During its development, the Bell 429 was initially equipped with this “sleigh-type” landing gear, which infringed an Airbus Helicopters patent, a U.S. court has found. Mike Reyno Photo
A United States District Court has ruled that Bell Helicopter infringed an Airbus Helicopters patent in the design of the original landing gear for the Bell 429 — and has issued a permanent injunction barring Bell from using that landing gear for the life of the patent.
In a ruling released on Jan. 27 — the latest development in a legal battle that stretches back to 2008 — U.S. Circuit Judge Robert L. Wilkins found that Bell copied Airbus Helicopters’ patented “sleigh-type” landing gear design in the initial development of the 429. That’s consistent with a 2012 ruling by the Federal Court of Canada, which found that Bell exhibited “deliberate and outrageous conduct” in copying the landing gear design.
Although Canadian Justice Luc Martineau took a dim view of Bell’s conduct in that 2012 ruling, he also found that the modified landing gear on production Bell 429s does not violate Airbus Helicopters’ patent. Later in 2012, a French court also ruled that the production 429 landing gear does not infringe the patent.
In the latest ruling, Wilkins agreed that the production landing gear is not a patent violation. However, he found that Bell has an incentive to resume use of the sleigh-type landing gear because of its lighter weight, thereby justifying issuance of the permanent injunction.
“Although Bell’s representative testified that Bell does not intend to use the original gear in the future . . . the Court is not convinced that it can rely on this representation,” Wilkins wrote. “Moreover, even if Bell voluntarily adopts a policy of using a different gear, Bell has in the past ignored its own policies with respect to intellectual property rights.”
The patent in question concerns the sleigh-type or “moustache” landing gear used on Airbus Helicopters’ EC120 and EC130 models. Sleek, lightweight, and particularly resistant to ground resonance, the landing gear was developed in the mid-1990s and subsequently patented in France, Canada, and the U.S., although Airbus (then Eurocopter) did not immediately mark the landing gear as patented.
In 2003, while developing the light twin-engine 429, Bell allegedly leased an EC120 for several months in order to study that helicopter’s landing gear. Bell then adopted a similar sleigh-type design as the baseline landing gear for its 429, using the gear during certification testing and displaying it at Helicopter Association International’s 2008 Heli-Expo in Houston, Texas. Moreover, also in 2008, Bell presented a technical paper on the landing gear design at American Helicopter Society International’s 64th Annual Forum, misrepresenting the gear as its own invention, according to Wilkins’ ruling.
While Wilkins granted that “customers generally do not make their purchasing decisions based on the landing gear of an aircraft,” he found that Bell’s use of the sleigh-type landing gear allowed the company to accelerate the 429’s development program. That early entry into the marketplace likely harmed sales of Airbus’ light twin-engine EC135 and EC145 models, which have seen their market shares decline since the 429’s certification.
In requesting the permanent injunction, Airbus noted that sales of the 429 in the U.S. are currently being constrained by the aircraft’s weight (as the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has denied Bell’s request
to increase the maximum gross weight of the aircraft from 7,000 to 7,500 pounds). Airbus argued — and Wilkins agreed — that Bell therefore has an incentive to resume use of the sleigh-type gear, which would achieve a weight savings of approximately 10 to 20 pounds. In his ruling, Wilkins cites testimony that “'[e]ven half a pound matters when trying to minimize helicopter weight.”
In an email to Vertical, however, Bell dismissed this argument, describing the prototype landing gear as “only marginally lighter than the production gear.”
“Bell Helicopter takes great pride in its business integrity,” the company stated. “We have and will continue to respect the intellectual property rights of third parties. We are pleased that the U.S. Court joined the courts in France and Canada in rejecting [Airbus Helicopters’] claim that the 429 production gear infringed [Airbus Helicopters’] patent. All Bell 429s have been and will continue to be delivered with the current production gear. The subject of this injunction is a prototype skid gear that was never certified and was never delivered on any Bell 429.”