Bell Helicopter has been hard at work in Louisiana since arriving a year ago. The company expects to finish its 505 Jet Ranger X manufacturing facility in Lafayette this summer.

Bell is seeking three major certification milestones for the Model 505 program. FAA certification of occupancy for the facility should be granted by mid-summer once tooling and assembly equipment are installed. The facility will begin building the five-seat, single engine turbine helicopter during the fourth quarter.

Type certification from Transport Canada is expected in early 2016, and the FAA’s production certification will follow. Certification of the Jet Ranger X in Canada is part of company’s strategy of building the first test airframes in Mirabel, followed by final assembly of production helicopters in Lafayette. Full-rate production is expected in 2018.

The new $26 million, 82,000-sq.-ft. manufacturing facility is being erected on 14.5-acres at the Lafayette Regional Airport, funded by the State of Louisiana, with Bell investing $11.4 million in equipment and tooling.

Bell’s presence in Louisiana “ should attract both suppliers and possibly pave the way for other manufacturers to consider the area,” said Don Pierson, senior director of business development for the Louisiana Economic Development (LED) office.

Bell claims to be the first Tier 1 aircraft manufacturer to build a final aircraft assembly line in Louisiana, and as such, it’s highly likely that vendor partners on the 505 will either relocate to the state or open up a branch facility.

Bell has approximately 115 employees in Lafayette already, working on rotor blades and panels, according to Paul Watts, program manager for the Jet Ranger X. An additional 115 employees could be hired in coming months. The LED is helping Bell develop a pre-employment training program, tailored to the manufacturers operations in Louisiana (see sidebar).

Asked if Bell’s presence in Louisiana could be compared to aerospace anchor companies such as Boeing in Charleston, South Carolina, and Airbus in Mobile, Alabama, Watts said, “Louisiana had a large number of rotorcraft operators. The resources for rotorcraft are here. This truly is an aerospace state.”

The State is home to numerous helicopter operations that support the oil and gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico. Bell’s Lafayette facility is across the street from PHI, a large operation that supports offshore energy industry. ERA Helicopters, based in Lake Charles, and Bristow, with a services hub in New Iberia along with four other Louisiana locations, are also major players. While the Model 505 is not designed to support offshore operations, it could be a prime pilot training vehicle, said Watts.

Meanwhile, the flight test program is proceeding ahead of schedule, with two 505 flight-test airframes, which had accumulated over 150 flight hours by mid-May. The third will begin testing this summer.

As of mid-May, Bell had 350 Letters of Intent with deposits for the 505. “We have seen significant worldwide demand,” said Watts. “We expect the majority of deliveries for the aircraft will be outside of North America.” Over 70 LOIs for the Jet Ranger X come from China, with Europe and South America also showing strong interest.