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Bell CEO: 2024 will be ‘pivotal year’ for company

By Oliver Johnson | July 2, 2024

Estimated reading time 15 minutes, 33 seconds.

Bell president and CEO Lisa Atherton says 2024 will be a “pivotal year” for the helicopter manufacturer — one that “is going to change the landscape of what we do in the decades to come.”

Speaking to Vertical ahead of the Bell’s participation at the Farnborough International Airshow later this month, Atherton was reflecting on her first 14 months in charge of the Fort Worth, Texas-based company, and looking ahead to a defining period in its future.

Top of mind are the U.S. Army’s pending Milestone B decision on the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) — after which, the program will move into the engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) phase — and the upcoming certification of Bell’s super medium 525 Relentless.

“These two programs I think fundamentally change the landscape of rotorcraft, and quite frankly will fundamentally change what we at Bell are about and what we’re going to do going forward,” she said.

The Bell 525 flies near an offshore oil rig. Bell Photo

While confirming her confidence that the 525 will finally achieve certification later this year, she said execution remains the focus for the FLRAA team, which is working to finalize the aircraft’s preliminary design.

“We are 100 percent — I would argue 110 percent — focused on and dedicated to executing the Army’s FLRAA program, and we work hand-in-hand with the Army daily through this transformative acquisition program,” said Atherton.

The team working on the FLRAA program continues to expand, and Atherton highlighted the “many investments” Bell has made to support advanced manufacturing to meet the Army’s acquisition timeline. This includes a Systems Integration Lab, a Manufacturing Technology Center, a Weapons Systems Integration Lab, and a Drive Systems Technology Lab.

“We’re working on a future factory complex as well that will modernize production and manufacturing in order to streamline the amount of aircraft that the Army needs us to deliver,” said Atherton.

At Farnborough, Bell will display the Army’s Future Long Range Assault Aircraft weapon system.

Atherton acknowledged “international interest” in tiltrotor technology, and said the company was looking forward to discussing capabilities and applications with U.S. allies at the event.

“We are working closely with the Army on what the strategy would be with our U.S. allies and partners for the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft,” she said. “[The Army] is working to secure agreements with various countries on where they would fit in the program and when they receive aircraft.”

FARA blow

At the start of the year, Bell was dealt a blow when the U.S. Army cancelled its other Future Vertical Lift program – the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft — for which Bell’s 360 Invictus was one of two remaining candidates.

“We were obviously disappointed by the decision,” said Atherton. “We were 99.5 percent complete on the design, we had installed the engine and we were ready to go to ground turn when that decision was made.”

While the aircraft is to be returned to the U.S. Army, Atherton said Bell has benefitted from the lessons learned during its development — both in the speed of being able to implement new technology, and the technology itself.

“We had great cycles of learning that we achieved on the FARA program — it was one of the fastest from concept, to design, to prototype build I believe that we’ve ever done,” she said. “Those cycles of learning allowed us to quickly adapt technology and build a really fantastic prototype.

“I think what I would look to do is, as I continue to look at our portfolio, that would be an area that I would look to take development, design and enhancements into whatever we do next.”

That could be commercial or military, she said. “Whatever we see as an opportunity.”

The Bell 360 Invictus sits on the ramp outside the manufacturer's facility in Fort Worth, Texas. Bell Photo
The Bell 360 Invictus sits on the ramp outside the manufacturer’s facility in Fort Worth, Texas. Bell Photo

As well as the landmark FLRAA win, Bell has secured other notable recent successes in the military market.

Atherton said Bell has received “a lot of attention” over the past year in its Special Missions Aircraft — kits that allow its commercial helicopters to be quickly re-configured into military aircraft.

“It basically takes proven parapublic helicopters and integrates them with some modern military systems,” said Atherton. “It’s a full turnkey solution for some of these countries who need a military option, but can’t directly afford a full military solution that the U.S. offers.”

The system was first developed on the Bell 407, and is now available on the 429, while the 412 is “pretty well ready to go.”

As well as Eastern Europe, Africa offers good sales potential for these types of systems, said Atherton.

Other successes include Bell’s downselection for the DARPA Speed and Runway Independent Technologies (SPRINT) X-Plane program, which aims to develop an aircraft that can take off and land vertically, and cruise at speeds of 400 to 450 knots.

