As super-medium helicopter manufacturers face a depressed oil and gas market, Bell Helicopter may find a short term savior for its upcoming 525 Relentless with a burgeoning VIP transport segment.

When Bell first conceived its 525 in 2010, it projected the offshore drilling and wind farm companies would make up almost 60 percent of the helicopter’s sales. But since then, falling oil prices have depressed the market.

“We are entering a low point in the market for oil and gas,” Larry Thimmesch, vice-president of 525 sales and business development, tells FlightGlobal. “But what’s interesting is we’re getting a big interest in the VIP segment that we had never really thought about.”

For the long term, Thimmesch still projects oil and gas will make up 50 to 60 percent of the market. Second to that market, Bell is courting government customers which could use the aircraft for search and rescue missions, he adds.

In the near term, the mix is much more weighted toward VIP and corporate aircraft, he says. The VIP market won’t replace the oil sector in terms of the number of aircraft sold, but the nascent market could help fill the programme’s early slots as Bell ramps up production in the initial years.

Despite the downturn, Bell is still pursuing the offshore and search and rescue missions for the Relentless. The company will certify a majority of its kits off of two prototypes, which will roll off the production line in early 2017. Model 14, configured as a search and rescue helicopter, will certify a hoist and complete full ice testing. Bell will put its oil and gas model 15 through helicopter deck flying paces, as well as tests floats and rafts, Thimmesch says.

The prototype aircraft should keep Bell’s 525 programme on track, even after a fatal crash this summer grounded flight tests. Since the accident, Bell has continued structural testing and has moved forward with kit design, Thimmesch says.

“We’ve made those changes to make aircraft very representative of production aircraft so we haven’t wasted any time which will move the program forward,” he says. “Which will make it be more efficient when we are flying again because there will be less development configuration, there will be more production configuration.”

Once the 525 debuts, Bell promises a more marinized helicopter for oil and gas missions. Bell focused on the issue after learning oil and gas operators spend about a third of their helicopter costs preventing or repairing corrosion. Some operators may attempt to marinize an existing aircraft by painting the exterior with white enamel, but coating the assembled structure will exacerbate corrosion by holding moisture in between the aircraft’s seams, Thimmesch says.

Bell has taken a different approach on the Relentless by installing better drainage, coating the brackets with primer and sealing the surface. The marinized version includes corrosion protection over the entire aircraft, including the electrical and hydraulic systems. The company also designed new corrosion protection using a high nickel content zinc coating rather than the less environmentally friendly cadmium coating.