As one employee of Bell Helicopter puts it: “Having the right leader at the right time is what makes a business successful. We really think with Mitch that he’s the right person for the next stage of our development.”

He is referring to Mitch Snyder, who took over from predecessor John Garrison as chief executive in October 2015. Garrison, as most Bell people will tell you, was “a nuts and bolts guy” who “preferred to be on the factory floor” exploring the company’s manufacturing processes than pushing a grand, futuristic vision. (That he left Bell for digger and dumper truck manufacturer Terex probably says a lot.)

To denigrate Garrison as simply a “process guy” is slightly unfair, not least because Bell launched three programmes on his watch. These were the clean-sheet 525 Relentless civil helicopter and the V-280 high-speed military tiltrotor, as well a product, in the 505 Jet Ranger X, that finally seals Bell’s return to the short-light-single market it had mysteriously vacated.

But for all the cutting-edge technology in the Relentless – notably its fly-by-wire (FBW) controls – there was a sense, somehow, that Bell had lost its spark.

Inside its Fort Worth, Texas headquarters there is a long glass-fronted case, almost a museum exhibit, which details the company’s achievements over the years from the model 47 to the Huey and beyond. There are notable firsts there too, such as the record-breaking X-1, early tiltrotor designs and even personal jet packs. (“We showed these off during half-time at the first Super Bowl,” points out one employee. “Now we have Lady Gaga. Is that progress?”)

Time and again during Flight International’s visit, that history is referenced – the thrust being that Bell is seeking to recapture the “spirit” that powered its early years.

It is a strategy flowing from the very top: “I have worked really hard to change the culture. Our legacy has always been innovation – look at the firsts we have pioneered. Let’s embrace that past and bring it into today and drive it in a different direction,” says Snyder.

One of his first acts as chief executive was to set up an innovations team, bringing together elements from the design and engineering teams, with a brief to come up with fresh ideas.

“When I first took over, I had this really big push on innovation – I felt that we really needed to do more there,” he says.

“I didn’t just say ‘go and innovate stuff’ – I want to solve the problems we know the industry faces.”

These range from safety and reliability at one end, to operational performance and suitability for the mission at the other.

“We are looking at different problem sets we want to have solved by different platforms or technologies, both new and existing,” he says. These could include the application of fly-by-wire controls, for example, or new forms of propulsion.

FBW controls are a particular theme of Snyder’s: “I want to get where all the mechanical linkages are gone,” he says. Although the 525 is “the first shot”, Snyder says he has greater ambitions. “I really want it in all of [our helicopters].”

But while there is a logic to its integration in a helicopter like the Relentless, given its size and likely use, driving down the cost – and to some degree, the complexity – of a FBW system will be key to its adoption in lighter rotorcraft.

“I don’t think it’s a step too far [on a light helicopter]. It’s expensive right now, but that’s what I have asked the innovation team to look at. It is probably going to work its way down. It will be in the heavies and super mediums first where the customer is more willing to pay for it but it is odd to me that it is on drones and then you work your way up [to light helicopters] and it stops.”

One of the core targets of his innovation push is to make getting on board a helicopter “just as safe as if you were flying on a commercial airliner” and FBW technology is part of the solution to that, he argues.

Of course, these individual innovations are important but their practical application is what counts, and for most people that means new programmes. Snyder has already launched one new self-funded development – the V-247 unmanned tiltrotor, which is pitched at a future US Marine Corps requirement “and we are working on more military products behind that as well,” he says.

With the 505 only certificated in December 2016 – deliveries began in February – and the 525 delayed until 2018, the need for another new civil programme is less pressing but that does not mean the company is idle in this sector, says Snyder.

Indeed, the 412 medium twin, which has been in service since the early 1980s, appears ripe for replacement. Although Snyder admits “we do have some concepts in work” for a successor, what he is anxious to avoid is to build a more modern version of the same aircraft.

“I don’t know that I would say it is a replacement,” he says. Instead, Bell is talking to its customer base about the missions and capabilities that would be required from a future helicopter and identifying which “technology and platforms would provide that”.

Although the 505 was designed a bit more tactically to fill a space in the market Bell had vacated, the 525 had “a little bit more thought about what we are trying to do there”, he says. “We asked [operators] what was really going on in oil and gas and how far are you going [offshore]? What product do you really want?

“Some of that same thinking is what we are doing with some of the others – rather than thinking we want to replace this helicopter with another one of the same class.”

Another concept Snyder has previously hinted at is the development of a civil tiltrotor and a pair of models of what are clearly commercial variants of the V-280 on prominent display in his office; while only at the “concept stage”, Bell has modelled a 19-passenger cabin with three abreast seating in one design.

Bell, of course, was previously a partner with the then AgustaWestland on its AW609 tiltrotor, before selling its share in the programme in 2011 (although it retains an interest as a supplier).

“I have always believed in the commercial tiltrotor and still support the [AW]609 programme and hope [Leonardo] is wildly successful with it,” he says.

Although he cites numerous advantages potentially offered by the architecture, he says Bell needs to understand the market requirements before rushing into development.

There is another issue too: with the Valor only at the technology demonstrator stage, its future success rests on securing a large contract with the US Army under the future vertical lift initiative.

“If you replace every [Sikorsky UH-60] Black Hawk with the V-280 then you have scale. We believe in a [civil model] right now but believe it’s a derivative,” says Snyder.

If that does not happen, however “we would have to look at it to see if it is still viable in the quantities. Economies of scale really come when you have a military customer buying thousands of something.”

Interestingly, the two models feature different fuselages while sharing the same wing, nacelles and engine configuration. “The part that makes the magic is the same,” he says.

“We have a feel of where we want to go but what I have asked the team to do is go flesh out these technologies so when we do make a decision on a platform, the technology is ready to go.”

Snyder says that when he first came to the rotorcraft industry from a career in fixed-wing aviation, he was surprised at the resistance, or at least indifference, to innovation.

He points to the wildly differing levels of investment that have been poured into fighter aircraft and helicopters over recent decades. In the case of the latter, the mainstay platforms – the UH-1, Boeing CH-47 Chinook and UH-60 – all made their debuts in the 1960s and 1970s. They have, of course, been modernised in the intervening period, but the basic designs remain the same.

“In that same time we have watched the F-4 turn into the F-16 and then the F-35,” he says.

Although he points out that fixed- and rotary-wing operations have “different problems to solve”, at the end of the day “there has just been more money there”.

“Let’s borrow some of the technologies that have already been developed and push them into the rotorcraft business,” says Snyder.

Attendees at this year’s HAI Heli-Expo will be presented with a taste of Bell’s possible future, which will surprise many.

“It is different, but it’s a different Bell,” he says. “It will offer a feel of what Bell Helicopter can be.”

It may be a cliché beloved of headline writers, but perhaps Snyder has truly begun to ring the changes at Bell.