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Bell Helicopter is a name that is almost synonymous with rotary aircraft. One of the enduring images of the Korean war is the plexiglas bubble and trellis frame of the Bell 47 helicopter, used to transfer the wounded to mobile field hospitals. A few years later, the company’s Huey model was one of the stars of the Vietnam conflict, helping to redefine the role of air power in complex, asymmetric warfare. And the Bell 206 Jet Ranger became a symbol for wealth and aspiration around the world as an affordable and easy-to-fly helicopter.
The company was set up in 1935 to produce fixed-wing aircraft but swiftly moved to innovate in the-then brand new world of rotary lift, flying its first helicopter in 1942. Much more recently, the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor military aircraft has had a big share of problems and cost over-runs but the programme, undertaken jointly with Boeing, has been a good platform for Bell’s technical expertise in the rotary field.
Now Texas-based Bell, owned by Textron which has fixed-wing manufacturers Cessna and Beechcraft under its Textron Aviation banner, has some work to do in the commercial field, especially in Europe, to fight against the power of Airbus Helicopters (the former Eurocopter), and AgustaWestland. Bell had revenues of $4.5bn in 2013 – up on the previous year’s $4.3bn – compared with Airbus Helicopters’ €6.3bn and AgustaWestland’s €4.1bn.
Current military programmes include additional Osprey deliveries over the next five years and potential US and overseas sales, H-1 utility and attack helicopter upgrades, plus the V-280 Valor tilt-rotor project – which has been chosen by the US military as one of two contenders in the search for a rapid joint multi-role rotorcraft. The Valor’s rival is a Sikorsky-Boeing collaboration.
But the Valor is still some way off – first flight would not be until late 2017. For now, Bell is pushing harder for commercial sales.
“Around five years ago we were about 75 per cent military, 25 per cent commercial sales,” says John Garrison, chief executive of Bell Helicopter. “This year we’ll be about 55 per cent military and 45 per cent commercial. So we’ve seen a fairly substantial growth in our commercial business that we need to offset the downturn in US Department of Defense spending with the V-22 volumes coming down.”
The growth has come from upgraded products such as the single-engine 407, in which Bell has seen a tripling of sales in Europe over the past two years. And from models newer to market – two years ago there were just two Bell 429 light twin-engined helicopters in Europe and now there are more than 40. “The 429 has enabled us to enter the para-public market,” says Mr Garrison, “with a lot of success in Turkey.”
The 505 Jet Ranger X, the planned successor to the single-engine Jet Ranger, has 200 letters of intent including 40 from Europe – which is traditionally seen as a twin-engined market because of restrictions on flying in poor weather in helicopters with just one engine. At the other end of the scale, the 525 Relentless “super-medium” twin, with seating for up to 20 passengers, will enable Bell to pursue sales in the offshore energy market where it has not previously had a rival to offerings from Airbus Helicopters and AgustaWestland.
“Europe is the second-largest vertical lift market in the world today after the US,” says Mr Garrison. “It doesn’t have the same growth rate as places like India, China and Brazil, but when you look at installed base to installed base, it’s the second largest today and I suspect it’ll be the second largest in 20 years.
“Even though the market growth rate is not significant, our market position is so low that we can grow despite the market not growing dramatically.”
Worldwide, the market for civil helicopters returned to modest growth of 11.4 per cent, according to US-based aviation analyst Teal Group, driven by energy industry and public sector demand. The military market, however is trending downwards.
In that context, Bell’s shift in focus is appropriate. Richard Aboulafia, vice-president for analysis at Teal, says: “The 505 and 525 are a solid start, but it will take more work to get back to the number two position. For too many years Bell relied on military customers while Airbus and AgustaWestland prioritised civil model development.”
Usman Ahmed, senior aviation analyst at the International Bureau of Aviation consultancy, says Bell has “woken up in Europe. Their marketing strategy is definitely working and recent sales of the Bell 429 confirm this.” But he warns that while the Bell 525 matches the offerings of AgustaWestland and is almost on a par with Airbus Helicopters products, “Bell still do not have a helicopter in the heavy category, and it remains a two-horse race between Airbus Helicopters and Sikorsky”.
Bell in 2011 bowed out of the AW609 civilian light tilt-rotor project, which was taken on wholly by Bell’s partner AgustaWestland, but Mr Garrison stresses that technical and other continuing collaborations mean that the Texan company has a substantial interest in the aircraft doing well when it finally comes to the market.
But with the focus growing among military customers on vertical-lift aircraft that can travel faster and further than conventional helicopters, Mr Garrison says that Bell has a strategy to “extend the tilt-rotor franchise way into the future”.
Alongside its Valor military project, Bell is looking at ways in which the same technology can be used in a commercial vertical-lift aircraft. Mr Garrison points out that the market for Valor-sized military aircraft is substantial. “We’re talking 2-4,000 aircraft,” he says, adding that a commercial model of this medium-sized helicopter could be more successful than the smaller AW609.
If that vision does come to pass – there are a fair few points at which it could stumble – the name Bell could be synonymous not just with helicopters but with all fast rotorcraft.