features Bell at home in Mirabel as it celebrates 35th anniversary

This September, Bell celebrated the 35th anniversary of its facility in Mirabel, Quebec. Established as a Center of Excellence for Commercial Aircraft Manufacturing, it has evolved to develop extensive capabilities across a range of specialities, and is on the cutting edge of the company's innovation work.
Avatar for Oliver Johnson By Oliver Johnson | October 26, 2021

Estimated reading time 16 minutes, 4 seconds.

Much has changed in the 35 years that Bell has had a presence in Mirabel, Quebec. Alongside new generations of company employees and new products designed, flight tested and produced in Mirabel, the passing decades have seen leaps forward in technology. Aircraft have moved from analog to digital, propulsion systems are being redesigned to embrace electrification, and autonomous capabilities are ever-increasing. However, one thing that has remained constant has been the mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship that Bell and the Quebec and Canadian governments have developed. The two levels of government have supported Bell’s work in Mirabel, and the manufacturer has used this support to attract talent to the industry and develop, within the region, leading levels of expertise in cutting edge technology.

Mirabel staff stand on two of the facility’s helipads, alongside a 505, 429, and 412 as they celebrate the plant’s 35th anniversary. Bell Photo

Established by Larry Bell in Buffalo, New York, in 1935, Bell is one of the industry’s original airframe manufacturers. The company moved to Texas in 1951, where it has its global headquarters today in the city of Fort Worth.

The company’s first move into Canada predates the Mirabel facility, with Bell opening a supply center in Calgary, Alberta, in 1978. Then, on Sept. 29, 1986, the company opened what was then known as the Center of Excellence for Commercial Aircraft Manufacturing alongside Mirabel airport, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) northwest of downtown Montreal. The move followed an agreement with the Quebec and Canadian governments for financial support.

While the global Covid-19 pandemic has obviously impacted the number of staff working within the facility in Mirabel, with many working from home where possible, it is typically a hive of activity. The final assembly lines for all four types within Bell’s in-production commercial aircraft fleet (the light single 505, the intermediate 407, the light twin 429, and medium 412) are located there, and over the last 35 years, more than 5,600 helicopters have rolled off its production lines. 

However, the site’s responsibilities and capabilities are far more extensive than just production: spanning from innovation to research and design, flight testing, type certification, customization, and support for the company’s global commercial fleet. Two of the types produced in Mirabel today — the 407 and 429 — were designed, developed, tested and certified at the facility, too. And, from September 2021, the Mirabel plant added a new string to its bow: maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) services.

There are more than 1,000 Bell aircraft operating in Canada today. Mike Reyno Photo

“We’re very proud of that [MRO capability],” said Steeve Lavoie, president and CEO of Bell’s Mirabel facility. “We worked at least the last year to create that new service here, and I think many customers will be pleased to use us not only as a site delivery, but also as an MRO service.”

All these capabilities are provided within a site spanning 152 acres, on which sit two runways, Bell’s own control tower, 17 helipads, and a 650,000-square-foot (60,390-square-meter) building. 

About 1,300 people work for Bell at Mirabel, but the company estimates that it sustains about 6,200 jobs across Canada through its work with 550 suppliers within the country. According to Lavoie, the company contributes close to C$850 million to the Canadian GDP every year.

However, Bell’s profile within the region and country hasn’t always reflected this impact, said Lavoie. One of his aims upon taking the reins in Mirabel in May 2019 was to raise the company’s profile, and he said Bell’s visibility has grown substantially since he joined the company.

“Of course, it’s a never-ending effort that we need to do, but it’s going very well right now.”

Return on investment

The last few years have seen an explosion in innovation output from Bell. Ranging from an electrically distributed anti-torque (EDAT) program that saw four electrically-driven fans embedded in the tail shroud (instead of a traditional tail rotor), to the Nexus urban air mobility program, to the ongoing development of autonomous cargo transport drones in the form of the Autonomous Pod Transport (APT) program, Mirabel has played an important role in it all.

Beginning in 2018, a five-year block of funding from the Canadian government for a technology demonstration program (TDP) has allowed the facility’s innovation team to work on various threads of research with 17 partners. One of these is energy management, including harvesting energy from vibrations from the aircraft — work being done in partnership with local universities.

Bell installed its electrically distributed anti-torque system in a 429 demonstrator. It recorded 50 hours of tests, including flight and ground tests. Bell Photo

“It’s the future to go and harvest all the bits and pieces of energy that we currently dissipate,” Michel Dion, senior manager of innovation, told Vertical. “One energy that we produce on helicopters is vibration. So is there a way that we can go and capture that energy and bring it back into the batteries? It can be minimal . . . but when you have an all-electric vehicle in the future, you will want to go and capture all the bits and pieces of energy you can to recharge your batteries.”

The TDP funding has also allowed Bell to work on future flight controls, as well as helping support part of the EDAT program.

The provincially-funded Smart Affordable Green Efficient (SAGE) program also funded EDAT. This program is now in its 10th year and third phase, and has allowed Bell to work on developing technologies to increase performance, reduce noise, reduce waste, and develop advanced materials.

The Royal Canadian Air Force Bell CH-146 Griffons perform a training flight in Quebec. Mike Reyno Photo

According to Dion, these funding blocks have allowed Bell to spread innovation expertise across two sites — rather than in just Fort Worth. The Mirabel innovation team has grown from three or four people in 2018 to about 30 staff today. They work across three labs within the Mirabel facility: one for avionics and electrical work, one for advanced manufacturing and rapid prototyping, and one for general use.

