Bell Helicopter exploring civilian market for new tilt-rotor aircraft

Bell Helicopter is developing the V-280 tilt-rotor as a possible replacement for the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter.
Bell Helicopter is developing the V-280 tilt-rotor as a possible replacement for the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter. Bell Helicopter

Bell Helicopter is reviving its vision of finding a civilian market for tilt-rotor aircraft.

That dream first took shape almost two decades ago in a partnership with Boeing for a commercial aircraft based on the V-22 Osprey, the pioneering tilt-rotor built for the Marines that takes off like a helicopter and cruises like a plane. But Boeing bowed out early and Bell sold its interest in the civilian version in 2011 to AgustaWestland.

Now Bell is working on a new tilt-rotor to be demonstrated to the U.S. military as a possible replacement for the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter. The V-280 Valor could be cheap enough to appeal to business customers as well, Chief Executive Officer John Garrison said.

“You’re getting into a quantity level where the cost per unit is going to get to a point where it could be very competitive in a commercial space,” Garrison said in an interview at Bell’s headquarters in Fort Worth.

Bell, a unit of Textron, has spoken with customers about the possibility of a civilian tilt-rotor aircraft as part of its normal conversations about market demand, Garrison said, without providing details. Bell will receive the first fuselage next week for the V-280, which it’s building with supplier partners including Lockheed Martin.

A tilt-rotor’s blades spin horizontally to lift off like a helicopter. Then they gradually rotate forward like oversize propellers, providing the speed and range of an airplane. The Marines wanted those capabilities to reach combat zones. When Bell talked up its civilian 609 offering in the 1990s, it envisioned executives making fast trips from helipads or oil workers zipping to distant offshore platforms.

AgustaWestland, a unit of Italy’s Finmeccanica, is doing test flights of its Bell-derived tilt-rotor, now known as the AW609, and expects to obtain flight certification by 2017. Bell has engineering and manufacturing service contracts with AgustaWestland for the project, Garrison said.

“We’re following their certification efforts on the 609 very closely,” he said. “We want them to be successful.”

Bell’s V-280 is part of a competition with Black Hawk maker Sikorsky for a new high-speed military rotorcraft. With Boeing as a partner, Sikorsky is building the S-97 Raider, a more traditional helicopter. Garrison said Bell’s agreements on the V-280 remain in place even with Lockheed’s $9 billion deal to buy Sikorsky from United Technologies.

Military needs drove the Osprey, which is big — it can carry 24 seated troops — and not cheap. Each one cost $89 million in 2005 dollars, according to a U.S. Air Force fact sheet. With the Pentagon’s focus on paring expenses for the V-280, private users are more likely to be attracted to a civilian version, Garrison said.

“When you hit that value proposition with the volumes that we’re talking about, there may be an opportunity for a commercial tilt-rotor of that size,” he said. “We’d like to believe there’s an opportunity.”