Magic in Mirabel
You definitely know something important is up when former Montreal Canadien Guy Lafleur is in the house. And even though the superstar right winger and current helicopter pilot was a shining NHL star in the mid- to late-1970s, he still provides plenty of “wow” factor wherever he goes, especially in La belle province.
By Matt Nicholls
Lafleur was one of the key dignitaries Bell Helicopter brought in to its Mirabel, Que. facility in early February to mark a momentous occasion for Mirabel and the Canadian helicopter industry: the rollout of Bell’s first 505 Jet Ranger X the company’s newest member of the Bell helicopter family.
Joining “the Flower” in the house were several prominent politicians, including Navdeep Bains, minister of innovation, science and economic development and Christine St-Pierre, minister of international relations and la francophonie and minister responsible for the Laurentides region in Quebec. Key members of the Bell Helicopter Textron Canada leadership team and hundreds of Mirabel employees also helped introduce the new model.
One of four new helicopter programs currently in production for Bell, the 505 Jet Ranger X is a five-seat light single aircraft designed for a multitude of missions including corporate, parapublic, MEDEVAC, utility, training and more. First announced at the Paris Air Show in 2013 and unveiled at HAI Heli-Expo in 2014, the new model received Transport Canada certification in late December 2016.
The 505 Jet Ranger X is expected to receive Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) certification in the first quarter of 2017 and European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) certification in the second quarter of 2017, which will enable Bell to start rolling out its new machines to the more than 400 customers who have signed letters of intent from around the world. The first production models were showcased for clients at HAI Heli-Expo in Dallas in early March 2016.
Bell announced in May last year that the production and final assembly of the aircraft would be moved from its Lafayette, La., facility to Mirabel, a move that has helped rejuvenate a facility that is already home to the design, manufacturing, flight testing and after-market support of the Bell 429, 412 and 407 programs.
With the veritable Bell 206 program coming to a close, Mirabel certainly will welcome the addition of the 505, as it adds to an already buoyant lineup. In addition to its four active programs, Mirabel also supports the Royal Canadian Air Force’s (RCAF) Griffon fleet as part of its “Optimized Weapon System Management” program – and more good news is on the way. Bell president Mitch Snyder announced at the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada’s (AIAC) annual Canadian Aerospace Summit last November that a new helicopter will be introduced soon with final assembly also be heading north of
“When looking for locations to make investments, companies such as Bell Helicopter look for the most innovative countries – the ones with the most skilled and creative people who can turn ideas into solutions,” noted Bains during the 505 rollout. The 505 program added 100 highly skilled jobs at the Mirabel plant and is just the latest example of the longstanding relationship the various levels of government have had with the facility. Mirabel celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2016 and the Government of Canada has been one of its top clients over the years. “Our government’s support for innovation in the aerospace sector is a key part of our plan to drive economic growth to create better Canada,” noted Bains.
Quebec’s aerospace footprint remains vibrant and the output from Bell’s Mirabel facility is a big reason why. According to a 2014 Statistics Canada report highlighted in the AIAC’s most recent state of the aerospace industry report released last year, 55 per cent of aerospace manufacturing in Canada is produced in the province of Quebec and Bell Helicopter Textron Canada plays an important role in that production.
Since 1986, Bell’s 900 highly-skilled Canadian employees – most are based in Mirabel – have helped produce more than 4,850 helicopters at its 660,000 sq. ft. facility. And while the helicopter industry continues to suffer through a prolonged downturn – one Mirabel has not been immune to, experiencing its own employee cutbacks in recent years – Bell is banking on a strong rebound in the months ahead. Keeping production lines humming at the Mirabel site with existing and new programs is essential to the future success of the company and the Canadian aerospace footprint as a whole.
“Throughout the years, the aerospace sector has capitalized on the efficient supply chain, highly-skilled workforce and considerable capacity for innovation at Bell’s Mirabel site,” noted St-Pierre. “The assembly of the Bell 505 in Mirabel shines a light on the world-class expertise. This clearly demonstrates our know-how in the aerospace field.”
Leading by Example
In his address during the AIAC conference in the fall, Snyder spoke passionately about the need for his company to innovate and remain focused on developing new, cutting-edge products in spite of a downturn in major markets. It’s a message that Bell Helicopter Textron Canada president Cynthia Garneau has certainly taken to heart and she was very enthusiastic to give Helicopters an exclusive tour following the 505 rollout. LaShan Bonaparte, program manager for the 505 Jet Ranger X, also joined to share more insight about the aircraft.
Garneau, who replaced Raymond Leduc as president of Bell Helicopter Textron Canada in February 2016, has worked tirelessly to position Mirabel for future success. In the past year, she has streamlined operations, created efficiencies in processes and galvanized employees for future growth. Production lines for all programs have been refined – the temporary legacy 505 production line will soon change with a more functional layout – and modifications to the site itself are in the works. Some aesthetic changes have already been implemented, as Garneau noted, pointing skyward.
“For the new assembly area, we wanted to create a ‘wow’ reaction from visitors and employees,” Garneau enthused as we toured the 505 production line. “We took the opportunity to improve the lighting, brightened the floors and ceiling with white paint and branded it with grand pictures of products hanging above the line. With the 206 production ending soon, we will look at doing the same throughout the facility but we will do it incrementally.”
To tour the facility, you can certainly understand how Bell continues to excel in program development and remain a key player in the Canadian market. The Mirabel site is not only efficiently organized but the drive, creativity and commitment from employees is immediately apparent. On our tour, employees on the 429, 407 and 505 programs were highly engaged as individual teams and with us, as many requested photos to be taken. Smiling for the cameras, taking pride in the work they were doing – this joie de vivre is not the case at other manufacturing plants Helicopters has visited in the past.
