The current type certificate holder of the venerable Bell 47 might be interested in putting the iconic piston helicopter back into new production.
Scott’s Helicopter Services of Le Sueur, Minn., acquired the type certificate and assumed all aspects of commercial spares support, technical support and continued airworthiness for the Bell 47 last year. The aircraft is now known as “Scott’s-Bell 47” (SB47) and Scott’s is a Bell-approved customer service facility.
Any decision on putting the 47 back into production is likely at least a year away as Scott’s continues to ramp up its product support and parts inventory for the more than 1,000 helicopters still flying worldwide. In April, Scott’s moved into a new 8,000-sq-ft facility and began adding employees to support the SB47. Since acquiring the TC, Scott’s has hired 10 new personnel. The new facility will house the product support and design team, and Scott’s recently invested in 3-D design software to speed the PMA process and possibly retooling and redesign under a production certificate. Scott’s currently stocks nearly 1,000 unique Bell parts for the 47.
The company’s immediate goal is to “gain the confidence of the supply base that there really is a market [for the helicopter],” said Neil Marshall, SB47 program manager. As a first step in this direction, Scott’s administered a marketing survey to current 47 operators. Of those who replied–representing roughly 15 percent of the fleet–two-thirds or more said they would be interested in new-production 47s or substantial refurbishment of existing helicopters. Convincing suppliers that this sentiment can be translated into actual orders is Scott’s biggest new production challenge. “The issue is not with small purchase order suppliers; that is a risk we are willing to take on,” said Marshall. With larger suppliers, “we need to shake off the perception that the 47 is old and do the right things in terms of operating costs.”
Marshall said the key to rejuvenating demand for the 47 is getting its operating costs below those of a Robinson R44.
Engine Supplier Cooperation
At the head of the big-supplier list is engine maker Lycoming. Right now the company supplies its horizontally mounted 360 four-cylinder and 540 six-cylinder engine to helicopter manufacturers, including Robinson for the R22 and R44, respectively. Both Marshall and Scott’s CEO, Scott Churchill, would like to see the old Lycoming VO-435 vertically mounted engine, now out of production for the better part of three decades, reworked in any new-production helicopter.
“The 435 was such a bulletproof motor,” said Churchill. “It would take any abuse that was given to it.”
Marshall concedes that Lycoming is unlikely to re-introduce the 435 unless it has demand from more than one OEM, and maybe not even then. “[It has its] inclinations and we have our preferences,” Marshall noted, conceding that the 540 has been greatly refined over the years and could give the 47 increased performance.
At this year’s EAA AirVenture, a spokesman for Lycoming declined to comment on speculation that the company could be developing a new piston engine directed at the helicopter market.
Marshall called getting a steady supply of new engines critical to any new production decision on the helicopter. “That is really the heart of it. We really can’t entertain getting this aircraft back into production unless we can get a production line of engines,” he said.
Meanwhile Scott’s will continue to offer overhaul services on the 1,200-hour TBO VO-435 engine for an average cost of $29,000.
The company is also looking at extending life limits on other critical components, such as the main rotor blades, as another way of taking operating costs out of the aircraft.