Manufacturer also reviewing development of the Bell/Agusta BA609 civil tiltrotor

Bell is considering axing production of its long-running Model 206 helicopter while at the same time reviewing the increasingly protracted development of the new Bell/Agusta BA609 civil tiltrotor. The manufacturer is coming under pressure from its parent company Textron to cut costs and improve efficiencies.

The company continues to produce relatively small numbers of five-seat 206B JetRanger III and larger seven-seat 206L4 machines nearly 40 years after its forerunner the OH-4 first flew. The helicopter is the biggest selling turbine helicopter of all time with 7,500 JetRangers and LongRangers produced for the civil market alone.

There have been at least three attempts to produce a modernised 206C in recent years, but a viable business case could never be made for investing in the low-cost entry-level helicopter. Sales, meanwhile have gradually contracted, with 43 206B3/L4s delivered in 2000 and 20 in the first half of this year.

Worldwide sales of the competing Eurocopter EC120 now total 180, since the first machine was delivered in late 1998, of which half were sold in 2000. Discontinuing 206 production without fielding a replacement would leave Bell free to concentrate on selling the higher-value seven-seat 407 machine. Bell shipped 35 of the four-blade single-turbine machines in the first six months of this year.

Renewed talk of discontinuing the 206 line comes in the face of a deteriorating financial outlook for Textron and a series of high-level management shake-ups, including replacement of Bell's chief executive Terry Stinson with John Murphy. Bell has been hit by setbacks to its V-22 military tiltrotor and delays to the AH-1Z/UH-1Y modernisation programmes, while civil helicopter sales have dropped since 11 September (Flight International, 2-8 October).

Development of the BA609 has also gradually slipped, with the first flight of the six- to nine-seat tiltrotor originally set for the end of last year now looking set to slide into 2002 as the result of on-going software problems. The latest schedule calls for ground runs to begin at the end of the year. Bell officials were unavailable for comment on the future of either the 206 or 609.

Source: Flight International