• Bell's Daniel McQuestin with Nautilus Aviation's Bell 505. (Steve Hitchen)
    Bell's Daniel McQuestin with Nautilus Aviation's Bell 505. (Steve Hitchen)

After nearly 10 years of development, Bell Australia says that the Bell 525 Relentless is closing in on type certification, which will bring into service a heavy-lift helicopter the company believes is very well suited to Australian operations and service conditions.

Bell's Business Development Director Australasia Daniel McQuestin told Australian Flying at RotorTech this week that the 525  should be certified by the end of the year once the last of the flying program is complete, and that Bell has been preparing for the aircraft for some time in order to smooth the entry into service.

"We’re anticipating certification this year," he said. "We’re doing the final flight testing now, and as soon as all the data points are collected we’ll be doing 200 hours of reliability and functional flying. Once that’s done, we can do the paperwork.

"The production line is alive and we have an order for 10 helicopters going to Norway. The aircraft itself is fully set-up to be put into service. All the logistics, supply chain, spares are in place to support the first roll-outs, and we’re anticipating high-hour missions as well.

"We’ve been waiting a long time for the 525, so we’re very well prepared."

The Bell 525 is a super-medium-lift twin that was launched in February 2012, with the first flight in July 2015. The project hit a tragic roadblock in 2016, when the prototype crashed during testing, killing both test pilots on board. Now, after getting back on track, the Relentless is proving a capable machine set to challenge for long-range markets around the world.

"I think we’ll see when the Bell 525 comes to market that it will penetrate into offshore," McQuestin said, "It’s a high- performance aircraft with the latest technology and safety features, which are things the oil and gas industry strives for.

"As you go further offshore, the 525 is going to be extremely valuable to customers. It’s a 9.3 tonne helicopter with 16 seats in offshore configuration, with a range of around 500 nm."

McQuestin said that once the Relentless had been certified, he was keen to take the aircraft on a demonstration tour around Australia.

Bell won't be surprising the global helicopter industry with new clean-sheet designs for a while, with the company fully committed to firstly getting the 525 to the market, then concentrating on developing existing platforms.

"Certification of the 525 is Bell’s focus on the commercial side at the moment," McQuestin said. "Then there is the Bell 429 autonomous test-bed something that is continually working.

"Outside of that, Bell spends a lot of time within programs for existing platforms, so the Bell 505, 407 GXi, 429 and 412 EPX, doing reliability and other incremental improvements. A big focus is on reducing maintenance costs for operators.

"Then there are engine power increases, avionics upgrades and for corporate customers, new interiors."

An independent part of Textron, Bell Australia evolved after the US parent bought Eagle Copters, a Coffs Harbour-based company that specialised in aircraft leasing and MRO services to the helicopter industry.

Like most MROs in general aviation, Bell is on the warpath for more engineers, in their case to feed expansion plans.

"When it comes to the experienced workforce, we’re quite stable," General Manager Sonia Fuller said, "but we definitely do want to grow, and part of the solution is apprentices.

"We’ve always had people under training doing diplomas or apprenticeships, or type training, but at the moment we are making a significant push to boost the numbers."

They're not alone in that ambition, but one of the main threads running through RotorTech this year has been the challenge of finding new staff through the maze of educational and regulatory red-tape in which the training systems have become enmeshed.

"If you are talking about young people, school leavers or people who are probably in their early 20s, I think the system is laid out for them: certificate IV, diploma, get the experience that goes along with it and you can apply for a licence," Fuller points out.

"Part of the problem is dealing with people who might be sitting in that middle ground; how do they get the skills and experience they do have recognised?"

Despite this, Fuller is confident that the company will have the resources on the ground and ready to go when the first Relentless arrives in Australia.

It's now only a matter of waiting.

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