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Bell launches green drive as defense sales soften slump

 - June 15, 2009, 4:36 AM

Bell Helicopter has announced plans to reduce the environmental footprint of its products through the new Eco-Innovation initiative that will evaluate them throughout every stage of their lifecycle. The process will start with an assessment of the environmental impact of mining the raw materials used to manufacture the aircraft right through to the end of their service life.

The U.S. airframer’s new Bell 429 twin is the first of its helicopters to come under the scrutiny of Eco-Innovation, which is being run by Craig Lieberman. The aim is to identify ways to make the aircraft more environmentally friendly in every respect. The 429 already meets Stage 3 noise limits and delivers reduced fuel consumption, partly from increased use of composite materials to reduce weight.

Yesterday, Bob Fitzpatrick, Bell’s senior vice president of business development and commercial programs, said that the company expects to complete certification of the 429 by the end of this month. Customer deliveries will begin shortly thereafter.

Separately, Bell yesterday announced the appointment of its first service center in Russia in response to rising demand for its helicopters in the country. Kazan Aviation Enterprise is to operate a new customer service facility to support the Bell 407 and it is joining a network of some 133 CSFs spread across 33 countries. Kazan’s staff has been trained by Bell and the 15-year-old company will hold extensive spares inventory.

Meanwhile, the New York Police Department has ordered a pair of 412EP helicopters to use specifically for air/sea rescue missions. The four-axis aircraft will be delivered with mission-specific equipment, with customization work to be done by Edwards & Associates in Bristol, Tennessee.

Bell president Richard Millman told AIN that he is carefully watching levels of demand for new helicopters during June in order to gauge whether to further reduce production rates, having already slowed the cycle time from one aircraft every two days to one every two-and-a-half days. Most of the decline in demand has come in civil markets, with these aircraft now accounting for 180 units out of a total backlog of just under 400–a 25-percent reduction from the 240-strong count previously on the books.

“We are holding to our plan [for reduced production] a bit nervously,” said Millman. “We are a bit concerned about there being fewer customers in the backlog and we are having to live month to month. Let’s just say that some helicopters have had to be painted more than once.”

Bell’s military business is more robust, with production rates for both new aircraft and spares still holding up strongly. New orders have come in recently, including a contract to supply Iraq’s new air force with new armed versions of the 407. At the same time, Millman anticipates that Bell aircraft such as the V-22 Tiltrotor and the Kiowa Warrior seem likely to be redeployed from Iraq to Afghanistan.

Two years ago Bell was under pressure to ramp up production rates for military hardware. According to Millman, the investments made at the time to improve efficiency have delivered greater than anticipated improvements in productivity that are now standing the company in good stead to weather a period of softening demand in some markets.

“I am confident about our business, partly due to the fact that our military customers are now feeling more confident in our ability to deliver [products on time],” said Millman. “I am more confident in our workforce too. Our commercial products are working assets [for the companies that fly them] so I am also confident that the market for them will return when the economy returns.”

Bell also is stepping up research-and-development efforts in areas such as new cockpit upgrades that have recently been flight tested. The 206L4 LongRanger upgrade was introduced last month, having been in development for over a year.

But what of the long-awaited 609 civil tiltrotor that Bell and its Italian partner AgustaWestland have had in development for several years? Millman said the program has continued to progress at a steady pace. “An aircraft like this [a rotor/fixed-wing hybrid] takes a lot of time to develop,” he said. “We are planning to sell the 609 to a wide variety of owners and we want to make it as easy to fly as we possibly can and so we have to be sure that we have covered every contingency. We are not sticking to our earlier predictions of certification in 2009 or 2010 because we want to have a surefire design and find out if we’ve missed anything.” According to Bell, the program is backed by 60 to 70 orders.

For a full report on Bell’s new 429 helicopter, see tomorrow’s edition of AIN.