It was a year full of challenges for Bell Textron Helicopter in 1998, but the company was still able to meet its objectives - just in unexpected ways.
Bell placed third overall in sales last year, lagging behind Robinson and Eurocopter, largely due to the depressed economy in the Pacific Rim region. Bell chairman Terry Stinson said the company fell short by 40 Bell 412 sales in Asia, but sales from other regions met the company's projections.
Also helping to offset slower Pacfic Rim sales was the infusion of cash brought by the conclusion of the Bell/Agusta transaction.
Stronger than expected sales of singles, twins and spares in the Americas made up for the Pacific Rim slowdown as well, Stinson said. Sales remain unexpectedly strong in Central and South America so far this year, which bode well for 1999 revenues.
In fact, one of Bell's most surprising successes last year was the popularity of the Bell 430 model in Latin America. Bell sold three 430s to a single operator.
"The 430 had unforeseen strength in the US," Stinson said. "It's sold out until the third quarter, and last year we were building them on spec."
Stinson says he's cautiously optimistic for the intermediate twin.
"I predict no new order room after mid-year," he added, with the corporate and EMS markets being the strongest.
Bell is also counting on continued strength from its Bell 407, which Stinson called the "best success in the industry."
Bell has delivered 350 of this new light single so far, and has sold out the entire 1999 production run. Stinson said the 407 gross weight will increase by 250 lbs in March, which will increase the model's popularity even more.
Bell's newest entry to the marketplace, the 427 model, performed at Heli Expo this week. This all-new Bell light twin design has overcome some initial certification setbacks to snare more than 80 advance orders from 47 different customers.
Stinson said the 427 is sold out through the first three production years. Certification is now scheduled for the second quarter of this year.
Undoubtedly the most popular attraction at the static display was the Bell Agusta 609 civil tiltrotor mockup. Although it was previously displayed at Paris and Farnborough air shows, the BA 609's debut at Heli Expo featured an entirely new interior recently completed by Premier Aviation.
"Helicopters have reached their physical performance limits while tiltrotors offer unique flexibility, increased productivity, lower operating costs (versus helicopters) and can replace mixed fleets of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft," Bell says.
Bell has teamed with Lockheed Martin on the US Coast Guard Deepwater Program that would consider the BA 609 as a potential replacement for the USCG current mixed fleet of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. The BA 609 can transition between helicopter mode to airplane mode in 12 seconds.
The BA 609 has 75 firm orders and is sold out through the first three production years. BA will build four 609 prototypes. First flight is scheduled for late 2000 with first deliveries in 2002.
Besides producing and marketing the BA 609, the Bell Agusta partnership will do the same with the AB139 - a new medium twin helicopter that will debut at the Paris Air Show in June.
Stinson revealed little else about the AB139 other than it will seat 10-15 passengers.