Sameer Rehman talks Bell in the Middle East
It would be flippant to suggest that Bell is back in the commercial, executive and VIP helicopter business, because it never left. But Bell’s military business has been particularly strong, with descendants of its famous Huey selling well in their modern and upgraded forms, while the latest UH‑1Y and AH-1Z are cornerstones of US Marine Corps’ airpower and export successes in their own right. Then there’s the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor, a revolutionary aircraft in service with the US Marine Corps and US Air Force, and in which Bell plays a major part.
Looking back and deftly crossing over between its civilian and military product lines, the Model 206 JetRanger might still be regarded as the classic Bell commercial helicopter. The company built in excess of 7,000 JetRangers and derivatives, including the TexasRanger and LongRanger, the latter remaining in production as the Model 206L4 until 2017.
Today, Bell’s offering of new-build commercial helicopters includes the 407GXi, a thoroughly modern single-turbine machine with obvious Model 206 ancestry, and the 412, derived from the original Huey through a long evolutionary process to produce a rugged do-pretty-much-anything/go-almost-anywhere utility helicopter.
Then there’s the 429, a sleek light twin, and the single-engined 505, designed to take up the market exactly where the JetRanger left off, a fact Bell acknowledges by naming the type Jet Ranger X. The 505 rounds off a comprehensive range of capable, effective helicopters, but there’s no escaping the fact that Bell’s commercial products just don’t boast the public awareness that once they did…
Go back a couple of decades, and when Christian Gray decided to take Anastassia Steele flying, he’d more than likely have led her to his JetRanger. But he didn’t. Now it’s time for Bell to win back that product and brand awareness, and Sameer Rehman, Bell Managing Director Middle East and Africa, is confident it will, through the revolutionary new 525 Relentless.
Seating a maximum of 18 passengers, the Relentless offers ample cabin space for more comfortable, bespoke executive and VIP layouts. Added to that, Bell’s LIVE rotor hub technology provides noise and vibration levels so low the manufacturer claims they’re best in class. Up front, the pilots enjoy outstanding situational awareness through the Garmin G5000H ARC Horizon integrated flight deck, which combines with Helicopter Synthetic Vision Technology and fly-by-wire to provide exceptional safety levels.
Power comes from a pair of 1,800shp General Electric CT7-2F1 turboshafts, driving a five-bladed main rotor and sufficient for a 165kt maximum cruising speed and 20,500lb maximum take-off weight. In terms of its lifting capability, the 525 therefore takes-off at a slightly heavier maximum weight than the Leonardo AW189 and just a little less than Sikorsky’s S-92. Bell’s helicopter has suffered development delays, not least through a well understood accident, but test flying has resumed and the aircraft is performing very well.
Middle East Market
Helicopter transport is important throughout the Middle East, whether moving executive or VIP passengers from ship to shore, rig workers to their platforms or connecting travellers in difficult locations. And yet the region is naturally harsh for rotorcraft, with high ambient temperatures, frequently high operating altitudes and dusty, sandy environments working together to degrade performance and create maintenance challenges. Combine all this with the corrosion risk from operating in the maritime domain, as many helicopters serving the region’s plentiful yachts do, and the Middle East ought to generate plenty of work for the helicopter MRO providers.
Like those of its competitors, Bell’s aircraft operate across this spectrum of challenges, so just how well do they fair? Sameer Rehman explains: “Our helicopters have been operating in the region for decades and in fact they’re designed from the ground up to perform in hot-and-high temperatures, dusty, sandy conditions and maritime environments. They typically have inlet barrier filters that separate dust and sand before it reaches the engine, for example.
“And for operators flying over water, we offer emergency flotation gear for all our models, as well as life rafts. The systems are independent of one another and usually chosen by all customers, civilian and military, operating at longer ranges over water. Good corrosion resistance is another necessity for overwater flying, as exemplified by the Bell 525.
“It’s a fully marinised helicopter, with corrosion-resistant coatings applied at the sub-component level, rather than the more common sub-assembly stage. This is a technique Bell has been using on its purpose-built military aircraft and will now be applying to the 525.”
However well-equipped the helicopter, there is always a requirement for comprehensive maintenance back-up and customer support. What does Bell offer in the region? “Bell is well known for its aftermarket service and support across the Middle East and Africa, and around the world. Maintainability is also an important helicopter feature though, and that includes designing for accessibility to engines, landing gear systems and underfloor areas, to enable inspections for corrosion, as well as making regular maintenance easier.”
Bell’s customer support even extends to potential clients looking to purchase a helicopter for their yacht. “It’s not uncommon for a yacht builder to contact us asking for specifications to suit the vessel to the helicopter their client wants to buy. They need the aircraft’s size and weight, and details of the moorings it requires, for instance. We have single-engined, twin-engined and even medium-twin Bell helicopters based on yachts – there are some large vessels in the region.”
Bell also remains with the customer when they take their helicopter away aboard the yacht, through its global aftersales support network. “We have 100 Bell-authorised support facilities around the world, including locations around the Mediterranean and in the Asia-Pacific region, with easy access for shipborne platforms. Meanwhile, our global parts network can be reached at any time should a replacement component be required.”
