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Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Bell 505 and the Future of Mirabel

By Randy Jones, Publisher

I have a confession to make. For a very long time, I was not convinced that the new Bell 505 Jet Ranger-X was actually going to be an all-new aircraft design. I had been at a different press briefing in Paris when Bell made the official announcement, and the first question I asked our editor who covered the Bell briefing was, “Did they say it would be an all-new Type Certificate?”

“Yes – It’s going to be an all-new, clean-sheet design” was his response, to which I replied, “but did they actually use the words new Type Certificate. Go back and ask them if it will be built on a completely new Type Certificate, or if it will be a revision of the 206 Type Certificate.”

The question here is not one of corporate honesty so much as it is one of corporate strategy and common sense. It costs a great deal of money to develop a new aircraft Type Certificate. I remember sitting at a restaurant twenty-some-odd years ago with two individuals who had direct knowledge of the costs involved, and together, they came up with an estimate of $20 million minimum to get a new aircraft certified.

That was 20 years ago, and that particular discussion was centered on the cost to develop a new single-engine piston, fixed-wing aircraft, not a turbine helicopter.

The consensus that evening was that it has become very difficult for a manufacturer to count on recouping the development costs of a new aircraft design with profit derived solely from the sales of a single variation of that aircraft. The accepted formula for recouping those development expenses faster and more assuredly is to follow-up quickly with variations that will appeal to additional buyers. You expand the power, you stretch the fuselage, or you strip it down to only its most bare essentials in order to produce a lighter weight/lower cost version.

But however you might choose to brand these new variations to the world, behind the scenes as far as the certificating agency is concerned, you are just tacking on new letters of the alphabet to the backside of your existing Type Certificate. The Bell 407 is based on the Bell 206 Type Certificate, just as the Airbus EC-130 is a variation of the AS-350 Type Certificate and the single-engine AgustaWestland AW-119 is actually a derivation of the twin-engine AW-109 Type Certificate.

So it would not have surprised me if Bell, in a quest to develop a new turbine aircraft at the lowest possible price point, had chosen to fall back upon the original H2SW Type Certificate that has been the basis of every single-engine turbine aircraft they have built since 1964.

But oh, that center mast. The broom closet. The unique characteristic of the Bell family that separates the pilots from the cabin and a Bell from any other helicopter. It is a safe assumption to say that removal of the center mast has been a line drawn in the sand by the certificating agencies that determines exactly how far they would go in allowing Bell to create derivatives of the 206, or else that mast would have ceased to have been a feature right about the time the first AS-350 was introduced.

Since that first announcement of the 505 in Paris though, Bell has proven that they are committed to not only an all-new Type Certificate, but a totally new way to build helicopters. By all accounts, the approach they are taking to set up their new production facility in Lafayette, La. is game-changing. Nothing is being done simply because “that is the way it has always been done.” Bell is bringing in non-aviation people to look at the processes and requirements with a totally fresh perspective.

But the unspoken implications for the future of the Bell 407 and the plant in Mirabel are huge. If the way to recoup development costs is with derivations of your new Type Certificate, where can you go with the 505? You have to assume that you can’t strip it down to produce a cheaper model, as that has been the goal from the beginning. If you go anywhere else, you are into the range of the old 206/407 Type Certificate. And if you can produce a new aircraft without the center mast that falls in the same performance range as a 407, why would you continue to build a 407?

When you factor in the economic incentives that are most certainly being provided by the State of Louisiana, and the cost advantages that will come from a clean sheet design of the production process, whoever is in charge of economic development in Quebec ought to be putting together a strategy.

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