Bell shelves civil tiltrotor indefinitely

 - May 15, 2008, 4:59 AM

Stating that “the V-22 must lead tiltrotor technology into the marketplace,” Bell Helicopter has opted to shelve its BA609 civil tiltrotor following first flight of a prototype later this year, indefinitely delaying introduction of the world’s first production-oriented civil tiltrotor until problems with the U.S. Marines’ V-22 Osprey tiltrotor transport can be ironed out.

Bell’s decision, delivered as a statement from company president John Murphey, came in the wake of reports throughout the trade and general media that maintained Bell was poised to kill the program outright. In his statement, Murphey said Bell had always intended the BA609 to follow the V-22 into production and operational service. However, that schedule was rendered meaningless when a pair of fatal crashes that killed 23 Marines in 2000 led to questions about the mechanical reliability of the design, as well as charges of official wrongdoing within the Marines. Present plans call for the V-22 to resume flight tests “in the next couple of months,” as Murphey put it, citing that “the [V-22] accidents and resulting test requirements have delayed full-scale production for several years.”

Frozen For Now

Accordingly, Murphey has decided to “fly the BA609 later this year and keep this technology ready for expansion into other markets at the right time and as opportunities arise.” Bell has maintained it had sold 80 delivery positions for its six- to nine-passenger tiltrotor, although the firmness of these orders has long been a matter of conjecture. A full quarter of the BA609’s as yet unannounced firm purchase price is contractually required upon first flight; given that hard and cold fact, just how many of those 80 orders would have evaporated under today’s recessionary conditions is anyone’s guess.

This soft market, together with the unlikelihood that the V-22 will receive a go-ahead for full-scale assembly any time before 2005 and the need to keep a full-scale development staff on hold for at least three years, prompted Murphey to put the BA609 on ice. Low-rate production of V-22s intended to familiarize the Marines with the aircraft is intended to proceed at a rate of approximately 12 per year, Murphey said.

What didn’t influence Murphey’s thinking, at least according to Murphey, was pressure from within a reorganizing Textron senior management. In a reshuffling that began in late February, a fat-trimming, loss-chasing program placed Cessna Aircraft and Bell Helicopter (Textron’s two major aeronautical groups) side-by-side on the company organizational chart, with both overseen by former Cessna chairman Russ Meyer. For weeks, rumors of Meyer’s skepticism toward the commercial viability of the civil tiltrotor as presented have circulated throughout the industry, perhaps leading Murphey to say in his statement, “This was my decision. It was not Textron directed.”