Bell’s new 427i promises much more than just IFR

 - March 22, 2007, 8:17 AM

By launching the IFR version of its 427 model at Heli-Expo, in Las Vegas in March, Bell Helicopter finally acknowledged its mistakes in introducing the type in the first place, almost 10 years before. With the public-service market at the time growing at a dizzying rate, the company’s conviction that EMS operators would accept a light-twin helicopter with a VFR-only cockpit and a cabin that could carry a litter only diagonally suggested a certain isolation from the realities of the aeromedical market.

Had Bell been the only company pitching a light twin for the para-public business at the time, however, it might have gotten away with it. Unfortunately, it was competing in an already crowded marketplace.

New-generation helicopters, such as the Eurocopter EC 135, Agusta A109 and MD Helicopters MD 900, were already well established, and they all offered larger cabins, good access and single-pilot IFR capability. Even if a pilot never intended to use the capability, it was good to know it was there in a tight spot.

“We took our eye off the ball,” Bell sales and marketing v-p Bob Fitzpatrick admitted to AIN at July’s Farnborough airshow. “Our biggest mistake was not listening to what our customers were saying. We said we were listening, but we weren’t.”

The 427 VFR

Bell originally launched the 427 in 1996 as a joint program with Korea’s Samsung Aerospace, which built the cabins and tailbooms. It had plans to gain a foothold in the burgeoning EMS market–wherein insurers were offering lower insurance rates to operators of twins– and to offer a twin-engine upgrade path for LongRanger customers, predominantly those working offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. “The twin issue was a confidence thing,” said Fitzpatrick. “Even though our customers had been flying JetRangers and LongRangers safely for years, and the one-engine-is-less-likely-to-go-wrong argument was widely understood, we could understand if passengers felt safer flying in a twin and we wanted to offer them that option.” The 427’s operating costs were also a full third lower than those of the other civil Bell twin available at the time, the 222.

The idea was to build on the success of the single-engine, four-blade 407–more than 630 of which have amassed 1.3 million flight hours–but to give it a newly designed, mainly composite fuselage with an 8-percent-larger cabin. It would also have a new transmission, featuring direct engine input, and dynamic components taken from the latest OH-54D Kiowa Warrior.

The 427 first flew at the end of 1997, and after some 1,500 hours of flight tests, Bell received basic Transport Canada certification in November 1999 (nearly a year later than the original target date). FAA approval followed in January 2000.

Bell made the first delivery soon afterward, at another Las Vegas Heli-Expo, to offshore operator Petroleum Helicopters, while the first international customer was Brazil’s Viadao Cometa. Certification for dual-pilot IFR and Category A operations was obtained around May 2000. After a well publicized series of tailboom strikes, caused by the tail rotor in the 407 fleet, Bell redesigned the similar system in the 427. The company modified the pedals, enabling their stops to be adjusted automatically, according to airspeed.

Potential owners knew that any Bell ship would be built to last, and that they would be able to count on that famous Texas customer support–the parallel success of the Bell 407 bore testament to that.

U.S. operators also love to buy American: that was evidenced by the rush to sign up for the 427i in Las Vegas, within 48 hours of the announcement. But slim margins are a fact of life for every helicopter operator, and practicality will always eclipse patriotism.

So customers flocked to Eurocopter and, to a lesser extent, to Agusta and MDH. The success of Eurocopter’s EC 135 in the EMS sector filtered across to both the smaller EC 120 and larger EC 155. Its market share is now claimed to be as high as 48 percent and it has started assembling its products in the U.S.–at a new facility at Golden Triangle Airport, La. It is no longer a small-scale importer but a dominant force.

Under normal conditions, Bell might have been able to hunker down and work the problem, in time to grab at least a sliver of the action. However, its commitment to tiltrotor technology (and particularly to the at-the-time faltering V-22 Osprey program) drew its energies and resources elsewhere. Sales figures continued to be disappointing, and there was little Bell could do to invest in its products and claw back market share. Morale was low.

However, the V-22 was not the primary reason for this. One source, who used to work with Bell in Europe, confirmed to AIN that the company committed the cardinal sin of not listening to the customer, particularly over the issue of cabin size. “During a European sales tour in 2000 we told them that, to be able to compete in the EMS market, operators needed room for a stretcher fore-and-aft with an attendant position at the patient’s head. As it stood, you could squeeze in a stretcher only diagonally. Soon after launch, Bell said it would extend the cabin to make that work, by extending into the fuel-tank area, but the damage had already been done.”
“I remember the UK police in particular loved it–it’s particularly well built and a delight to fly.

