For Whom the Bell Tolls

Bell Helicopter Textron must stop work on the ARH-70 Arapaho. After a nearly one-year schedule slip, mounting technical problems and a recent crash of a prototype on its maiden flight, the army decided it was time for a re-think.

At least that puts the Arapaho in good company.

I’ll start with the HV-911 Eagle Eye, the unmanned tiltrotor that developed a problem with staying in the air. How much money did the US Coast Guard sink into that program before they finally pulled the plug? 

What about the H-1 Upgrades Program? It was orginally a roughly $3 billion program to remanufacture a total of 180 UH-1H Hueys and AH-1W Super Cobras. It is now a more than $8 billion prorgram to mostly remanufacture 180 UH-1H Hueys and AH-1W Super Cobras (some new-build UH-1Ys are now included in the total).  That means the army is paying about $45 million per aircraft for (deep-breath) mostly re-built Hueys and Cobras. For perspective, a brand new (and much, much larger) CH-47F Chinook costs about $31 million.

And then there’s the V-22. I’ve flown on the V-22. It’s a good aircraft and it can do some amazing things. The US Marine Corps will no doubt put it to good use. Some people remain convinced it’s a death trap, but the conventional wisdom says the program is finally in the clear. How long did it take to get to this point? How many unnecessary crashes and lives lost? How many program re-baselines, manufacturing crises and design screw-ups did it take?

Bell is the home of some brilliant aerodynamicists and engineers. This is the company that invented the super-sonic aircraft (Yeager’s X-1 Glamorous Glennis). For its time, the design of the original H-1 Huey was a major leap in technology. The V-22 tiltrotor program may have been deeply flawed in execution, but the design and concept obviously was the product of great minds.

The standard for complexity in military technology continues to rise. Aircraft manufacturing is not just about bending metal, but about integrating a "system".

At some point, Bell needs to show that it still belongs among the ranks of viable military aircraft manufacturers.

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