The projected certification date for Bell’s new 429 light twin has slipped again.
At a press conference here yesterday, Bob Fitzpatrick, Bell Helicopter senior vice president of business development and commercial programs, said the company now expects Transport Canada and concurrent FAA certification for the helicopter in May.
The 429, originally slated for certification in late 2007, has been dogged by repeated delays as the company juggled military and civil programs including the $70 million-per-copy V-22 tiltrotor, which is now poised to become the biggest single piece of Bell’s business, according to Fitzpatrick. Bell currently holds orders for 167 V-22s after delivering 18 last year. Fitzpatrick said military aircraft production is moving to constitute the majority of Bell’s business from the current ratio of a 50-50 civil-military split to one of 70-30 in favor of military production.
Fitzpatrick said the order book for the 429 consists of 330 “letters of intent and orders” for the helicopter. He did not differentiate between the two. He said twenty-five 429s are currently in production at the company’s plant in Mirabel, Quebec.
Fitzpatrick blamed the latest delay for the 429 on issues related to software certification, but added that certification work has been completed on all of the helicopter’s hardware and mechanical systems. Bell is displaying one 429 at its booth (No. 3975) and also flying customer demonstrations in another from the Anaheim Stadium.
Neil Marshall, program director of the 429, revealed that the helicopter’s performance numbers have improved again from figures released last year. Top speed increased from 147 to 150 knots and maximum range rose from 350 to 368 nm.
Last year Bell delivered 167 civil helicopters including 18 206Bs, 21 206Ls, three 210s, 79 407s, 36 412s, seven 427s and three 430s. After a rocky start to the sales year–Bell took orders for only three commercial helicopters this January compared to 40 for the same month one year ago–Fitzpatrick said, “Things are looking much better.” He said Bell expects to deliver 180 civil helicopters this year led by 100 Model 407s. He also said that Bell is in the process of drafting a request for proposal to modernize the 407’s avionics with an integrated glass-panel system and H-TAWS.
Bell values its current order backlog at $6.2 billion, an increase of $2.4 billion over the last year. Despite the well-publicized financial difficulties of its parent company, Textron, Fitzpatrick insisted that “Bell is not for sale.”
Earlier this month Textron, which owns Bell, Cessna, Lycoming and several other companies, sacked CFO Ted French and drew down its entire bank line of credit, valued at $3 billion, to pay down commercial paper and raise $1.2 billion in cash.
Major credit agencies immediately downgraded Textron’s debt rating. One even downgraded it to BBB-, virtual junk status. Textron CEO Lewis Campbell strongly suggested that Textron could consider disposing of core assets next year, widely interpreted to mean Bell or Cessna, if the company’s financial condition does not improve. Most of Textron’s woes appear related to large losses incurred by Textron Financial, a business unit the company is attempting to shed. Spokesmen for both Bell and Cessna insisted that Textron will continue to support customer financing of their products. Over the last year Textron shares have lost more than 90 percent of their value. On Friday, the stock, which traded as high as $65.52 last year, closed at $6.25.
Bell has adjusted to the current economic climate with employee layoffs and by “slowing down the production ramp rates and the commercial lines” in Mirabel, Fitzpatrick said.
R&D also has been cut back. Fitzpatrick denied that Bell has stopped work on the 609 civil tiltrotor program, but two more test aircraft that were slated to join the program last year have been pushed off to 2010. Currently, two prototype 609s are flying, one in Italy and the other in Fort Worth. Bell is developing the aircraft jointly with Italy’s AgustaWestland.
As the 429 nears entry-into-service, Fitzpatrick also said that Bell plans to end production of the 427 this year. The company is making a kit available to 206L1 and L2 owners to upgrade that helicopter to 206L4 configuration.