In a recent HeliHub interview, Larry Thimmesch, VP Sales and Marketing for the Bell 525 Relentless program provided further details on the timelines of the certification process.
Despite the delays brought upon by the fatal accident of one of the prototypes in July 2016, Bell tell us their new certification program is on schedule to complete all their planned flights and paperwork by the end of 2018. They currently have one aircraft conducting cold weather trials in Thompson, Manitoba, and another aircraft in Arlington, Texas on load testing trials. Bell plan to bring two more prototypes into the development phase during this calendar year. Aircraft #4 will be SAR equipped, and is due to fly “in the spring”, while Aircraft #5 will be equipped for the oil & gas market and is scheduled to fly “in the fall”. It is unclear how much input the latter will have to the certification process if the manufacturer plans to submit all paperwork to the FAA by the end of the year.
Just completing the paperwork is notable milestone, but does not mean the aircraft is certified. The FAA is likely to take 3-6 months to complete their part of it, on the assumption that absolutely everything is in order and nothing needs clarification by the manufacturer. That leads us to suppose FAA certification would be no earlier than Spring 2019. Given the delays in the same FAA process with the much-simpler single turbine Bell 505, that timeline already seems tight. Then add in the complexities of the fly-by-wire system, and the FAA special conditions
issued in the Federal Register as part of the output from the accident investigation. In that document, the FAA noted that the 525 “will have a novel or unusual design feature associated with the electronic CAS (Crew Alerting System). The applicable airworthiness regulations do not contain adequate or appropriate safety standards for this design feature. These special conditions contain the additional safety standards that the Administrator considers necessary to establish a level of safety equivalent to that established by the existing airworthiness standards.”. Given this came out from the accident investigation, it is clear that the FAA will be poring over the 525 in more detail with this in mind.
Meanwhile, Thimmesch told HeliHub.com
that EASA certification is “six months behind FAA” which then means Autumn 2019 at best. However, while we understand Bell’s optimism but HeliHub.com expect this gap to be wider. From other articles we have researched and published in recent years, it is clear that EASA rotary-wing test pilots are very closely linked to European manufacturers, often on secondment to the Agency. Given that these manufacturers are competitors of Bell, it is very feasible that the certification test pilots could ask for extra information and testing in order to build a further delay into the process for the benefit of the manufacturer with whom they enjoy close links. We trust this is not the case, but past evidence with another US based manufacturer suggests otherwise. By comparison, the gap between FAA and EASA certification of the 505 was five months after Bell sales representatives told us it would be “weeks, not months”.
Transport Canada certification is not being prioritised at this time for the 525, and Bell would wait to take that route when there is sufficient customer interest. HeliHub data shows a total fleet of civil helicopters over 7000kg gross weight in Canada is 23, consisting of 20 Leonardo AW139s and 13 Sikorsky S92s. 14 of the AW139s are on EMS work, and three on corporate/charter work. The S92s are all operating offshore from Nova Scotia except one corporate example in the Toronto area.