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Scotts-Bell 47 Inc. has recruited an experienced team to revive the venerable Bell 47 even anticipating a return to production for the nearly 70-year-old design.
Supporting the existing Model 47 fleet is SB47 Inc.s current number one priority, but the company also hopes to see a return to production for the helicopter. Skip Robinson Photo
At first glance, Le Sueur, Minn., might seem like an unlikely new home for United States Federal Aviation Administration type certificates H-1, 2H1 and 2H3, which for 50 years hung on the wall of the Bell Helicopter factory in Hurst, Texas. Yet, this tiny, largely farming-oriented community, located some 50 miles (80 kilometers) southwest of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, has been home to some pretty big successes, including being the original home of the Jolly Green Giant of canned and frozen vegetable fame, and being the place where Dr. William Mayo (founder of the Mayo Clinic) started his first medical practice.
Today, as the headquarters for Scotts-Bell 47 Inc., Le Sueur can boast another industry-changing brand: the legendary Bell 47.
Scotts-Bell 47 bought the Model 47 type certificates from Bell Helicopter Textron in December 2009 (see p.24, Vertical, Feb-Mar 2010). And, in the two years since he received a ceremonial type certificate from Bell at Heli-Expo 2010, owner Scott Churchill has developed an impressive company and leadership team to revive one of the most enduring and significant helicopter designs in the world. Now, based on market research and customer interest, the company anticipates a return to production for a model that first flew on Dec. 8, 1945.
The Journey Begins
Churchills 30-year passion for the Model 47 encompasses 15,000 hours of low-level, crop-dusting flying and ownership of a fleet of 19 Bell 47s (along with seven Bell 206 JetRangers and a Bell UH-1). Since 2000, hes also been the owner of Texas Helicopters, an STC shop, certified parts manufacturer approval (PMA) maker of parts for the Bell 47, and creator of the innovative M74 Wasp (a single-seat conversion of the Bell 47).
The acquisition of Texas Helicopters was driven by Churchills desire to secure a long-term source of parts for his growing fleet. Once that deal was done, the purchase also changed the nature of the conversations between Churchill and Bell Helicopter. Bell remained dedicated to supporting the Model 47 (which had been out of production since 1973), but the passage of time presented many challenges as Bells corporate memory faded with long-serving employees having retired. Increasingly, Bell called Model 47 operators, including Churchill, for advice on operational issues that historical documents couldnt answer.
There were rumors that Bell was going to exit the Model 47 support business at the annual operators conferences, recalled Churchill. So after I bought Texas Helicopters, I asked about the possibility of supplying PMA parts to Bell as an alternative to re-qualifying vendors the way they had to as a manufacturer.
Churchills effort stalled, however, due in part to the frequent leadership changes at Bell that were happening at the time. Id half given up trying because of the changes in their company leadership when Ross Johnson [Bells then-director of customer support and services business development] called me one day in August 2009 and hinted about the previous conversations wed had about making parts for Bell. Ross caught me completely off guard when he said Bell was prepared to sell me the type certificate for the entire Model 47 family!
Passing the Torch
On Dec. 7, 2009, Bell Helicopter made it official when it announced that Churchills helicopter services company, Scotts Helicopter Services, a Bell-approved customer service facility, would assume ownership of the Model 47 type certificates once funds had changed hands. At the time, Danny Maldonado, senior vice-president of customer support and chief services officer at Bell, said, This model really started the commercial helicopter business and Bell has a lot of heritage in the 47. However, we felt it was the best thing for our customers, and the 47, to transition ongoing support to Scotts Helicopter, and we have every confidence that Scotts will continue to provide outstanding service and support.
Beginning in the first quarter of 2010, the transfer of all aspects of commercial spares support, technical support and continued airworthiness for type certificates H-1, 2H1 and 2H3 began, making their way to Churchills new company, Scotts-Bell 47 Inc. (SB47 Inc.). As a result, the legendary Bell 47 would now be designated as the SB47.
