Bell expects to decide soon whether to launch an improved Model 412Plus helicopter in partnership with Agusta, while at the same time committing to a North American final assembly line for the all new Italian-led AB139 development.

The Fort Worth-based company is considering a major design revamp of the 412 to extend the commercial life of the long-running 15-seat helicopter. Bell says high demand continues for the twin-engined machine, with 34 delivered in 1998, and a recent Venezuelan order for six more.

Bell chairman Terry Stinson says: "If we decide to do a 412Plus, which we've talked about, that will come under the Bell/Agusta Aerospace company. A decision will be made as soon as the board gets the information in front of them-I'm hopeful that we will have an announcement soon."

Bell, as part of its joint venture with Agusta, will be taking a 25% stake in the development of the 6t-class AB139, to be produced in Italy and North America. Few details have been released ahead of an official unveiling in June at the Paris air show, other than that it will be equipped with Honeywell Primus Epic avionics and a version of the same Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 turboshaft series powering the 412.

Agusta views the proposed 412Plus as an "interim step" to the 15-seat AB139, which it claims will be larger and faster. "The overlap is small enough that we don't have a problem if we make that decision," echoes Stinson, who adds that the 412Plus would be "substantially less expensive" than the AB139.

Bell is looking to the 412Plus to have lower specific fuel consumption, improved operating efficiencies, increased payload and reduced direct operating costs. The upgraded helicopter would incorporate four new Rogerson Kratos large-panel liquid-crystal displays and powerplant and dynamic change system.

Pending longer term is a decision on an eventual replacement for the Model 206, to compete with the new Eurocopter EC120. The company had hoped to marry the Boeing-patented Notar anti-torque technology with the light 206 until the US Government blocked its planned take over of Boeing's civil helicopter business.

The alternative is to switch to an all-new helicopter design, but Bell says it is not ready to make that decision. "The 206 represents a harder decision for us to make. Initially, we had expected to see a fairly dramatic drop-off in sales as the EC120 came out-but we're not losing any of our existing customers. The 206 is still the least expensive entry-level turbine helicopter," claims Stinson.

Source: Flight International