Bell is back in the light helicopter business

One of the most interesting announcements at Heli-Expo was by Bell Helicopter. Texas-based Bell was an important innovator in the 1950s and 1960s with the Huey and Jet Ranger, two of the most-produced helicopters ever. The company lost its low-end civilian business to Robinson and much of its high-end civilian business to Eurocopter, but remained fat and happy with U.S. military contracts. When Eurocopter (now “Airbus Helicopter”) won a 2006 competition for the next generation of U.S. Army machines with the EC145 “Lakota”, Bell seemed destined to end up as a parts and service organization for a legacy fleet.

With the announcement of the Bell 505 Jet Ranger X at $1.07 million, Bell is back in the market. If you can live with four seats, the Robinson R44 remains a much better value, but the five-seat Bell 505 is very attractive compared to the five-seat Robinson R66, notably because the Bell incorporates an idiot-proof FADEC engine, which prevents owners/operators from doing $50,000 of damage with a shut-down or start-up.

The Bell 505 gets rid of the center column that breaks up the Jet Ranger cabin. It has a flat floor, a large baggage compartment, decent rear seat leg room (if you don’t mind passengers resting their feet on the collective pitch control), and an engine exhaust mounted on the top of the machine where soot won’t stain the tail boom as much as it does on the R66 and where a child cannot drop a marble into the engine. The engine gets overhauled after 3000 hours, an advantage compared to the RR300 in the R66, which must be overhauled every 2000 hours. There is a full Garmin G1000 glass cockpit included as standard equipment.

Is it a triumph of American engineering? Sort of. The rotor system and transmission are carried over from the old Long Ranger (206L), so that’s a triumph of American engineers who were working in the 1970s. The slickest piece of technology is the engine/FADEC combination, which are both entirely French. The fuselage is a conventional design with a steel tube frame and a mostly-aluminum skin. The product manager said that a composite fuselage would have raised costs by 20 percent and provided little performance benefit.

The machine is supposed to be certified in 2-3 years, so expect one in the hangar next to yours in 2016 if everything goes perfectly.

[On further reflection, the headline should possibly read "Louisiana taxpayers and Bell enter the light helicopter business." The state's taxpayers are paying for the factory and handing out some additional corporate welfare to Bell so that it will employ 115 people (source). I wonder how the family-owned Robinson company, stuck paying California's tax rates, feels about the public behemoth Textron getting a taxpayer-funded factory!]

3 Comments

  1. tax.boi

    February 27, 2014 @ 6:07 am

    1

    “I wonder how the family-owned Robinson company, stuck paying California’s tax rates.”

    They are dumb for staying. Move to Nevada? Or maybe shop their business around to the state that has the best story.

  2. philg

    February 27, 2014 @ 12:36 pm

    2

    tax.boi: It is illegal to set up aircraft production in a new factory without government approval in the form of an “FAA production certificate”. So it is not as simple as moving production of car parts or whatever. Robinson hasn’t had to worry thus far about competition so they’ve been able to pass their California costs on to customers. Schweizer was their only competitor in light training helicopters and they were bought by Sikorsky who decided that the civilian market wasn’t interesting and killed the product in favor of going after military projects with the Schweizer team.

  3. dg

    March 1, 2014 @ 2:43 am

    3

    Speaking of Textron (Bell/Cessna/Beech), its founder Roy Little’s autobiography “How to Lose $100,000,000 and Other Valuable Advice” remains one of the best business books I’ve ever read. An interesting story of how a wool yarn business became a helicopter-manufacturing-conglomerate.

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