The first thing we had to do was get Bells parts inventory moved from Texas to Minnesota, explained Churchill. Bell also had to spend a lot of time gathering up 60 years of hard dumb data it had locked away, including blueprints on vellum, process specifications and certification documents. Warren Moseley, the legacy program manager at Bell Helicopter, was point man for the transfer of the type certificates and gathered up records from the fireproof vault in which they had been stored.
The entire process of moving the parts inventories and documentation took almost a full year. But, after the transfer process had begun, a transfer of the tooling was next on the list of things to do. In February 2010, a group of SB47 Inc. team members traveled to Bell Helicopters Building J facility in Haltom City, Texas, to acquire the tooling that was used to fabricate Bell 47 parts.
Bell Helicopter was tremendously supportive of the whole process and this was seen as a win-win for both companies, said Churchill. Their entire organization has given this process 110 percent support, and Bell has said they want the Scotts-Bell 47 to remain part of the Bell family. This is definitely not a case of Bell dumping their support for the Model 47.
The three type certificates for the Bell 47 models were officially transferred to Scotts-Bell 47 Inc. on June 3, 2010. Then, SB47 Inc. started the process required to get new parts flowing to the worldwide SB47 fleet. In this situation, a typical helicopter manufacturer has an FAA production certificate, which gives it the authority to produce aircraft and the corresponding parts. However, since SB47 Inc. didnt have a production certificate and the Bell 47 had been out of production for almost 40 years, only the PMA process was available.
Scotts-Bell 47 Inc. received facility approval and its first PMA supplement approval in August 2010, after working closely with Bell Helicopter, the FAAs Manufacturing Inspection District Office in Minneapolis, Minn., and the Aircraft Certification Office in Chicago, Ill. The big difference is that as the OEM [original equipment manufacturer], Scotts had access to all the underlying engineering data Bell used to originally certify the Model 47, said Churchill. We didnt have to go out and independently re-certify a replacement. Instead, we go through a process of identicality, where we demonstrate to the FAA that the new parts fully conform to the original blueprints and process sheets the FAA had earlier approved. We have 8,000 original pencil drawings on Mylar and vellum dating back to 1944 that formed the basis for the original certification of the helicopter.
To satisfy the needs of the FAA, as well as its own production requirements, however, those drawings and data needed to be in a more useful form. This became one of the top priorities in 2011, and the task of accomplishing it fell to SB47 Inc. general manager Neil Marshall (the former program director for the Bell 429). Marshall put in place a systematic process to convert the original Bell drawings to 3-D digital files using the latest computer technology. About 10 to 20 original Bell drawings are being converted to digital files each week, with 250 drawings processed and approved by the FAA as of the end of 2011.
Looking ahead, said Marshall, we see a lot of benefits to translating these drawings to digital form. It helps expedite the FAAs PMA approval process, and most machine shops want a 3-D digital file for a part, not blueprints they have to translate. The FAA is very happy with the quality of data were able to provide them.
Improving the Brand
SB47 Inc. estimates that there are about 1,000 Bell 47s still registered around the world, with the operational fleet being somewhat fewer in number and primarily concentrated in the U.S. and Australia. While hard data is hard to come by, a survey in early 2011 received responses from the owner/operators of 200 aircraft, who seem quite loyal to their helicopters. (Twenty five percent of the respondents used their helicopters for training and 23 percent for agriculture.)
The moment Bell announced it was selling the type certificate to us, the value of the aircraft increased, said Churchill. There are not many aircraft for sale, because operators are hanging on to the aircraft they own.
To help meet the needs of this ownership group, SB47 Inc. has been growing its infrastructure and technical staff steadily. It has also added key leadership personnel in the form the aforementioned Marshall and director of customer support and services Don Maguire. Maguire is also a former Bell executive, serving as manager of product support engineering at Bell for a number of years (although more recently he was with simulation and training provider CAE).
Marshall said SB47 Inc.s current number one priority is to support the existing SB47 fleet. He said he expected to see a growing number of PMA parts for the SB47 on the shelf by early 2012. We have to address the parts issue as we draw down the inventories we received from Bell. We have to make sure there are no AOGs [aircraft on ground].
