FARNBOROUGH: Bell makes headway in civil segment

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Bell Helicopter, for so long a bit of a bystander in the civil segment, is suddenly very busy with a pair of development programmes on its books. Both of these – the 505 Jet Ranger X and the 525 Relentless – are scheduled to make their maiden flights this year as the Fort Worth-headquartered manufacturer looks to rebalance revenue away from declining military markets.

The more complex of the two programmes is the clean-sheet Relentless. Although it will be the third entrant into the new super-medium segment behind the Airbus Helicopters EC175 and AgustaWestland AW189 – the 525 is due to enter service in 2016, two years after its rivals – Bell feels the level of technology it is introducing on the helicopter means operators will be happy to wait.

Key features include a majority composite fuselage and rotor blades, new gearbox and, for the first time on any civil rotorcraft, full fly-by-wire controls.

Matt Hasik, senior vice-president commercial programmes, is a firm believer in the capabilities the 525 will offer. He says: “Our customers are really beginning to understand that this isn’t just another helicopter.”

Bell lists the Relentless as having a maximum take-off weight of 19,300lb (8.7t), but remains coy on whether this may increase further. It is, says Hasik, a “leap ahead” compared with other rotorcraft in the segment. Payload range characteristics will be “class-leading”, he adds.

But the big selling point is the FBW control system. “There are already platforms in the [super-medium] space, but what they don’t have is the technology and innovation we are bringing to the market with the 525,” says Bell president and chief executive John Garrison. “No other platform will have its capabilities.”

Hasik says the FBW system will allow pilots to better cope with emergencies – for instance if it detects engine failure, it immediately transitions to one engine inoperative mode. Similarly, if the pilots are forced to make an autorotative landing, the flight-control computers detect this and it “helps the pilot in those critical first few seconds of transition”.

Additional envelope protection is also present, adding “tactile warnings” to the controls akin to the stick shaker alarm on modern airliners.

That enhanced level of control is vital, says Garrison, particularly with the 525 being pitched initially at the offshore transportation and search and rescue segments, especially in Europe. Indeed, Bell has a mock-up of the 525 in SAR configuration at Farnborough.

“It enhances the capability of the pilot in a challenging environment and the North Sea remains one of, if not the, most challenging environments in the world,” he says.

Bell has kept order details close to its chest so far and the only deal it has revealed is a commitment from Abu Dhabi Aviation for 10 aircraft. Launch customer PHI will additionally take an undisclosed number of 525s, but other than that, Bell remains silent.

Garrison, however, is confident of securing further deals. “We are definitely involved in operators’ capital allocation decisions for the years ahead,” he says, noting that the company is in “advanced discussions” with several potential buyers.

“I think once we make the first flight we will see some strong interest from global operators.”

Achieving that maiden sortie – and that of the second flight-test aircraft – will be key to validating the General Electric CT7-powered type’s performance.

Assembly of the first flying prototype is well under way at Bell’s Amarillo, Texas facility, says Hasik.

“We have made quite a bit of progress with the aircraft structure. It’s coming together. If you were to visit in person you’d see it was starting to look like a real aircraft,” he says.

Join of the forward section with the aft and rear fuselage sections will take place later this summer at the “Item 30” station on the assembly line.

“Aircraft 1 is coming together and aircraft 2 is coming down the assembly line behind it,” says Hasik. Around two to three months separate the two aircraft, with the second due to be “ready to go” shortly after flights start with the initial flight-test article.

In all, three flying prototypes will be produced, alongside two ground-test articles for fatigue and systems testing activities. Additionally, the first two production helicopters – for which parts are already being manufactured – will join the test campaign around midway through its duration.

“Testing and validating” of the FBW system is also taking place at Bell’s Xworx systems integration laboratory in Arlington, Texas. Here a full-scale, detailed cockpit mock-up known as “aircraft zero” is connected to a room full of computers running the flight-control software and then to a third room that contains all the 525’s mechanical systems – such as main rotor actuators and swashplate. This ensures that Bell can check “in a closed-loop system” that pilot inputs are correctly translated by the computers into the right outputs.

Bell began “flying” aircraft zero last August and has made “tremendous progress” over the past 12 months, says Hasik, with the expectation that the system will be ready for first flight by late this year.

“We have had almost a year to wring out and test and work through the development of that kit. So far, so good, everything is tracking towards first flight,” he says.

The first set of full composite rotor blades was also recently completed, he says, and are now undergoing testing, before production can start on the initial ship-sets of main and tail rotor blades.

Progress is also being made on the 525’s all-new gearbox, with the first test unit to be assembled later this year. It has been designed for “increased robustness and safety” says Rasik.

High-speed planetary gears have been eliminated, he adds, again to enhance safety. “The slower they turn, the less heat they generate, so in the unfortunate event of a loss of [main gearbox] lubrication the temperature is a lot lower,” he says.

US Federal Aviation Administration Part 29 regulations stipulate 30min dry-run performance, but Hasik points out that the gearbox on the 429 surpassed 4h. “We are confident of meeting and exceeding that [30min] requirement,” he says.

Meanwhile, work on the 505 Jet Ranger X has been even more rapid. Launched at the Paris air show in 2013 with the working title of Short Light Single, Bell then renamed the helicopter at the HAI exhibition earlier this year and a mock-up of the helicopter can be seen at Farnborough.

The first parts of the initial flight-test vehicle have been fabricated across the supply chain and are flowing to the airframer’s facility in Montreal, Canada for assembly. The core of the airframe has been fabricated by Aernnova in Querétaro, Mexico and will transfer to the final assembly line this month.

Turbomeca completed initial runs of its new Arrius 2R turboshaft in April and continues testing the 504shp (376kW) FADEC-equipped powerplant.

The 505 is also on track for first flight later this year and its team hope to beat their rivals on the 525 to first flight. “I’m not supposed to pick winners in this horse race, but if I had to predict, then I would probably tell you the 505 is going to fly first, but competition internally is alive and well,” says Hasik.

Sales, or at least initial commitments, have been going well, says Hasik, in part thanks to its strong heritage in the segment. It has secured around 50 letters of intent in Europe alone, adds Garrison.

“Now we are bringing a new more modern and capable aircraft to the market at an extremely aggressive price point,” he says. List price is around the $1 million mark, as Bell targets its big rival, the Robinson R66.

The key for Bell at this year’s Farnborough show, however, is to demonstrate its increased focus on the European market, the world’s second-largest for rotorcraft.

“We have been in Europe for 50 years, but recently it didn’t have the focus and attention it needed to have,” says Garrison.

That neglect was partly driven by Bell’s long relationship with Italy’s Agusta, which licence-built a large number of Bell types at its Vergiate plant. “It was our entry into Europe, but as the companies grew, we realised that we needed to take control of our own destiny,” says Garrison.

But with investment in facilities in Prague and Amsterdam and the recruitment of additional staff – alongside a reshaped product line, Garrison is bullish about its future in the region.

“We have the right products, people and facilities to win in the European marketplace,” he says.