A twin-engine Bell Helicopter 525 Relentless, a next-generation commercial helicopter under development at the company’s Fort Worth plant, crashed during a test flight Wednesday morning in southern Ellis County, killing two crew members, officials said.
Bell has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the Relentless program as it looks to ramp up commercial sales as orders for its military aircraft, such as the V-22 tilt-rotor, have slowed.
In April, Scott Donnelly, CEO of Bell’s Rhode Island-based parent, Textron, said the company had built two 525 helicopters for flight testing with a third expected soon.
The helicopter crashed about 11:45 a.m. 3 miles northwest of Italy, near Bell Branch off Farm Road 876 north of Chambers Creek, authorities said.
The people killed were the only ones on board, said Sgt. Lonny Haschel, a Department of Public Safety spokesman.
The aircraft was destroyed.
“This is a devastating day for Bell Helicopter,” Bell officials said in a news release. “We are deeply saddened by the loss of our teammates and have reached out to their families to offer our support.”
The crew members’ names had not been officially released by Wednesday evening. However, family members told FOX4 News that pilot Jason Grogan of Burleson was one of the dead.
The FAA was investigating, and the National Transportation Safety Board has been notified, FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford said.
The two agencies do not release the names of pilots.
Two farmers told WFAA that they saw the helicopter flying from the northeast when it hit a power line and exploded. But Haschel said the helicopter did not strike the line, and electricity transmission was unaffected.
Bell unveiled the 525 Relentless model in February 2012, saying the long-range helicopter was designed and built aimed at the commercial market. The helicopter, which could be used to fly workers to offshore oil rigs, can carry up to 20 passengers and has a maximum range of 570 nautical miles.
The aircraft has computer-controlled flight controls known as fly-by-wire that Bell said would make it easier and safer to fly.
“The Relentless is meeting or exceeding all of its performance objectives, including having demonstrated a top speed in excess of 200 knots,” Donnelly said in April. “The effectiveness of 525’s integrated fly-by-wire design has been evident during the testing, by the aircraft’s superior in-flight handling, maneuverability and stability.”
Bell anticipated having the 525 Relentless certified next year and planned to deliver its first aircraft to customers in late 2017. The company has received several dozen orders for Relentless helicopters from customers in China, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Ireland.
Although a price tag for the helicopter has not been made public, similar-sized helicopters usually cost at least $18 million to $20 million each, said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at the Teal Group.
Aboulafia estimated that depending on the results of the investigation, the crash could delay the Relentless helicopter’s first delivery anywhere from six months to a year.
“So many of [Bell’s] defense programs are ramping down over the next few years that they’re counting on rejuvenating the civil product line as a way of coping with this downturn,” Aboulafia said. “This crash doesn’t kill the program, but it does delay it.”
Staff writer Domingo Ramirez Jr. contributed to this report.
Ryan Osborne: 817-390-7760, @RyanOsborneFWST
Andrea Ahles: 817-390-7631, @Sky_Talk