Editorial: Eighty-five years of Flight Innovation
October 18, 2020 ByHelicopters Staff
Bell Textron in July of this year celebrated its 85th year of business, pointing to a range of innovations in flight from building the first aircraft to break the sound barrier – the Bell X-1 flown by Chuck Yeager – to certifying the first commercial helicopter and developing the world’s first tiltrotor, which remains as an awesome sight of engineering. Purchased by Textron in 1960, Bell Aerosystems was instrumental in driving NASA’s first lunar mission by delivering two Lunar Landing Research Vehicles (LLRV) in 1964, well before the space agency had even determined how it would get to and land on the moon. Described by NASA then as the first pure fly-by-wire aircraft to fly in Earth’s atmosphere, the LLRVs would become critical trainers under the new Lunar Orbit Rendezvous concept.
Now, 56 years later, Bell is preparing to certify the 525 Relentless, designed to carry two pilots and up to 16 passengers, as world’s first commercial helicopter with fly-by-wire flight controls. Certification of the 525 has been delayed and is likely to take place in 2021, but this program speaks to Bell’s ongoing commitment to the innovation of flight even through what has been the most-challenging year for the aviation industry. In 2020, Bell reached major milestones and investments in its V-280 Valor and 360 Invictus future vertical lift programs, including plans to build a corresponding 140,000-square-foot Manufacturing Technology Center of digital significance.
In early 2020, Bell’s commercial team patented the first ever tail rotor of its kind in the Electrically Distributed Anti-Torque (EDAT) demonstrator, challenging the norms of aircraft noise and electrical distribution. In September 2020, Bell’s innovation of flight was once again on full display with NASA as the lead technology partner in the space agency’s Systems Integration and Operationalization (SIO) demonstration program, designed to assess the safety and utility of unmanned aircraft for commercial use. The first SIO flight of Bell’s Autonomous Pod Transport 70 involved a 10-mile BVLOS circuit using prototype Xwing detect-and-avoid technology in an urban environment.
APT 70’s route along Trinity River in Fort Worth, Texas, included transitioning into and out of controlled Class B airspace, maintaining an altitude of 500 feet. Data collected during the demonstration will be used to support future standards development by the FAA. Through its Nexus program, Bell is also a leading driver of the emerging Urban Air Mobility (UAM) sector. Chalked full of start-ups hoping to revolutionize transportation, established vertical lift companies like Bell will ultimately form the backbone of UAM. In addition to its NASA SIO involvement, the company showed hints of this with the January 2020 introduction of Bell AerOS to track all future aircraft types during passenger flights and logistics operations.
Bell’s team from Mirabel is heavily involved in the parent company’s UAM developments from wind tests performed in Ottawa to vehicle engineering efforts. The Bell facility in Mirabel is approaching a 35-year milestone in 2021 after beginning operations in 1986. Bell sold its first helicopter into Canada in 1963, a Bell 204 aircraft to Skyrotors Ltd. based in Ontario.
In addition to its key facility in Calgary, Bell Textron Canada is now represented by 1,300 highly-skilled employees across the country. To date, the company has built more than 5,200 commercial helicopters and delivered more than 1,000 aircraft to Canadian customers. These Canadian achievements are celebrated in the 2021 HELICOPTERS wall calendar, through a partnership with the Helicopter Association of Canada, featuring the new 407GXi on the cover.
Introduced in 2018, the Bell 407GXi is one of four commercial helicopter types currently being built in Mirabel, along with the 429, 412EPI and 505 Jet Ranger X, the latter of which just surpassed 50,000 flight hours in less than two years. Among the past 85 years of innovation flight, Bell Textron Canada has made an enormous impact on parent company’s all-important commercial segment, which ultimately forms the backbone of the helicopter industry.