When John Garrison assumed control of Textron's Bell Helicopter unit, he made one thing perfectly clear: the company that had once popularised the idea of the light commercial helicopter would again seek to regain a balanced portfolio across military, commercial and services businesses.

That might sound like a routine management catchphrase, but at Bell the implications of Garrison's vision were revolutionary.

In 2009, Bell's military business was stronger than it had ever been. Although the US Army had severed Bell's claim to the armed reconnaissance helicopter contract that year, the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor was deployed to Afghanistan for the first time and the UH-1Y and AH-1Z were finally making the transition from development into active production.

But the fortunes of the military business masked an increasingly desperate commercial division. Garrison, the son of a US Air Force flight nurse, arrived at Bell just as the global economy reached the bottom of a financial crisis that decapitated demand for commercial helicopters like the stroke of a rotor blade.

The commercial division's revenues were kept in check, but the overall value of its order backlog plunged to $440 million in 2009 and to just $380 million in the following year. At the pace Bell was delivering new commercial aircraft, the company entered 2011 with only a few months of backlog to fill.

More distressingly, it was clear that the worsening numbers could not all be blamed on the global financial crisis. Industry observers had long questioned Bell's ability to support the technological demands of the commercial market, while simultaneously ushering in transformative technology such as the tiltrotor aircraft for the military.

The time had come to restore balance to Bell's order book, and that was precisely Garrison's objective.

It takes time in the aerospace industry to enact the kind of sweeping change on Garrison's agenda, but in retrospect it is clear he wasted little time.

With his order backlog for commercial aircraft at perhaps its lowest point in early 2011, Garrison launched the beginning of Bell's recovery plan.

At the Heli-Expo 2011, Garrison unveiled new products for the commercial helicopter market: the 407GX, equipped with a Garman glass cockpit; and the armed 407AH, for the law enforcement and paramilitary market.

Neither carried the excitement of unveiling an all-new aircraft, but Bell's customers were able to detect that something had changed. Bell was again willing to invest in and improve its commercial products. Even as global economic growth sputtered, Bell's order backlog for commercial helicopters soared from $380 million to more than $830 million by the end of the year. Most popular was the 407GX.

Garrison's vision would not be complete, however, without introducing an all-new product. The super-medium-twin segment had become crowded in recent years with Bell's competition, but the company had long sensed there was room for one more product - if the technology were better.

Such an aircraft had long been rumoured to exist on Bell's drawing boards, but its leadership had never been motivated or willing to take the risky bet on its success.

Less than three years after taking the job, Garrison accepted the challenge. One year after the unveiling of the 407GX and 407AH, Bell unveiled an altogether unfamiliar airframe at this year's Heli-Expo: the Bell 525 Relentless, a five-bladed super-medium leveraging the fly-by-wire technology invented for the V-22.

It is still too soon to assign to the Bell 525 the credit of a successful programme.

But Garrison's leadership and vision has clearly rejuvenated Bell's commercial business after a long hiatus. Garrison accepted the job at Bell after a career spent mainly in the energy and industrial tooling sectors, with a short stint as a US Army artillery officer. There was little on which to judge his appetite for the uniquely perilous risks of a new product launch in the commercial aerospace industry.

It seems Garrison thrives on new challenges. He once praised his old bosses for taking a risk on him. "They put me in difficult situations to see what [I] could create for the company," he says.

Now, the entire aerospace industry is seeing the result.

Source: Flight Daily News