Only a year ago, the mood at Bell Helicopter's civil business looked grim. The company had entered the HAI Heli-Expo a month after reporting a six-year low for civil helicopter deliveries in 2016, against the backdrop of a broader industry downturn that seemed to have no bottom. Moreover, the flagship 525 Relentless test fleet remained grounded months after a fatal crash in July 2016 raised concerns about the super-medium's fly-by-wire control system. Finally, the 505 JetRanger X had still not crossed the first delivery milestone after falling more than a year behind schedule.

As gloomy as the atmosphere around Bell seemed a year ago, a cautiously optimistic glow prevails around the Forth Worth, Texas-based manufacturer this year. Parent company Textron lightened the mood in late January by reporting a year-on-year increase in deliveries for Bell's civil business, the first since 2013. The 525 Relentless test fleet returned to flight last July. This year, the National Transportation Safety Board released its accident report on 6 January, and Bell had already made the software and design changes to fix the deficiencies it identified.


Progress on the JetRanger X tracks roughly with the company's upturn in fortunes. In November, Reignwood ordered 50 more 505s, raising the Chinese tourism operator's total order to 110 and filling Bell's empty production slots for two more years. Hundreds of letters of intent are still on hand to convert to firm orders.

But the 505's progress on the production front is mixed. After finally delivering the first 505 to a customer last March, Bell delivered a total of 27 by the end of 2017. In some ways, it was a return to form for Bell, which had ceded the short-light single market to Robinson since the demise of the 206B3 JetRanger assembly line in 2010.

But the delivery total in 2017 fell short of Bell chief executive Mitch Snyder's prediction in late 2016, when he told journalists the company would deliver 50 505s in 2017 and ramp up to 150 shipments this year.

"We've experienced some delays with certification. That delays industrialisation and ramp-up. We've gone through this, but it's all behind us,” says Cynthia Garneau, president of Bell Helicopter Textron Canada.

"We’re now at the place where we're meeting essentially our commitments to our customers in terms of delivering aircraft," she adds.

The certification delays mean Bell is still deep in the industrialisation phase of the production ramp-up. In Bell’s terminology, the industrialisation phase means the assembly tasks are still not completely standardised, so a larger-than-normal percentage of assembly tasks now are out of sequence.

The aluminium and composite structures for the 505 arrive in Mirabel, Canada from an Aernnova factory in Mexico. Two major elements – the cabin and the support truss for the engine and transmission – are loaded on opposite ends of the assembly line. Each is built up in a series of factory stations that converge at the centre of the line, where the completed truss is loaded into the built-up cabin structure. The aircraft then moves into final assembly, where the last pieces, including the rotor blades, are integrated.

Complicating the ramp-up last year was the introduction of an enterprise software management system on the 505 programme, a first for the Mirabel facility. Bell originally planned to assemble the 505 at a new factory in Lafayette, Louisiana, but switched the location to Mirabel in May 2016. The new management system is intended to streamline assembly by simplifying logistics and operations, but the transition poses many complexities, says Francis Tessier, Bell’s senior manager for manufacturing in Mirabel.

"We are at a good place right now in terms of commercial market, in terms of our capacity and what we're able to produce out of here," Garneau adds. "Is there room for more? Absolutely. We're adjusting our move rate. We're definitely ready to produce more when the market picks up some more."