Bell Helicopter is providing more details on the Short Light Single (SLS) helicopter it announced at the Paris Air Show in June. Performance goals for the SLS include a speed of 125 knots, a range of 360 to 420 nm, a useful load of 1,500 pounds and a ceiling of 11,000 feet.
While the company has yet to decide where to locate initial production, Bell SLS program management chief Paul Watts told AIN that the aircraft will be certified by Transport Canada first; is being designed by an international team from the U.S., Canada and India; is aimed heavily at the export market; and is being designed for assembly with simple tools for possible production in multiple locations across the globe eventually. The SLS development team has grown to 60 and is housed at an undisclosed location near Fort Worth Alliance Airport. Bell will concentrate on manufacturing the core helicopter, leaving development of kits for specialized missions such as SAR and EMS to its supplier partners.
Bell began looking at the light single market again in 2010 after it delivered its last 206B3 JetRanger. That helicopter line can trace its roots back to 1960, when Bell was competing for an Army contract to provide 4,000 light scout/attack helicopters for the Vietnam War (Bell lost that contract to the Hughes OH-6/Model 500). In 1966, Bell began offering the market a civilian variant of its would-be military helicopter, called it the JetRanger and priced it at $89,000. Customer deliveries began in 1967.
Over the years, Bell has made numerous improvements to the helicopter. The biggest came in 1977 with the advent of the JetRanger III, or Model 206B3, which featured more power. The addition of the Rolls-Royce (née Allison) 250-20J boosted maximum takeoff shaft horsepower by almost 25 percent, to 420 shp. Newer models were equipped with Chelton Efis glass-panel avionics and Garmin GNS 530 GPS/navcom radios. According to Bell, the JetRanger has the lowest overall accident rate of any single-engine aircraft–fixed or rotary wing. Bell has delivered more than 7,500 JetRangers into the civilian market.
However, work on the SLS did not begin in earnest until 18 months ago, after Robinson Helicopter had shown the market’s strong appetite for a new light turbine single, the $830,000 R66. Robinson delivered 191 R66s last year and is on track to deliver “more than 200” this year, according to company president Kurt Robinson. “We are optimistic regarding the R66 and the light single-turbine market. Assuming the U.S. and world economies continue to recover, R66 sales for the remainder of this year and next should do well,” Robinson told AIN. Approximately 70 percent of all R66s are sold into the export market, a point not lost on Bell as it designs the SLS.
“We recognize that the customer base for light singles is spread across the globe, and being close to those customers is important to us,” said Bell’s Watts. “We are in the process of selecting our final assembly location for the initial deliveries but we will expand that…to be as close to the customers as we can. So unlike the traditional final assembly that Bell has today on its product line, we do have some strategies where we can be more global with assembly of the product.” The SLS will be “as modular as possible” to enable assembly with minimal tooling, Watts said. That means designing the SLS with a combination of new and old technologies to enable both the use of monolithic structures while incorporating proven engine and drive-train technologies. The fuselage will be built from a “mix” of materials, Watts said.
“Our focus has been around costs and useful load. With that in mind we have come up with a design that will allow us to be competitive in the important value parameters our customers are looking for. There will be a mix of materials and technologies on this aircraft, but we have taken a simple approach to the airframe,” Watts said.
Surprise Engine Choice
Bell surprised many industry observers when it announced the selection of the Turbomeca Arrius 2R engine for the SLS, with some tying it to Cessna’s selection of another French engine, the Silvercrest, for its new Longitude midsize jet. Both Bell and Cessna are owned by Textron. Watts said there was no grand Textron strategy driving the move to select the Arrius, but rather an evaluation of the engine on its own merits.
“There is not a larger strategy with Cessna, but we definitely leveraged them when doing due diligence [on Turbomeca],” Watts said. “We have seen significant improvements with Turbomeca over the last five years in terms of their service and support. My feedback from the market is that there is little doubt about the quality of the Arrius engine. It is a superb engine. It really sets the benchmark for the 450- to 500 shp-class engine. The concerns that used to be heard were around service and support. We did a lot of due diligence and worked with Turbomeca to ensure that we will be able to offer excellent support to the customers who order this aircraft.”
According to Turbomeca’s Hervé Pasbecq, head of the Arrius program, the relationship with Bell picked up with recent requests for proposals. The SLS is Turbomeca’s first success with Bell after an undisclosed number of attempts.
