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Bell to launch new commercial helicopter at Heli-Expo

Jan. 18, 2012, Fort Worth, Tx. - Bell Helicopter will soon take the wraps off its most ambitious nonmilitary aircraft development program ever, an estimated $500 million effort to develop a long-range helicopter to haul workers and supplies to oil rigs at least 200 miles offshore.


January 18, 2012
By The Star-Telegram

Fort Worth-based Bell will unveil details about the new commercial helicopter at a trade show in Dallas next month, and company officials aren't talking about it until then. But the Star-Telegram has learned a few key details about the scope of the effort, which could boost the company's employment in North Texas.

Launched a year ago as Project Magellan, the new helicopter will likely be known as the Bell 525 Magellan Super Medium Transport, based on trademark applications Bell filed last month.

According to individuals familiar with the project and internal documents provided to the Star-Telegram, it would be the biggest helicopter Bell has ever built, weighing about 91/2 tons when fully loaded with passengers, baggage and fuel.

With twin turbine (jet) engines driving a new five-blade rotor, the helicopter can carry 16 passengers and a crew of two. It could fly at least 200 nautical miles, perhaps close to 300 miles, then carry back that many people on one tank of fuel, according to the documents provided to potential suppliers.

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It's a major undertaking for Bell, which for more than a decade has considered building a big helicopter to serve oil rigs and do other long-range jobs.

"With an all-new, clean-sheet-of-paper design, it's a $500 million investment, at least," to bring such an aircraft to market, said Richard Aboulafia, aircraft market analyst for the Teal Group forecasting firm in Fairfax, Va.

The new helicopter would likely help Bell maintain and perhaps increase employment in Texas.

Bell does much of its research and development work at its Xworx facility in Arlington. Officials have said they plan to assemble the copter at the company's military aircraft facility in Amarillo. Bell factories in the Fort Worth area would likely manufacture many parts, such as rotor blades and transmissions.

It's ambitious in more ways than one. Bell, according to one document, expects to have the aircraft designed, built and tested by mid-2016, with first delivery to a paying customer that year, although such schedules are typically optimistic.

The company also expects robust sales of 60 to 70 aircraft a year by the end of the decade. That would be 50 percent or more of the current sales in the medium helicopter market, a very aggressive forecast for a market  with established competitors with modern aircraft.

"Everybody," Aboulafia said of Bell and its competitors, "thinks they're going to get 50 percent of the market."

One company, Italy's AgustaWestland, has taken a big slice of the offshore oil market in recent years with its AW139, which seats 12 to 15 passengers and has a range of 200 nautical miles. Bell was once a partner in that program.

AgustaWestland has sold as many as 80 AW139s a year recently, Aboulafia said, and the company is working on a slightly larger version, the AW189.

Another rival, Eurocopter, expects to deliver its new EC175 this year. It's designed to haul 16 to 18 passengers short distances or to ferry 12 passengers as far as 190 nautical miles one way. At the upper end of the market are even bigger aircraft, such as the Eurocopter EC225 Super Puma and Sikorsky S-92.

Bell's only product in that market segment is its 412EP, a much-upgraded version of the Vietnam-era Huey military helicopter, which lacks the long range and capacity of new aircraft. Bell plans to announce the aircraft's latest version, the 412I, in Dallas as well.

Over the longer term, Bell appears to believe that the new Magellan can cut a large slice out of the middle of the medium offshore market, between the smaller and larger aircraft.

"It's a very difficult proposition for Bell to launch this aircraft now because there's already Sikorsky, Agusta and us," said Marc Paganini, president of American Eurocopter in Grand Prairie, the U.S. arm of the European manufacturer. Paganini doesn't expect the market, now 120 or so helicopters a year, to grow significantly.

The Magellan is an important undertaking for the future of Bell, just its second all-new commercial helicopter. Its launch comes as the company has strong cash flow to invest in development, thanks to its V-22 Osprey and military helicopters.

Military sales are expected to taper off, so Bell will need a strong lineup of modern commercial helicopters to stay successful.


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