Humbled by the Huey
Bell flew the aircraft that became the UH-1 Huey for the first time in 1956. The latest UH‑1Y is a world apart from that original aircraft, in capability, performance, powerplant and avionics, yet still looks every bit a Huey. The UH-1 remains perhaps the most distinctive military helicopter ever, recognised by people who don’t even know it as a Bell product, but realise it’s the Huey of Vietnam War fame. For the modern Bell company, looking to sell new-generation helicopters into a discerning market place, that Huey heritage could be both advantage and hindrance.
On the one hand, Bell built the legendary Huey, what better demonstration of the quality of its products could there be? Yet on the other, Bell builds rugged, utilitarian military helicopters doesn’t it? Just how good can its executive aircraft be?
Rehman reckons: “We’re very proud of the Huey legend, but today Bell is all about innovation. We’re at the cutting edge of vertical lift technology and innovation; Bell recently changed its name from ‘Bell Helicopter’ to simply ‘Bell’, better reflecting the fact that we do a lot more than build helicopters. We’ve been in the tiltrotor business for decades and we’re also active in the unmanned air vehicle third-party logistics and air taxi innovation business. Wearing our new hat as an innovation company rather than simply a helicopter manufacturer, I think people will be very surprised at what we have coming down the line.
“Consider the Bell 505. Bell created the single-turbine helicopter market with the Model 206 JetRanger and continues that legacy with the 505 Jet Ranger X. But the new aircraft comes with all the modern bells and whistles, including a Garmin 1000 glass cockpit and dual-channel FADEC. It also has a flat floor and it’s very easy to learn to fly, factors which are helping Bell kick-start the market segment once again.
“Most of our 505 customers are what I would term non-organic, they’re people who’ve come from the yachting, sports car or equestrian industries. They’re people who’ve previously leased helicopters, but now they’re looking at the 505 for its technology and affordability. And that’s just at the smaller end of our range.
“Moving to the larger end, we have the Bell 525. The type returned to flight test in July 2017 and by now has accumulated more than 1,000 flying hours. Ships number 2, 3 and 4 are actively flight testing on a daily basis, with the fifth aircraft due to come on line in first quarter 2019. We’re looking good for FAA type certification in December 2019 and I fully expect the aircraft will become the company flagship for many years to come.”
Rehman refuses to be drawn into a discussion of the 525’s merits compared to its competitors, but notes: “The technology on the 525 is at least a decade ahead. Its fly-by-wire system doesn’t exist in the commercial world today – we’re applying technology developed from the Bell fly-by-wire system on the V-22 and it will be the first such system certified on a commercial helicopter. It will be a formidable aircraft in a space that hasn’t seen much real development in the past decade or so.”
Fly-by-wire has obvious benefits to fixed-wing aircraft in terms of smooth flight, safety and performance, but how will it be expressed in the 525? “It combines with the aircraft’s full-time auto-stabilisation system to provide exceptionally smooth flight. Pilots who have flown the aircraft say it flies like a business jet. In testing we took it to around 200kt true airspeed, which is incredibly fast for a helicopter. The never exceed speed has been reduced for certification, but we expect a 145kt long-range cruise speed and 165kt maximum cruise.”
On the outside, the 525 is distinctly jet like and with its superior performance, VIP customers will expect a cabin matching the quality of their jet’s. Rehman says Bell has the capability in place to achieve superior interior finishing. “We work very closely with high-net worth individuals and their appointed representatives at the detail design level to create carefully crafted work. But we recognise that some individuals may have requirements we can’t meet, in which case we have vendors ready to satisfy those demands.
“We’ve drawn on many segments of the industry, benchmarking to identify suppliers who will be able to create a cabin that takes an individual from their home to the airfield and on to their business jet in a seamless transition of style.”
So, should Christian and Anastassia reappear several shades darker still, is he likely to have chosen from Bell’s portfolio for his rotorcraft requirements? Will the 525 raise Bell’s profile and public awareness of the brand in the commercial, executive and VIP helicopter markets?
“We’ll certainly have technology that no one else has,” Rehman states. “No one else will be selling a fully fly-by-wire helicopter and no one else will know so much about the technology. Being back in that market space is going to do wonders from the brand appreciation perspective as well.
“Yes, 20 years ago the JetRanger was prominent in popular culture, although I believe around 4,000 actually still remain in service. Bell has been extremely successful in the military market, and has always continued innovating in its commercial business, but over the past five or six years we’ve been reinvigorating the commercial space, starting with the 505 announcement.
“We just delivered the 100th example and the fleet achieved 10,000 hours early in November. The accolades are coming in, but it takes a while for the market to adjust. I fully expect to see Bell gain much greater success in the commercial market and in the Middle East region I consider the 525 the perfect aircraft for the corporate/VIP sector.
“I believe it’s ideal for many of the local royal flights as they engage in fleet renewal, especially since the aircraft offers the comfort they’ve come to expect and enjoy from their jets. But Bell will also take a share of the air taxi market and recently signed an agreement with Uber to make personal air taxis a reality sometime in the next decade.
“And we have an Indonesian customer already operating 505s on demand, passengers arranging their flights via smartphone app. We’ve looked at autonomous air taxis too and believe they are the future of urban transport.” It’s innovation typical of Bell, which is determined to embrace the future through technologically advanced, progressive products. “The Huey legacy is a big part of who we are. But the helicopters we’re building today are not old technology, they are cutting-edge aircraft. Look at us again. Our future is bright.” n