After a painfully slow start, deliveries of Bell Helicopter’s light twin, the Model 429, are picking up pace and the manufacturer is looking towards development of its next new product as it works to revitalize its commercial business.
Photos: Bell Helicopter
After delays in development, the 429 was certified in 2009, just as the industry was sliding into a deep downturn. Bell delivered one aircraft in 2009, but this increased to 20 last year and the company expects to deliver another 50 this year.
“We encountered problems in the later stages of development,” says Larry Roberts, senior vice president for Bell’s commercial business. “Fixing them took us beyond the point where we wanted to introduce the 429, and square into the middle of a recession.”
To stimulate sales of the 429, the company funded a global demonstration campaign. The response from potential customers has been positive, he says: “We have a growing orderbook and growing interest. The hard work was justified.”
One key to increased sales has been the completion of certification work on mission kits for the different markets in which the 429 is offered, including corporate, emergency medical service (EMS), law enforcement and offshore.
“It was a challenge to certify the mission kits by the end of 2010, but they are all certified now,” says Roberts. Bell has delivered 429s to corporate. EMS and offshore operators and could announce a law-enforcement order at Heli-Expo.
The 429 is Bell’s first new commercial helicopter since the 407 light turbine single was introduced in 1996, and its slow start has cost the company ground in the civil market. In a bid to revitalize a commercial business starved of attention and investment while the company struggled with major military programs, Bell in January formally launched the Magellan new product development program.
Studies have begun and timing is not decided, but Roberts says: “We would not be considered a viable commercial manufacturer if we did not have a product in the medium range.” That suggests Bell could launch a competitor for the 6-7-tonne AgustaWestland AW139 and Eurocopter EC175, or their intermediate-size 4-5-tonne AW169 and X4.
On paper, the 5.4-tonne Bell 412EP is in the same market sector, but its manufacturer acknowledges the long-running medium twin is a niche product. “The 412 has its own little segment of the market where there is not much competition,” says Roberts. “It’s rugged and reliable and can operate in climates where new technology has issues.”
An aftermarket upgrade for the 412EP, introducing uprated digitally controlled engines and new glass cockpit, is planned for supplemental type certification by 2012. Whether the upgrade is incorporate into production will depend on demand “but that’s likely where it will end up,” he says.