began 2012 with a bang as the launch of the 18-seat 525 Relentless super-medium twin-engine rotorcraft heralded an aggressive campaign to regain share in the commercial market.
Distracted by problems in its bread-and-butter military business over the last few years, Bell Helicopter had neglected the smaller commercial side of the business. It happily took orders for its derivative designs while competitorsand renewed their extensive product lines, leaving Bell behind the curve.
However, the game has changed, says Bell Helicopter President and CEO John Garrison. He has revamped the company, revitalized the Bell 429 widebody-cabin light twin, created new models of the venerable 407 light single, and launched Bell’s biggest helicopter to date – the Relentless.
Even the new helicopter’s name suggests that Bell has embarked on a new path of innovation instead of continually spiffing up derivatives of 50-year-old military designs that became increasingly uncompetitive with the latest European offerings. The Relentless will be the first commercial helicopter designed from the outset with fly-by-wire, notes Garrison. “It’s a new design from the ground up, allowing us to optimize the rotor and transmission to the power system to give us both payload and range.”
With its military programs (Osprey, Kiowa Warrior, and AH-1W) now seeing deliveries ahead of schedule, attention has turned to civilian helicopters. “We’re investing in the commercial side,” says Garrison. “Our commercial market picked up in the second half of 2011 to more than twice the previous year, albeit from a small base,” he says.
The 429 light twin could only improve on its lackluster sales record in Europe, and it has been doing so. A 500-lb. increase in gross weight, to 7,500 lb., has spurred more interest from operators who want a higher payload and more performance in IFR conditions.
The Turkish National Police led the way, with an order for 15 aircraft, and the 429 is now certified at its higher gross weight in 10 countries. “The 429 helps us get into markets we were previously shut out of, and we’re winning back some share,” says Garrison.
While the 15/16-seat Bell 412 – an iteration of the Vietnam-era UH-1 – remains “an absolute work-horse,” the addition of the all-new Relentless to the lineup “means we don’t need nine entries – we can compete with the others very effectively,” says Garrison.
Reception of the Relentless, he says, “has been ecstatic,” with a new Bell helicopter that is particularly well suited to offshore operations with the latest technology, such as fly-by-wire sidesticks andengines, offering safety and economy with good payload/range performance. “It all creates value for the customer,” says Garrison, with fly-by-wire bringing lower operating costs, and digital monitoring resulting in lower maintenance and life-cycle costs. Certification for the 18,000-lb. helicopter is slated to take place in 2015.
On the lighter end of the scale, Bell’s two new 407 derivatives – the Garmin-cockpit 407GX and the economy gunship 407AH (no fire-control systems, just point and shoot) – have both been attracting attention. The GX has been selling well, and the AH has attracted a large order with an undisclosed international customer. Bell is showing the 429 at Farnborough in corporate and EMS versions, as well as a corporate 407GX. And the V-22 Osprey will be flying every day during the air show.