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Bell is expecting the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to certify the Bell 505 Jet Ranger X “in the next few weeks,” as the first European customers get set to begin their training on the type.
“We are in the final stages of discussion, and it’s supposed to take place any time now,” Patrick Moulay, EVP commercial at Bell told media during a wide-ranging briefing at Helitech International, held in London, England, Oct. 3 to 5.
The five-seat aircraft, powered by a Safran Arrius 2R engine, received certification from the Canadian and U.S. regulatory agencies in December 2016 and June 2017, respectively. The first production aircraft are now flying with customers in Canada, the U.S., and Chile.
Moulay said the 505’s customers in Europe are spread out across the continent, but highlighted particular interest in Belgium and the U.K. The first European customers are to attend training on the type at the Bell Training Academy in Forth Worth, Texas, in November, and the 505 is expected to make its operational debut in Europe in January 2018.
The 505 is manufactured at Bell’s facility in Mirabel, Quebec. The production rate at the facility has been relatively slow until now, but a steep ramp up is expected to see at least 100 aircraft produced in 2018. The current lead-time for new customers to receive their aircraft is two years.
Bell has high hopes that the 505 will prove popular among law enforcement operators, but it’s in the form of another parapublic application — as a military trainer — that the aircraft is already bearing fruit.
“We hope that before the end of the year we’ll be able to make some announcements [regarding military orders] — it’s a very big strategic segment,” said Moulay. “This has come up faster than we anticipated, to be frank, and it shows there is a need in this segment for a new product that, actually, we are addressing.”
In terms of 505 sales by region, China tops the list. This held true across Bell’s civilian product line in 2017, in large part thanks to an order for 100 407GXPs from Shaanxi Helicopter. Moulay said this year marked the first time in the company’s history that it sold more helicopters in China than in the U.S.
“The actual China boom that we have been waiting [for] as an industry for a long time — when you look at the numbers — is taking place in front of us,” he said.
Meanwhile, Moulay revealed that the UH-X contract for 150 aircraft based on the Bell 412EPI for the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) includes an agreement to build a further 150 “export” versions of the type in Japan.
The contract, signed by Bell’s long-term partner Subaru Corporation (formerly known as Fuji Heavy Industries), will see the new utility transport helicopter replace the JGSDF’s existing UH-1J, which is based on the Bell 205.
The impact of this agreement on the production of the 412 in Canada remains unclear.
“The large part of the agreement with the Japan MoD [Ministry of Defense] there is 150 aircraft for their own needs, and 150 aircraft that need to be . . . exported as well,” said Moulay. “There will be some exports, so we are discussing with Subaru where that is going to be. But I will not jump into [a] conclusion for what it means for the 412 production line in Mirabel.”
The UH-X program is currently in the prototype phase, with delivery of the aircraft to the JGSDF anticipated to begin in 2021.
A growing European presence
While China shows much promise, Moulay said Europe has already become a “key market” for Bell, with the manufacturer making a conscious effort to become less “U.S.-centric” over the last few years. Accordingly, Bell now has a logisitics center, a customization center, a delivery center, and a simulator center in Europe to help support local customers.
“We are doing everything we can to make sure that when [a European operator] buys a Bell product, the entire life cycle is going to be taken care of by a European team,” he said. “Down to the retrofit, maintenance, [and] customizing — you have teams locally capable of taking care of you.”
The company has had particular success in the region with the Bell 429, where more than 75 of the type are in operation. During Helitech, Swiss operator Air Zermatt announced it had placed an order for a second 429 for its fleet, after being impressed with the type during the last four years in operation.
“It’s a vote of confidence from the customer,” said Moulay. “I like to think that when you do the right thing — take care of your customer, and the aircraft is performing the way it’s supposed to be — you end up getting more business.”
Looking ahead, Moulay said the company remains confident of success with the 19-seat 525 in the North Sea oil-and-gas market, despite the ongoing downturn in the offshore sector.
“We have designed this aircraft dedicated primarily for the oil-and-gas segment, we believe the North Sea is one of the key areas in the world for oil-and-gas, [and] we believe the 525 is going to bring tremendous value to the industry,” he said. “The industry is suffering; yes, we are suffering like everybody else; we see exactly the same thing in oil-and-gas that everybody sees; but we do see that in the long term, that segment is going to come back — and we’ll be there and the demand is for the 525.”
Bell resumed flight tests with the 525 on July 7, 2017 — a year and a day after the fatal crash of the first flight test vehicle, which killed two test pilots and resulted in the temporary grounding of the program.
While Bell awaits the final report on the accident from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), it continues to work towards the aircraft’s certification, expected at the end of 2018. Deliveries are scheduled to being in early 2019.
Moulay said the flight tests are “going well,” but that Bell has not yet resumed taking letters of intent (LOIs) for the 525. The program had recorded around 80 before the accident.
“From a marketing standpoint, I didn’t feel like it was the right time last year, because of the accident, to engage in proactive marketing/selling activities,” he said. “I think at some point you need to step back and make sure you have the program back in order. So we have not been taking any further LOIs until the NTSB report has been released.”