Respected aviation media outlet Aviation International News has run a story quoting Bell saying that their new 525 Relentless helicopter, currently under development, is a “Super Puma replacement”. Helihub.com has requested validation of the quote from Bell, but despite opening our email within one minute of sending it over four hours prior to us publishing this piece, the company has failed to respond. We cannot believe that Aviation International News would publish wording they cannot stand by, so we have to assume the quote is correct.
How can a manufacturer of the standing of Bell stoop so low as to malign a competitor aircraft at a time when there is a significant safety focus on the AS332/H225 following the accident near Bergen in Norway on 29th April?
Bell is in a difficult position. After some years of low R&D spending, and an abandonment of the popular JetRanger marketplace for a while, they committed a few years back to two significant programs primarily aimed at the civil market.
Firstly the Bell 505 JetRanger X, a Turbomeca-powered helicopter to replace the very successful 206 JetRanger, the last of which was produced six years ago. The reported customer commitments to this helicopter are impressive, and while we await certification later this year and the initial ramp-up of a new production line in Louisiana, it is clear that it will have an effect on the five-seat single-turbine market currently dominated by the Robinson R66.
Secondly the Bell 525 Relentless, their largest ever civil helicopter, which was launched when the oil price was high and the offshore helicopter market was in much happier times. Letters of Intent (by their nature, not a final contract) for 80 reportedly exist.
After the oil priced dived in autumn 2014, offshore helicopter operations have reduced significantly, with some observers suggesting that hours flown supporting oil and gas operations have halved. At the Helicopter Investor conference earlier in the year, the consensus was that 30% of the global offshore helicopter fleet had been parked up. Since then, CHC has moved into Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings and the initial expectation is set that they will reduce their fleet by 155 helicopters before the end of 2016, including some which are already parked. A significant impact on the market.
Leasing companies also moved into the helicopter market when offshore operations were busy, and committed to large future orders of offshore helicopters in the expectation that it was an expanding market. The last 18 months have shown that this was poor judgement, but it is the ongoing repercussions that are more important.
At some point the oil price will start rising back to the rate at which exploration will restart and helicopter demand will rise, and the helicopter operators will look to the market to add to their fleet. The following is the expected order of the available aircraft options for a helicopter operator, primarily dictated by cost. Each option will be exhausted first, before an operator considers moving to the next.
– their own parked up aircraft, bringing them back from the inhibited state they put them in
– pre-owned aircraft they could buy or lease – parked up by other operators or leasing companies
– new aircraft parked up by leasing companies who have been forced to take delivery of aircraft they cannot place in the market (this is already happening)
– new aircraft of existing types, as the operator will have pilots and engineers with the appropriate skills and thus minimum of cross-training will be required
– new aircraft of new types, such as the Bell 525 Relentless, which will require more investment in parts, tooling and training of both pilots and engineers
Where does this leave all manufacturers of medium and large helicopters? Bleak times ahead, and some may only be able to keep the production lines open if their dwindling military orders are sufficient. Once they have produced all the helicopters that the leasing companies committed to, it is feasible that production lines could close.
Bell are, through no fault of their own, in the worst position as their 525 Relentless is well into its development phase but not yet certified, but as a new aircraft types will be bottom of the list of interest for offshore operators. What you might call a “perfect storm”.
So for Bell come out and say their 525 Relentless is a “Super Puma replacement” is a mark of desperation. The Super Puma family, both the AS332 and H225, have been produced for 35 years and developed through upgraded specifications and new models just as any manufacturer would. Right now the CHC accident in Norway is giving focus to the type, but there is no indication at all which would suggest whether the cause was a human error or linked to the manufacturer, or some other extraneous option.
We understand that a huge amount of R&D money has been committed to the 525, and as their largest ever civil helicopter, the future of Bell as a civilian helicopter manufacturer might be at stake. But we cannot have one manufacturer throwing dirt at another in this public way. The global helicopter industry is too small for that.
We call on Bell to apologise publicly to Airbus Helicopters.
Jeremy Parkin – HeliHub.com
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