Churchills team is also developing a new value proposition for the SB47, to revive customer interest and demand in the model as an economical, working helicopter. The first steps in this process were revealed in late 2011, when the company announced plans for a new instrument panel, as well as new, more-comfortable seating and modern interior solutions. The new panel is being developed by Instrument Specialties Co. Inc. to accommodate modern instruments and enable an upgrade to digital solutions. The new utility interior and seating is being developed by Oregon Aero Inc., with the seating specifically to focus on reducing pilot fatigue.
The company is also very focused on reducing operating costs. Our objective is to get the operating cost of the helicopter lower than the Robinson R44, or at least equivalent to start, said Churchill. The helicopter was designed a long time ago and its a real workhorse, but the TBOs [time before/between overhauls] are a lot lower than they should be.
Maguire then added: The operating costs of the SB47 are driven by the overhaul costs and the times on the components. There are a number of things we can do to reduce the operating costs. This includes increasing the time between overhauls, increasing the life of components, adapting new technology like greaseless bearings and reducing the price of spare parts.
There are probably eight or nine major parts that have TBOs between 1,200 and 5,000 hours, and in each case wed like to get the number lifted, to something like 5,000 hours for a rotor blade or on the engine mounts. This may not require a redesign of a part, but might require a requalification of a part that will require an analysis of specifications or testing that takes advantage of modern processes.
A Return to Production?
Perhaps the most intriguing prospect of SB47 Inc. owning the type certificates is the possibility of a return to production for the Bell 47, something that increasing the models component times and TBOs would only encourage.
I hope to see the Bell 47 back in production, said Churchill, showing his cards. The best thing is there are lots of opportunities for us when you consider the other helicopters currently available in the marketplace.
The new helicopter Churchill envisions would be based on the Model 47G, but would have a choice of cabins. We could offer a narrow cabin that would provide cozy seating for three people, or an eight-inch-wider cabin based on the 47J that could accommodate four or five people the pilot and a passenger up front and three passengers along a bench seat at the back. (Sitting in Scotts parts boneyard in Le Sueur are a pair of cabins for the Carson-Bell 47, an extended-cabin version inventor Frank Carson developed decades ago that had three seats in the back and could be worked to accommodate a single seat up front with the pilot. Said Marshall, Developing a modern cabin off the original Carson design, rather than a clean sheet of paper design, might be the way to go.)
The pacing element in any grand vision to put the Model 47 back into production, however, is the availability of an inventory of new engines. Said Churchill, The engine is the soul of the helicopter, and we are in discussions with Lycoming regarding the re-introduction of the TVO-435 or TVO-540 engine series. They recognize the value and the potential, [but] we have to come up with a business solution that is good for them and good for us. These vertical engines went out of production in the early 1970s.
SB47 Inc. is also exploring a turbine option for the helicopter, said Marshall. The SB47 business development plan includes both piston- and turbine-driven helicopters. We are starting with support of the piston fleet and their refurbishment/upgrade. We would also support the existing fleet of Soloy-modified, Allison-turbine-powered Bell 47s, but we cannot because that STC, originally developed for the Hiller and the Bell 47, was sold in entirety to Hiller in 1989. Hiller has since been absorbed into Hiller-China, and we do not have rights to any of that data. We do recognize the need for a turbine-driven 47, and although we plan to start with production of piston-driven helicopters, we will follow that up with production of turbine-driven helicopters. In both cases, we still need to secure an engine contract, but we are actively exploring both with the supply base.
Maguire said that any new production aircraft would resemble the historical appearance of the 47, but incorporate numerous modernization and operational enhancements, safety improvements and cost-saving changes. (However, to avoid an entire new aircraft development and certification process, the changes would be limited to those driven by new vendor selections, safety enhancements, existing FAA-approved improvements and others acceptable to the FAA.) We see a very real demand for new and OEM-refurbished Bell 47s, said Maguire, and there is a highly focused sense of urgency driving and spurring on our efforts.
In the meantime, most Bell 47 operators are thrilled that Churchill and his team have stepped forward to support the helicopter. And while it remains to be seen whether Scotts-Bell 47 Inc. will succeed in reviving the Bell 47 production line, one thing is certain: the company will help ensure the existing examples of this legendary design will continue to fly for many years to come.
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