Bell/Agusta anticipates a bright future

 - February 5, 2007, 8:21 AM

You might call Heli-Expo 2005 a triumph for Bell/Agusta Aerospace and particularly for the AB139. In the period covering European certification in 2003, FAA IFR authorization in December and last month’s show, eight AB139s have been handed over to customers, for use in roles ranging from VIP to air ambulance and a wide range of environments. Twenty-six more were ordered in Anaheim last month.

That’s not bad for a model unveiled only in mockup form at the 1999 Paris Air Show. Everybody who flies it praises its maneuverability and versatility, its power margins and flexible payload. Some Bell people acknowledge that it is the most beautiful helicopter they have ever been involved with.

Where does this newly FAA-certified helicopter, and its BA609 tiltrotor stablemate, go from here? AIN talked to Bell/Agusta managing director Lou Bartolotta.

How will production and deliveries ramp up from now on?

More than 100 aircraft now have to be built for more than 40 customers. This year, we plan to deliver 20 helicopters, then accelerate into the 30s during 2006 and the 40s in 2007. The full annual production run of 45-plus helicopters should be in place by 2008. Italy will always retain the type lead and build the majority of the airframes. U.S. assembly at Amarillo will start in mid-2005, with first deliveries expected within a year. We see no reason why we shouldn’t sell 1,000 airframes over a 20-year period.

What about government prospects?

The AB139 could be an invaluable asset in the homeland security role. It was selected by Integrated Coast Guard Systems for its Deepwater program, but deliveries of the 34 aircraft won’t start until 2010. VRS [VTOL Recovery and Surveillance Aircraft] is also a pre-9/11 concept, so there are new issues that agencies like the Coast Guard need to address, and other departments that need to respond to the post-9/11 environment. There’s a big security picture out there and we see the AB139 as a vital element of it. It’s what the Texas assembly facility will
be all about.

When will the BA609 fly again?

It’s ready to start ground runs now and will fly before the end of March. The pair now in Italy will follow later in the year. The team has been running through conversion procedures in the VMSIL [Vehicle Management System Integration Laboratory] before moving on to the tiedown test rig. We now anticipate certification and first deliveries during 2008.

Will the infrastructure be in place to help both types, but particularly the BA609, reach their full potential?

It will need a lot of work. These two aircraft, and other new-generation types such as the S-92, offer modern capabilities. Certainly the infrastructure needs to adapt to accommodate tiltrotors, but FAR/JAR 29 helicopters will slot into today’s environment as well.

Modern types fly at higher altitudes. Of course, the pressurized BA609 can cruise at FL200 but the AB139, with full de-ice, cruises most efficiently at 167 knots at 6,000 feet; the same as at sea level but burning less fuel. It loses only the odd knot above that. It has a 750-nm range and, by end of this year, the maximum certified weight will be increased to 6.4 tons.

The safety standards are JAR/FAR 29 as well. There are containment shields between the engines, so if one engine loses a free-power turbine, we don’t risk losing the other through debris. If it does go down, the airframe and passenger seats are all crashworthy. The frame is designed so that the heavy components in the roof–main gearbox, rotor mast and so on–cannot impact the cabin. There’s no need to jettison doors because people can escape through the big windows.

Our customers understand this but others still need to acknowledge that this is the new standard–the base-line–that their customers will expect from their rotorcraft. Oil companies and corporations are already starting to dictate what they want their people to fly in.

Have the BA609’s customers stayed loyal during the slow-down caused by earlier V-22 troubles?

The majority of them have stuck with the program; we still have orders for more than 60 aircraft. For now, we’re fully occupied in getting three aircraft airborne but plan to accelerate marketing and send it to Farnborough in 2006; Helitech the year after; and so on. We think many more customers will sign up, once they see how it flies in both airplane and helicopter mode.