But without an autopilot, which meant you needed two pilots in IMC, it couldn’t compete with the other single-pilot IFR-capable ships. Ever since then, Bell has had to play catch-up.”

To be fair, the 427 has since managed to carve out a couple of niches and, at Farnborough, Bell surprised industry-watchers with news that the VFR production line is set to continue. The helicopter has found success offshore. Flight conditions over the relatively benign waters of the Gulf of Mexico mean that IFR is usually not an issue. With a few imaginative cabin layouts designed by Edwards & Associates, some helicopters have also been sold to the corporate market; the latest was handed over to Nascar driver Rusty Wallace at Heli-Expo. Nigeria also reportedly intends to buy two of them for its police force. The current fleet consists of 49 aircraft–39 of which have been delivered. However, this has to be compared with original Bell projections that it would sell 40 of the machines per year.

Bell Reworks the 427 to Meet Customer Specs

Determined not to repeat previous mistakes, Bell has introduced a customer advisory group for the 427i. Of course, every manufacturer says it does this but Bell insists its new format is different and has real influence on product development. It meets quarterly, both to make new recommendations and to review progress on existing ones.

“This isn’t a new concept for Bell,” said Fitzpatrick, “but it’s the first time we have run one in such a structured way. We are now required to report back to the group, showing how we have acted on their recommendations and, where appropriate, incorporated their suggestions.”

Although it is rather too late for this new helicopter to have a significant effect on what is now a mature public-service market, it does represent a valuable upgrade to the type and is likely to attract the patriotic domestic operator. This time, Bell says, it has really listened to its customers. The 427i now boasts an extra 14 inches by five inches of cabin space–enough for two litters, two attendants and equipment. In the passenger role, it can carry eight, rather than six, in back. It has a “completely reworked” main rotor system that is said to deliver increased speed, higher operating altitude and decreased noise.

More details about the avionics suite have emerged. The glass cockpit aircraft will include large-screen Rogerson Kratos multifunction displays–the same ones that have been proven over a year in new-build 412s. The standard navcom GPS package will be the Garmin GNS 430. It will feature a Bell-designed three-axis autopilot with integral stability augmentation. A fourth axis, coupled to the nav system, will be available as an option.

A Bell-developed ADIU (aircraft data interface unit) will convert flight data into digital format for display on the screens. The ADIU can handle engine monitoring, logging and tracking; cover power assurance and hover performance; and even calculate weight-and-balance.

At Heli-Expo Bell announced that international partners would be involved in the project. Two have been revealed so far: Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) will design the fuselage, cabin wiring and fuel system and provide support in “other” areas. (Once the aircraft enters production, KAI will also build those systems.) Mitsui Bussan Aerospace is to take a share of the costs of developing, certifying, producing and marketing the light twin.

Bell is still finalizing the engineering and expects to start assembly in early 2006,
with FAA certification and first deliveries following a year later. Fitzpatrick claimed
“a lot of interest” in the product and–although he would not be pressured into revealing more–said the company would be able to offer buyers some “definite advantages” over the competition.

Meanwhile, Bell is taking orders for the 427i, and Fitzpatrick hopes for signatures for 80 of them before year-end. The biggest single order so far, for 15 aircraft, comes from EMS provider Air Methods. The first ones are scheduled for delivery in 2007, and the rest should arrive at a rate of three per year.

As the launch customer, Air Methods will receive special incentives, including a trade-in option for a similar number of Bell 222s, with minimum guaranteed trade-in values. Air Methods currently operates 22 of these. CEO Aaron Todd believes that the new aircraft “will offer an attractive option for our current Bell 222 customers who require two-patient, cabin-class capability, while maintaining cost sensitivity.”

Now the marketplace finally has a Bell light twin that can compete with the products of Agusta, Eurocopter and MDH. Regardless of how well it does, though, the glow of success is bound to be slightly dimmed by the realization that perhaps it could have been achieved much sooner. It’s a sobering thought and Fitzpatrick acknowledges that, if Bell had gotten it right initially, “you would have seen a whole different set of market dynamics.”