“The level of engagement from employees here at the Bell facility in Mirabel certainly stands out,” Garneau said smiling. “We are a facility that has never been unionized. We value the consultative relationship that we have with our employees. It functions in an organized way where the team elects reps and they have the freedom to communicate freely. We meet as a team and they voice their concerns with management. We work through these issues . . . we find solutions together.”
One example is the implementation of a reduced work week for employees due to the slowdown in production. “We consulted our employees to suggest a reduced work week – in all areas,” Garneau noted. “So, we were able to free up one Friday every couple of weeks. People love their Fridays off.”
The collaborative approach Garneau and management work to instill with the team is also reflective in the awareness employees have about the market in general. If you think you can come into the Mirabel facility, pick an employee at random and catch them off guard by stumping them with a few questions on the state of the helicopter industry, trends, buyer tendencies and what not, don’t get your hopes up. Rest assured, these guys will know what’s going down.
“Our employees are very, very well informed when it comes to the market,” Garneau points out. “They know what it means to be competitive, remain competitive and they ask me some very tough questions in terms of cost, sales pursuit, government interaction, government support. They know how this business runs. We have been here for 30 years and our customers and employees are very loyal. We have a very low attrition rate because they want to stay here.”
New Kid on the Block
The Bell team and Bonaparte in particularly are very excited about the 505 Jet Ranger X. It’s a project that has been Bonaparte’s baby now for more than a year. Formerly working on the 429 program, she carries the same passion and pride to her new role and was eager to explain the 505’s attributes as we moved from workstation to workstation.
The 505’s calling card for operators, Bonaparte explained, will be its combination of affordability, versatility, safety and advanced technology, enabling crews to get tasks done more efficiently and effectively. Bell has not officially revealed a unit price, Bonaparte noted, but she did explain that the aircraft will sell in the “US$1 million range” depending on configuration.
A tale of the tape notes that the aircraft will have a maximum service ceiling of 20,000 feet, a payload of 1,500 pounds and travel 340 nautical miles on a single tank of fuel. It comes with the well laid out Garmin G1000H avionics suite and has plenty of power from its Safran Arrius 2R engine with dual channel FADEC (Full Authority Digital Engine Control) system. The aircraft will be flexible and adaptable Bonaparte explained – something Canadian operators will
appreciate given their tendency to partake in various missions for a wide array of customers. The turnaround time with these various missions is often tight and the 505
“We consider the 505 to be a blank canvas,” Bonaparte said. “The features we put into this aircraft – the flat floor, the passenger seats that can be removed, the useful load capacity on this aircraft – we are leaving it up to our customers to tell us how they want to utilize the aircraft.”
In developing the aircraft and finding ways to maximize its potential, Bell worked with a customer advisory council from all over the world to refine the final product. It’s a process, Bonaparte said was invaluable in creating all aspects of final design.
“We focused on what our customers’ missions were, what they focused on, what was going to be important to them,” she said. “They wanted reliability – so we have a proven rotor and drive. It has fantastic auto-rotation capability, high inertia. The power train and power systems are top notch, giving customers top performance on a warm day while still having the appropriate payload on their airframe. We
wanted to make sure the safety features were appropriate for an aircraft in this space. We focused in on the customers and what they wanted to see in a new product, not so much with a competitor in mind.”
Completing the Package
Having almost successfully completed the Canadian Coast Guard’s $123 million contract for seven new 412 EPI mediums and 15 429 light twin-engine helicopters – and continuing to meet the market demand for the popular 407 model – Bell’s Mirabel facility is ready to meet the challenge the new 505 brings. With production rates estimated at 50 helicopters in 2017 increasing to 150 by 2018, some refinements may be needed at the Mirabel site to get up to speed.
But Garneau is confident her team is ready to meet any challenge that lies ahead and they will do so in its efficient, dependable and professional manner that has been the Mirabel hallmark for three decades. “I am very confident we can meet the challenge, we have the talent, the skill and the commitment from our teams,” she said. “When operators are ready to make a change, they will see the value of the 505. And particularly in Canada – Canadians are very good at taking care of their aircraft.”
Bonaparte agreed adding, “We are going to continue to innovate and maintain a presence here at Mirabel, now and in the future. It’s good for our company, it’s also good for the Montreal aerospace hub, it’s good for Canada overall.”
The World is Your Oyster – Dynamic Canadian Trio is Ready to Go Global
Three intrepid helicopter pilots have set their sights on conquering the world this summer – and putting their Bell 429 to the max in the process.
Bob and Steven Dengler, a father-son team with a passion for aviation, are joining forces with helicopter ace Rob “Dugal” MacDuff to fly a Bell 429 Global Ranger helicopter more than 37,000 kilometres in just over one month. It’s called the “C150 Global Odyssey” (C150GO) and is the world’s first ever global father/son global circumnavigation. The journey begins in the nation’s capital on July 1 – to coincide with the nation’s 150th birthday – and zigzags the globe after that. The crew will visit more than 100 airports in 14 countries.
C150GO is a registered Canadian not-for-profit organization developed to support and raise funds for the Southlake Regional Centre Foundation and True Patriot Love Foundation. Some of the featured stops on the team’s schedule include Confederation Bridge in P.E.I., the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site in Nova Scotia, Signal Hill National Historic Site in St. John’s, Nfld., Marconi Centre in Poldhu, U.K. and the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in Vimy, France. The team also plans to swing by Bell’s Mirabel facility to visit the home of the Bell 429.