Bell CEO is optimistic despite many challenges

 - March 19, 2008, 11:52 AM

Mike Redenbaugh took over the CEO’s office at Bell Helicopter’s Fort Worth, Texas headquarters in May and now faces some formidable challenges–including getting the military V-22 tiltrotor program on track and completing certification of the BA609 civil tiltrotor in cooperation with partner Agusta Aerospace of Italy. Another cooperative project with Agusta, the twin-engine AB139, has received Italian certification but awaits FAA approval until issues with the configuration of the Honeywell Primus Epic avionics suite are resolved. The U.S. ticket is expected next year.

Redenbaugh told AIN, “The corporate segment is important to me. We project delivering 36 rotorcraft into that segment this year, mostly 407s.” Bell’s policy is not to announce overall projected deliveries, but Redenbaugh said this year should yield a 30-percent increase over last year’s deliveries, with the corporate segment up by 50 percent.

“It’s a small industry,” he said, “with only a handful of segments– medical, police, utility and corporate. For us, corporate is near the top of the priority list.” The new Bell CEO, who spent the earlier part of his career with what is now Honeywell Engines in Phoenix, said his plans call for concentrating first on Bell’s existing customers. Plans are in the works to increase the payload of the 206 JetRanger and 206L LongRanger series and enhance the features and durability of the workhorse 412. One of the rotorcrafter’s biggest success stories, the single-engine 407, is slated to receive night-vision goggle capability to increase its usefulness, said Redenbaugh. “Our customers have been very happy with the 407’s ‘sports car-like’ handling and capability,” he said, adding, “We have one customer, a car dealer in the Southeast, who calls it his ‘time machine.’”

Redenbaugh has high hopes for the success of the BA609 in the corporate arena, though he declined to reveal how many have been ordered for that market. He said the best corporate application would be for a business with the need to access a network of facilities a few hundred miles apart, with some in locations not convenient to airports where fixed-wing aircraft can land. “It’s the combination of high cruise speed and vertical-lift capability that gives the tiltrotor its advantage,” he said.

Redenbaugh acknowledged that improving vertical lift infrastructure will be an important element in the ultimate success of the BA609–and indeed any rotorcraft cast in the corporate role.

When it comes to Bell’s contribution to improving the availability of heliports nationwide, Redenbaugh said the company’s approach is threefold. It must be vocal when it comes to legislation and funding for heliport development; it must provide factual input to industry advocacy groups such as NBAA, the Helicopter Association International and the General Aviation Manufacturers Association; and it must “tee up suggestions and recommendations to help shape policy regarding noise and other environmental considerations.”

While the single-engine 407 has been Bell’s most prominent success story, Redenbaugh said he is disappointed in the sales performance of the twin-engine 427. His response is to conduct market research among potential light-twin buyers. “We’ve asked them, ‘What features do you want?’ and we’re prepared to make the investment to deliver those features to the market.”

Asked what he would expect to be talking about in an interview three to five years down the road, the Bell CEO said he expects the company’s developmental “modular affordable product line [MAPL]” to be in the headlines, with certification of the first products expected by the end of the decade.