Bell is laying the groundwork for likely certification of its Model 525 super-medium twin helicopter later this year, aggressively marketing it to potential North Sea offshore energy customers as part of its continuing penetration of the European civil helicopter market.
The Textron Aviation (Booth T26) sister company announced the fly-by-wire 525 aircraft in 2012 and first flew it in 2015. However, a 2016 fatal crash of a flight-test vehicle, the lingering impact of the worldwide energy price collapse that year, and competition for internal resources as Bell pursued lucrative defense programs slowed development and testing. But now Bell executives are convinced that the stars have aligned to give the 525 the opportunity to become a major player in the rebounding offshore oil patch, where helicopter operators are predicting a resurgence.
“The strengthening fundamentals in the offshore oil and gas market support our view that we are in the early innings of a multiyear growth cycle,” Christopher Bradshaw, CEO of offshore helicopter services company Bristow Group, recently told stock analysts. He added that third-party analysts support “the outlook for a significant increase in upstream oil and gas spending over the next few years and a tightening market for offshore equipment, including helicopters.”
The 20,500-pound maximum takeoff weight (preliminary) 525 seriously challenges the mission capabilities of heavy helicopters traditionally used for North Sea energy support, namely the Airbus H225 and Sikorsky S-92A. The H225 lost favor after a series of fatal crashes between 2009 and 2016, prompting at least one North Sea offshore union to threaten to strike if the helicopter continued to be operated on passenger flights there. Meanwhile, the S-92A is in an ultra-low rate of production, the supply chain for existing aircraft continues to show signs of strain, and potential customers have thrown shade on prospects for an updated model, mainly due to price considerations.
While super-mediums such as the Leonardo AW189 and Airbus H175 can pick up some of the slack, Bell executives make the point that neither offers the advanced technology and safety margins of the 525.
A Bell spokesman told AIN that the 525’s lengthy gestation has been “worth the wait” and that the aircraft “will change the oil and gas industry” due to “fly-by-wire technology coupled with the 525's drive system architecture,” which “will deliver game-changing safety precedents. Bell’s clean-sheet design removed all high-speed drives from the main rotor gearbox and put them in independent and redundant reduction and accessory drive gearboxes, simplifying the main rotor gearbox and minimizing failure modes.
This design enabled Bell to meet the most recent—and more strict—EASA rules for run-dry performance.” Bell said the 525 is built to the latest International Oil and Gas Producers safety standards, which deal with a variety of topics, including egress and survivability.
Last year, Bell began flight into known icing flight testing in Marquette, Michigan, with the intention of having this capability included on the initial type certificate as opposed to an add-on down the road.
In 2022, Bell made its debut as the first major helicopter manufacturer to exhibit at the Offshore North Sea conference. The prior year, the company opened the Bell 525 Experience Center at Stavanger Airport in Norway.
The rotorcraft manufacturer partnered with its area independent representative, the Norwegian Aviation & Defense Group, to establish the facility. It is located inside a hangar that displays the Bell 525 mockup with interactive workstations where potential customers can learn more about the helicopter. Bell said the fly-by-wire 525 will use up to 30 percent less fuel than heavy helicopters currently servicing the region.
In 2020, Bell announced a collaboration agreement with Norwegian oil and gas operator Wintershall Dea Norge to bring enhanced operational helicopter safety to the North Sea. Bell said its involvement with Wintershall helped it to develop a new standard of operations for the oil and gas industry in the North Sea.