A 525 Relentless test aircraft at Bell's Flight Research Center in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Dan Parsons)
Two Bell 525 Relentless super-medium helicopters will travel north from their Texas home for cold-weather testing this winter in another step toward planned late-2019 FAA certification.
Aircraft two and three will head to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada, for several months of cold-weather testing beginning in early 2019, program officials told reporters on a recent trip to Bell’s Flight Research Center in Fort Worth, Texas. A third aircraft will head for New York state around the same time to perform snow testing to validate engine performance in heavy snowfall.
Since resuming flight testing in July – the first of five aircraft built thus far was destroyed in a fatal accident in 2016, causing a delay — the program has increased total rotor turn time to just under 1,300 hours with almost 900 hours on wing, according to Vice President and Program Manager Byron Ward.
Four aircraft are involved in the flight test program. Three of them are flying out of Bell’s Fort Worth Flight Research Center; The fourth is in ground testing in Amarillo, Texas, where the helicopters are built. FAA officials have joined the program as part of the Bell flight test team to begin type inspection authorization testing.
“It’s good to have independent views on how well the aircraft flies, how easy the aircraft flies,” Ward said.
Flight and component fatigue testing is ongoing as are drive system qualification tests. Of all the necessary test activities, about 60 to 70% are complete, according to Ward.
“That gives us the confidence that the end of 2019 is a good date, as long as we can safely get there and not compromise any of the aircraft capability,” he said.
Neither Ward nor Flight Technology Manager Josh O’Neil would say how many more aircraft are currently in production, except that it's “more than a couple." Bell’s facility in Amarillo — also the site for production of the V-22 Osprey and H-1 military rotorcraft — has a dedicated 525 production line.
Flight tests will not wrap up with FAA certification. The company will immediately begin search-and-rescue and ice-protection testing after the FAA gives its OK for the aircraft to fly. That's important because, while Relentless was designed primarily for the offshore oil-and-gas market, Bell is targeting a number of other missions as well.
“Besides oil-and-gas, this is a multi-role aircraft,” Ward said. “Its speed, safety, range all are good for search-and-rescue, emergency medical, paramilitary, corporate and VIP.”
Plans are to begin flying prospective customers in the second half of next year ahead of certification. The aircraft now in ground-run testing in Amarillo will have a VIP paint scheme and a luxury interior facilitating its use in wider marketing of the aircraft, Ward said.
Offshore oil will almost certainly be the first industry customer for the 525, which will compete for business against comparable airframes including the Leonardo AW189, Sikorsky S-92 and Airbus H175.
An oil-and-gas configured 525 carries 16 passengers in business-class-sized 20-inch-wide seats between large windows that provide situational awareness and ready egress.
Susan Griffin, Bell’s executive vice president for commercial programs, said the oil-and-gas market is set for a relatively slow but steady rebound, during which operators will look to do business more efficiently.
“I do see that the 525 has an opportunity in that market,” she said. “Obviously, the S-92 is the predominant [offshore] heavy aircraft right now, but I think bringing a second competitor into that market . . . so that the industry isn’t so reliant on just one . . . I think the safety features that [the 525] brings into those markets, I think it’ll be recognized for that.”