Bell pulls the plug on 417 program

HAI Convention News » 2007
March 12, 2007, 7:54 AM

After months of dodging questions about the status of the program, Bell Helicopter officials yesterday announced the company has canceled development of the single-engine 417 helicopter, which made its dramatic debut just a year ago at Heli-Expo.

“That program was not going to be a big differentiator in the marketplace,” said Robert Fitzpatrick, senior vice president of business development, at a press briefing here yesterday. “The customer value proposition was not there.”

Fitzpatrick said Bell had accepted deposits for 136 helicopters, which would have featured a flexible cabin with seating for up to seven people and a cruise speed of 140 knots–just slightly faster than the 133-knot Vne of its sibling, the Bell 407. The 417’s advertised maximum useful load was 2,667 pounds, only 21 pounds more than the maximum external load of the 407. Specifications for the 417 were removed from Bell’s Web site within an hour of the announcement.

Fitzpatrick said Bell representatives are in the process of discussing the situation with would-be buyers who placed deposits on the 417, which was being offered at a base price of $2.11 million (in 2008 dollars). The final decision to cancel the program was made in December, he said, though Bell executives had begun questioning the 417’s viability as early as last August.

When former Bell CEO Mike Redenbaugh unveiled the 417 at last year’s Heli-Expo amid theatrical lighting, Cirque acrobats and the beat of kettle drums, he commented that the new model  was “our answer to the customers’ demand for a powerful single-engine helicopter with unmatched hot-and-high capability.” Yesterday, when asked whether Bell was premature in launching the 417 program, Fitzpatrick simply answered, “No,” brushing off the program’s cancellation as merely one of the pitfalls of any new product development.

The cancellation announcement follows on the heels of recent turmoil at Bell that included the quick departure of Redenbaugh in January, questions about the viability of the BA609 tiltrotor program and the hard-landing crash of an ARH-70A (the U.S. Army version of the Bell 407) on February 21 in Texas. 

No jobs will be eliminated as a result of the 417 cancellation, Fitzpatrick said, noting that there is still a strong need for the 407, the aircraft on which the 417 was based. Fitzpatrick said the 407 is sold out well into 2009.

The Rolls-Royce Model 250-C47B turboshaft used on the 407 is a Fadec-equipped engine that produces 650 shp at takeoff. The 417 was to use Honeywell’s HTS900 engine, slated to produce 925 shp at takeoff (sea level). The HTS900-2 turboshaft is also installed on Bell’s ARH-70A armed reconnaissance helicopter, of which the Army has ordered 512 copies.

Fitzpatrick said that cancellation of the 417 program will have no impact on Bell’s contract with the Army for the ARH.

One Down, One Up
Just minutes before Fitzpatrick announced the 417 cancellation, Bell executive director of commercial program management Bill Stromberg revealed that Bell’s new 429 GlobalRanger light twin-engine helicopter made its first hour-long flight on Monday.

The flight occurred at the company’s test facility in Mirabel, Quebec, following several months of tinkering with the helicopter’s flight control actuation system.

Two test pilots conducted the flight, which focused on controllability and synchronization. According to Stromberg, the helicopter hovered in ground effect at about 15 feet and also maneuvered in all directions at 30 to 40 feet.

“The chief mechanic told us all he was hearing was blowers and engines,” Stromberg said, noting the aircraft’s quietness. “It’s well harmonized between the cyclic, collective and control pedals.”

However, in a private interview with HAI Convention News earlier in the day, Stromberg said concerns linger about the sturdiness of the 429’s four-blade tail rotor. “We’ve never done one on such a small aircraft,” he said. “We have to check its stability.”

Bell’s military Huey UH-1Y, with a maximum gross weight of 18,500 pounds, also features a four-blade tail rotor. The maximum gross weight of the 429 is 7,000 pounds. Stromberg said the 429 in flight test is currently about 55 pounds over its target weight, but he is confident Bell can meet customer requirements.

Bell engineers have a slightly modified tail rotor design in their back pockets for the 429 in case they encounter stability problems, but Stromberg said it would add about five pounds to the aircraft’s weight, which they would like to avoid if possible. “It’s just a beefed-up yoke,” he said.

The second prototype should be airborne over Mirabel by the end of March. The first two production aircraft are “well on their way down the assembly line” in Canada with one in cabin final assembly and the other in mid-cabin construction. “We’ve got about 14 months of pretty tough work ahead of us,” he said.

The goal is to fly the 429 a total of 1,500 hours by the time the aircraft is ready for FAA and Transport Canada certification in early 2008. The flight testing schedule, which Stromberg admitted is “aggressive,” will include hot-and-high operations in Leadville and Alamosa, Colo.

Bell has taken orders for more than 190 copies of the 429, with roughly 30 additional commitments from interested customers, Stromberg said. The current base price is $4.865 million (2007 dollars), which includes the single-pilot IFR package.

The 429 is Bell’s first helicopter designed from the drawing board using its modular affordable product line (MAPL) production scheme, which features modifications to the way the rotor blades are fabricated and shaped, a more open cockpit and a dual hydraulic system integrated with a fully coupled three-axis autopilot. Stromberg said the MAPL effort also will include the development of a more efficient and lower cost engine, a quiet anti-torque device and a main rotor system that will enable the 429 to fly faster than its predecessors.

The next-generation engine is expected to offer a significant reduction in direct operating costs and to integrate well with the rest of the drive system. The two prototype 429s in the flight test program sport Pratt & Whitney Canada PW207B engines, and Stromberg confirmed that the production aircraft would also use this engine.

Notably absent from the media briefing was Richard Millman, who has eluded the press since mid-January when Bell Helicopter’s parent company, Textron, announced he would replace Mike Redenbaugh as Bell’s CEO. A 20-year veteran of Textron, Millman most recently served as president of Textron Systems, a $1 billion business unit. Millman was slated to deliver his inaugural address at the briefing. According to a Bell spokesman, Millman would be in South Florida this week attending a Textron meeting and thus could not make it to the press conference. He is expected at Bell’s booth today.

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