Bell is building on its High-Speed Vertical Takeoff and Landing (HSVTOL) technology — which used a folding rotor design, also known as stop/fold — for the program. The performed risk reduction testing at Holloman Air Force Base at the end of 2023, but Atherton said it is just the latest step in a long development.

“This is something that Bell has been involved in for quite literally 60 years — we’ve been testing and moving forward with this,” she said. “Now, as we’re starting to see engine technology improve and match up with where we are with the stop/fold piece of this, I think we’re really at that magic point where you can really see stop/fold technology take hold and do something impressive in the X-Plane development.”

Recent work is also taking Bell into space. The company was announced as a key manufacturer for sub assemblies for Virgin Galactic’s Delta class spaceships in 2022, which are slated to enter service in 2026. Atherton said Virgin had approached Bell due to its demonstrated expertise, and that the company is “happy to explore” such work.

“What we’ve decided is that where things fit neatly inside areas of expertise for us, we will explore those partnerships,” she said. “I wouldn’t say it’s something that we’re out chasing, but when folks see . . . [the] technology that we have here, particularly with our manufacturing technology and techniques around composites and materials, we are happy to explore strategic partnerships.”

A steady civil market

Atherton said she “made it my mission” to get out to as many Bell sites as possible during her first year at the helm, where she got first-hand feedback on where the company is today — and what it has been doing in the six-and-a-half years that she was gone.

“The biggest take-away that I had when I left all of the meetings with the teams is that we have just this impassioned belief that everything we put our heart and soul into — what we do — matters,” she said. “What we do protects and improves and empowers our customers and their missions. We just know that we have to have a customer-first lens, and I got so energized going out and about meeting with the teams and we have folks that believe in that — and with that kind of mindset there’s really nothing that we can’t accomplish.”

Bell delivered 171 aircraft in 2024 — a figure Atherton said she was “really proud of,” considering the supply chain challenges the company faced throughout the year.

She described the commercial market as “overall healthy,” with orders remaining at a consistent level compared to the last few years. One segment that has offered growth is among parapublic operators requiring multimission platforms — and Atherton said interest in the 412, in particular, has mushroomed for this type of work.

The Bell 412 is a popular choice among multimission parapublic operators. Lloyd Horgan Photo

Meanwhile, the light single-engine 505 has built upon its foundation of popularity among corporate customers with a growing amount of interest for its use in a military training role.

“What I really want to see — and what I’ve challenged [the Bell team to build upon] — is the continued interest in the 505 as a training platform, as well as continued expansion of the 429 and the 412 in both the HEMS and law enforcement mission segments,” said Atherton.

Aftermarket services continues to be another area of focus for the company, which has a long-established reputation for the strength of its customer support. But, as with all companies in the aerospace sector, Bell has been battling supply chain issues to provide timely parts and spares.

Atherton said “putting the right people in the right roles” in terms of the supply chain has helped the company better predict potential issues, leading to a “marked improvement” in most areas. Bell has also offered direct support to those suppliers who need additional help.

“The vast majority of our suppliers are trying very hard to perform well,” she said. “And where we can help from a Bell perspective, we’ve been trying to be more proactive in supporting [them]. . . . It really comes down to people, and having people have better dialogue and communication and support with our suppliers.”

While new technology development has perhaps been most eye-catching on the military side of the business in recent years, in May, Bell revealed the existence of its Aircraft Laboratory for Future Autonomy (ALFA) — which uses a fly-by-wire 429 as a testbed.

“We chose the 429 because of its reputation as a very modern and capable aircraft, but the specific platform selected is not necessarily critical to the research,” said Atherton, adding that the technologies tested on the “flying laboratory” could be for military or commercial aircraft.

“We want to develop and test autonomous capabilities, fly-by-wire capabilities, handling qualities and human factors testing,” she said. “It’s a test platform with open architecture flight controls and vehicle management system — and it’s capable of testing a variety of hardware components, mission systems, [and] sensors.”

She said ALFA is now “flying regularly” at Bell’s Flight Research Center in Fort Worth, Texas, and will provide the ability to quickly verify and validate future product enhancements.

“I think it’s a gamechanger in how we could rapidly introduce improvements into our fleet,” she said.

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