In addition to allowing Bell to develop talent in the region, the funding has given technologies the chance to mature beyond laboratory demonstrations to a representative environment. This is an expensive leap sometimes known as the “valley of death” for technologies, due to the difficulty in bridging that gap.

“The kind of funding that we received from TDP and SAGE for demonstrators help us to jump over that ‘valley of death’ of [maturity] and go from [low maturity] for technologies that have shown potential in a lab to an aircraft or a more representative bench,” said Dion.

One of Bell’s more recent funding partnerships formed part of a provincial and federal pandemic recovery package for Quebec’s aerospace sector. Unveiled on July 15, the package includes up to C$200 million in federal funding, plus a C$75 million loan from the province, to support Bell’s Viridis project, which aims to develop and commercialize environmentally friendly aviation technology.

A hybrid stepping stone

Hybridization seems to be the natural pathway towards a possible electric future, and Bell took its first public step with the EDAT system it installed in a Bell 429 demonstrator in 2019. Each of the system’s four four-bladed rotors was powered by its own motor, with the electrical energy provided by generators driven by the aircraft’s turbine engines.

The 505 program has proved to be a major success for Bell, with the type receiving orders from around the world. Here, four 505s belonging to Swiss operator Mountainflyers perform a formation flight. Lloyd Horgan Photo

“It really started as a paper sketch and an idea that one of our engineers had,” Thuva Senthilnathan, program manager, commercial development programs, told Vertical. “Over a year or so span, we went from that paper sketch to a flying aircraft. There were a lot of challenges in between — from testing it in the bench, to finding the right partners and getting the aircraft built up, but getting the first flight of the electrically distributed anti-torque was really a moment of pride for the company and for us in Mirabel here.”

Demonstrations lasted from May 2019 to May 2020, with the team recording about 50 hours of ground and flight tests.

“They were very focused tests; we were packing a lot of different kinds of maneuvers into every hour that we were out there, because it is a novel system,” said Senthilnathan.

With the main batch of testing complete, the team created an internal report with recommendations on how Bell should proceed with the technology.

“We still need to package the components in a way that the weight and cost is going to be acceptable for a commercial market,” said Senthilnathan. “We used commercial off-the-shelf equipment, we didn’t customize any of the equipment; we took what was available at the time, and made that work for the system. But there’s some optimization to do there.”

Senthilnathan said EDAT technology will “certainly play a part” in how hybrid electric technology will be integrated into the Bell commercial fleet in the future, but more development in a bench setting is needed first.

When Bell announced the existence of the EDAT system in February 2020, it generated a huge response from the industry — one that Senthilnathan said he was “very positively surprised” with.

“We’re very happy with the public interest in it and we’re very happy to talk about it and talk about our experience with it, too,” he said. “We want to encourage these kinds of projects, not only at Bell, but in the industry as well. It’s good for aviation as we explore new technologies and see what’s possible.”

Bell recently delivered the 400th 429. The aircraft went to the Canadian Coast Guard, which operates a fixed fleet of 429s and 412EPIs. Mike Reyno Photo

As well as electric anti-torque, Bell is also exploring hybrid main rotor systems. “We are heavily looking at electrification of our aircraft,” said Senthilnathan. “It’s not just an industry trend for us — we think that’s where the industry is going to go.”

Senthilnathan puts the freedom to try such innovative out-of-the-box solutions down to the company’s CEO, Mitch Snyder, who assumed his role in 2015.

“His vision was that Bell should be a technology company, and we should be market leaders in developing the technology and we shouldn’t be afraid to take some risks and try new things,” he said.

Autonomy is another focus for the innovation team, with Bell, like many others, taking a phased approach to introducing ever-greater autonomous capabilities.

“It takes certain functions of the aircraft, like holding hover, for example, and allows the pilot to automate that while they’re doing other functions — maybe doing a search-and-rescue operation where they’re looking for someone.”

Bell’s ongoing work with the APT program is also helping develop autonomous and situational awareness capabilities.

Another area of development is low-cost fly-by-wire, with the innovation team looking at how this technology could be brought into smaller aircraft — perhaps as small as a 505.

As an essential service, the facility continued working during the pandemic. The Maricopa County, Arizona Sherriff’s Office took delivery of its new Bell 429 in November 2020. Dan Megna Photo

“This is the size of aircraft we want to have fly-by-wire [available for] so that we can have autonomous functions,” said Dion. “We know it’s a challenge, but we want to bring fly-by-wire to smaller aircraft. To date, it’s too heavy or too expensive [to do so].”

Coping in the pandemic

With the Mirabel facility’s role in delivering aircraft and providing spare parts and services to public and parapublic agencies around the world, it was designated an essential service during periods of lockdown through the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We never closed, even with the pandemic in Quebec, we always stayed open,” said Lavoie. “But we had to readjust completely the way we are working.”

Employees working on aircraft stayed in the facility, while most office jobs — including finance, HR, design, and engineering — moved to working remotely. This reduced the on-site workforce to about 50 percent, which in turn allowed for other measures, such as social distancing, to be implemented more easily.  

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stands in front of the EDAT demonstrator as he announces a pandemic recovery funding package for Quebec’s aerospace sector on July 15.

Sales did slow during 2020 — mostly the result of the cancellation of a year’s worth of global tradeshows, said Lavoie — but have now stabilized.

“We see it starting to pick up, from 2021 into the beginning of 2022,” he said. “We have a positive feeling that the market will quickly come back to where it was in 2019.”

The market has already shown improvement and Lavoie said it will soon return to 2019 levels. Mike Reyno Photo

The future certainly looks bright for Bell’s northern outpost, which has shown itself to be a key part of not only the company’s global operation, but a central player in Canada’s biggest aerospace center. 

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