Bell Helicopter has entered the production phase of the first prototype of the 525 Relentless, a "super-medium"-class product and the company's boldest move to reclaim share in the commercial market.
The Fort Worth, Texas-based company started releasing digital design models to suppliers after completing a preliminary design phase on 26 June.
That allowed suppliers of certain components, such as a tail rotor assembly actuator, a main rotor gearbox carrier development part and the accessory gearbox, to enter production, says Larry Thimmesch, Bell's vice president of commercial programmes.
Bell announced the Relentless programme in February, finally taking the wraps off what had been internally known as Project Magellan. Aimed at the oil and gas, corporate and VIP transportation, and parapublic and emergency medical services markets, the 525 is Bell's biggest commercial helicopter and the beginning of an entire series of medium- and heavy-lift helicopters.
The company started by constructing a wooden mock-up of the aircraft in 2010. It has progressed to the full-scale mock-up that was revealed at Heli-Expo earlier in 2012.
Bell has not released its internal deadline for the 525's critical design review, but it must come before the prototype begins assembly in the second quarter of 2013 at the company's Xworx facility in Fort Worth.
In the meantime, Bell has activated a 525 systems integration lab comprised of a main rotor test rig, avionics test bench, tail rotor test rig and two flight control systems test benches.
A simulated cabin equipped with the Garmin G5000H integrated avionics system is also developing the control laws and math models for the fly-by-wire control system. The 525 could become the commercial market's first fly-by-wire rotorcraft to enter service, and the third launched by Bell with partners after the Bell Boeing V-22 and the AW609, which is now owned solely by AgustaWestland. Bell has not set a date for entry-into-service.
Bell has held its first interim certification type board meeting with the FAA. Although it is the first such commercial helicopter to be certificated, Bell says it has benefitted having conversations with the FAA for several years over the requirements to certify the fly-by-wire controls of what was then called the BA609 tiltrotor.
For now, the company has chosen to downplay its performance claims for the 525. It has released only the minimum value for the helicopter's range - 400nm. Thimmesch says he wants to keep the company focused on making the aircraft as good as possible, rather than meeting a particular specification. The company also has not launched a sales drive on behalf of the aircraft prior to first flight, and only released an unquantified order from oil and gas transportation service PHI.