Heli-Expo 2011: Bell Says It Can Afford New Civil Programs

 - March 7, 2011, 8:50 AM

Despite relatively flat year-over-year commercial sales, Bell Helicopter CEO John Garrison said the company could easily fund a new, clean-sheet-of-paper commercial helicopter program.

“Capital-wise we have the ability to invest in new platform development. That is not a constraint. We just have to pick and choose,” Garrison said, declining to identify the market sectors Bell was considering. “The business has the ability to fund it.” However, Garrison said that Bell would continue to work with “strong partners,” such as Boeing (its partner on the military V-22 Osprey tiltrotor) on future defense programs. “You are going to see more and more of that,” he said.

Last year Bell (Booth No. 237) posted sales of $3.2 billion, of which $1.5 billion came from military sales and $1.07 billion from product support, areas that both posted growth. Revenues from the sale of civil helicopters fell to $667 million, down from $672 million in 2009. 

Bell sold 131 civil helicopters last year, including 22 Model 429 light twins. He said the 429 had been demonstrated to more than 2,400 prospective customers worldwide and was the only civil helicopter than could fly a 9-degree wide area augmentation system (Waas) GPS approach at 45 knots. 

Garrison said the company’s commercial business was “on the rebound” and that he expected Bell’s military business to continue to thrive. “Helicopters are at the center of the need for the military warfighter,” not only in the U. S. but around the world.

Bell is continuing to work with AgustaWestland on development of the BA609 civil tiltrotor, Garrison said, adding that additional test aircraft were not under construction. Currently, two test aircraft are in the program. Bell is in “very active negotiations” with AgustaWestland over the future of the program, he said, though for the moment, it appears stalled.

“I’ve got a team going over there on Saturday. We’re working together and trying to find a way” to move the program forward, he said. “We are continuing to find a way to bring it to commercial certification and it will take a partnership to get there.”

Garrison admitted that the BA609’s lengthy gestation, now in its 15th year, posed a risk. “Speed to market is a critical factor.” But he noted that the 609 is still faster than the compound helicopters currently fielded by Eurocopter and Sikorsky.  

Garrison said Bell is accelerating research and development spending by 50 percent over the next five years, including new products and primary components such as rotor blades and transmissions. But he offered few details. “We’re not going to show you what we’re going to do, we’re going to show you what we’ve done.”