Pasbecq said the first criterion of choice was engine reliability. The second was safety. “The Arrius 2R is the first engine in its category to have a dual-channel Fadec, which is further reinforced with an auxiliary control system that can act as a backup,” Pasbecq asserted. The third criterion was customer support. “Our support has significantly improved, we thus have earned credibility and this persuaded Bell,” he noted.
The 504-shp Arrius 2R is a new engine that uses the architecture of the Arrius 2 series. However, engineers have put a focus on single-engine helicopters’ safety requirements, Pasbecq explained, and “we are using proven technology bricks.” A number of parts are different from those of other Arrius engines.
The first engine run should take place late this year or early next year. Later in the program, Turbomeca does not expect any peculiarities in installing the engine into the Bell airframe. The engine is predicted to have a 3,000-hour TBO.
Targeting a Pricing Sweet Spot
Meeting the target price for a new light single will be critical to the SLS’s success, Watts said. “It is clear you can see who the market leader is. All of the manufacturers in this segment save Robinson delivered 40 aircraft last year. The biggest differentiator Robinson has is price, and designing to a competitive price is the most important factor here for our team.”
Eurocopter has learned this lesson the hard way. Its EC120 light single is priced at $2 million and sales have lagged. The manufacturer received orders for 12, 13 and then nine EC120s in 2010, 2011 and 2012, respectively. Eurocopter did not answer AIN’s queries about whether the company is considering an aircraft upgrade or other initiatives in the five-seat segment of the turbine-powered helicopter market. According to a helicopter industry source, the price of an EC120 is €1.5 million (almost $2 million). It is powered by a 504-shp Turbomeca Arrius 2F. Likewise, Sikorsky, which claims to have a contender in the four-seat segment, finds itself in a similar position. The company has repeatedly postponed certification of the S-434. Early last month a company spokesman said, “We have not yet made any decisions on S-434 production restart.” The S-434 was never certified anywhere in the world, although AIN understands the company delivered several copies to Saudi Arabia’s ministry of interior.
Through simple design and economical assembly, Watts believes, Bell can come close to Robinson’s price while offering increased product capabilities. “There are areas on the SLS where we want to differentiate [from the R66]. The SLS will have a fully flat floor, glass cockpit, Fadec, exceptional pilot visibility and Stage 4 noise compliance, and it will meet the utility market’s need for a number of missions. It will have rear clamshell doors and have best-in-class speed and load,” Watts said. Bell has yet to set a price for the SLS.
Watts said Bell is pursuing design strategies that will keep the cost of the SLS down, including simple construction and adapting proven drivetrain elements of its existing 206L4 LongRanger into the new helicopter.
“We are trying to use as many common parts as possible to reduce costs and our time to market. Those are based on the L4 dynamics. It is a proven drive system and we are using it to try and drive down costs. As we get volumes up, this will benefit customers who are flying LongRangers today. There is a cost benefit there for us. We are improving what the customers want to see changed on the design and we are working closely with our customer advisory council, which has provided input along the way. But we can use the aspects of the gearboxes and the blades that make sense and give you a proven technology and a robust design for excellent autorotation. When we get to market we will know that this product can be quickly used by operators without a lot of unknowns around the drivetrain,” Watts said.
Bell has also been able to leverage the advanced computer design elements of the company’s larger 525 Relentless super-medium twin program, announced at Heli-Expo last year, into the SLS, and that has allowed the program to proceed at a rapid pace. “The speed with which we are moving is much quicker than what we have done historically,” Watts said.
While elements of the SLS could be morphed into a follow-on aircraft, perhaps a long light single to replace the L4 one day, Watts said the focus is on providing a “point specific” design for the short light single market. “We really have made a concerted effort to make this a point design. We didn’t want to build margin into this aircraft that would in any way penalize those who were purchasing it now.”
Watts thinks Bell’s large installed customer base (nearly 4,400 of the 7,500 JetRangers produced are still flying) gives it a serious advantage over the competition that should translate into the sale of “several hundred” new helicopters per year once SLS production gets rolling. “The majority of [JetRangers still flying are] getting a little long in the tooth, some more than 30 years old. We’ve had customers coming to us over the last few years for a replacement. When you look at the installed base and new customers we feel there is a large opportunity for us to come in and be a leader in this segment of the market,” Watts said. Potential large markets for the SLS include utility, law enforcement, and military and civilian flight training.
Bell will conduct a critical design review of the SLS later this year and expects to fly the new helicopter late next year. A decision on the location of initial production is expected in the coming months.