FVL] we are definitely looking at a derivative of that,” he said.

Michael Thacker, Bell executive vice president for technology and innovation, said the technologies embodied in the FCX-01 will eventually find their way onto Bell production aircraft. They include items such as a hybrid drive system with electrically powered and embedded anti-torque, adaptive blades and augmented reality and artificial intelligence in the cockpit. While Thacker said that Bell is working with global rideshare service Uber on creating its urban air transportation network known as Elevate, he added that “there is no definitive agreement in place today [with Uber]” on any specifics pertaining to the project. He also declined to provide specifics on the Bell resources devoted to the project in terms of metrics, such as manpower. “I won't talk about that. We have a cross-functional team including engineers, designers and manufacturing folks who are all working together on the innovation team and are working across multiple platforms, including urban air mobility. We believe the technologies that we are working can enable a number of products in a number of market segments, urban air mobility being just one of those great opportunities.”

Thacker said Bell is keeping its ideas for urban air mobility under wraps for now. “We have a number of concepts on the table; we are not unveiling any at this point. We are not ready to unveil our design for the product. We're not ready to release a timeline. We've seen Uber's timeline [2020]. We're working with Uber to make sure we can do it in a safe and appropriate manner.”