When Bell Helicopter unveiled plans for the 525 Relentless helicopter in February, it was more than an announcement about a new aircraft model.
The Relentless project in many ways is the latest attempt to create a new way of doing business at Bell, which enjoyed its golden era during the Vietnam War.
Relentless will be a helicopter that company officials say is designed and built to meet what customers want and need. In the past, Bell engineers, like their counterparts at other aviation companies, decided what was best and told salesmen to go sell it.
"This is a good example of the cultural change at Bell. It's all about the customer. We listen to them," said Larry Thimmesch, vice president of commercial helicopter programs. "We believe if the customer is more successful, we're more successful."
Relentless is a high-stakes project for Bell, requiring an investment that could go well north of $500 million. It's Bell's first true clean-sheet aircraft design in decades, with engineers using state-of-the-art computer-aided technology to allow for early detection and solution of many potential problems before an aircraft is ever built or flown.
Computer-controlled flight controls will make the aircraft easier and safer to fly, lowering the workload on pilots and enabling them to monitor changing conditions, weather and other external factors. Embedded digital technology will monitor wear and tear and will eventually predict failure of parts, reducing maintenance and operating costs.
That's how it's all supposed to work. Every aircraft manufacturer says similar things when it starts a development program. Even with modern tools, they still discover problems that drive up costs and often result in delays getting aircraft certified by regulators and delivered to customers.
"You always recognize the pioneers by the arrows in their backs," says Hans Weber, chief executive of Tecop International, a California aviation consultant.
So how is Bell doing so far, two years after it began researching customer needs and roughly two years before the first aircraft will fly?
It's going well, Thimmesch says. The company won't discuss whether it's meeting key goals for aircraft performance until further along in development and testing. But to date, Thimmesch says, Bell is meeting and exceeding targets.
"We're under-promising and over-delivering," Thimmesch said. "We're going to keep telling you more and more about the program and it's going to get better."
There will be problems, Thimmesch said, but the timetable and budget allow for that. "If you're building a clean-sheet aircraft, you're going to run into things you don't know. We're where we need to be."