Since the company’s beginning in 1935 as Bell Aircraft Corporation, Bell Helicopter has set the pace for the helicopter industry, expanding the scope of vertical lift. Bell was the first to obtain commercial certification for a helicopter nearly 60 years ago – and since then, has delivered thousands of innovative aircraft to customers around the world.
In the early days of Bell Aircraft Corporation, the company produced military airplanes in Buffalo, NY. Its first product was the XFM Airacuda, a ship that went on to complete the first non-stop, cross-country flight from California to Washington, D.C. Another early model, the X-1, received the Collier Award for breaking the sound barrier and went on to hold the record for fastest flight by a piloted aircraft at 1,600 mph.
However, much of the company’s focus shifted when American inventor Arthur Young brought his helicopter model to Bell Aircraft Founder, Larry Bell. Bell immediately brought Young on board, renting an old Chrysler dealership as the first manufacturing center for the Model 30 helicopter prototype. In 1943, Bell had its first formal flight of the Model 30 in Gardenville, New York preparing for many new things to come. The Model 30 went on to complete the first ever indoor flight at the 65th Regiment Armory before becoming the backbone of Bell Aircraft’s Helicopter Division. Five years later, the Bell 47B was awarded the FAA’s first commercial helicopter license.
The 1950s encompassed many firsts and new developments for the company – including the first helicopter flight over the Alps. Engineer Elton Smith piloted the Model 47D-1 from Hurst, TX to Buffalo, NY, setting the record for longest distance without payload – a feat that remains unchallenged today. Bell Aircraft Corporation continued exploration into a variety of other military and aerospace sectors, partnering with NASA on remote control guided missiles and reaction controls for Project Mercury, the first manned satellite in the U.S.
With forward thinking in advanced concepts, Bell Helicopter invented tiltrotor aircraft with the XV-3 Convertiplane. In 1958, the XV-3 completed the first full conversion of a tilting prop rotor, paving the way for future advancements.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the company went on to pursue a wide variety of aeronautical endeavors with the Aerosystems division. The company continued to work with NASA on Project Mercury, developing reaction controls for the first program that sent man to space, and manufacturing a lunar module ascent engine that would be fired into orbit during Apollo 5’s 1968 flight. Additionally, Bell Aircraft Corporation pioneered the “Rocket Belt” for mankind’s first free flight, performing 396 trips, including demonstrations at the New York World’s Fair.
In addition to aerospace programs, Bell Aircraft Corporation made numerous blade and rotor hub refinements and modifications during this time, including adding radar wiring system for non-detection and eliminating helicopter vibration with a nodalized fuselage beam. In preparation for tiltrotor development, a full-scale “stop-fold” rotor was tested in the wind tunnel at the NASA Ames Research Center.
The XV-15 tilt-rotor completed its first flight in 1977 with a redesigned body tailored around mounting the engines in the nacelles on the wing tips – a marked advancement over previous tiltrotor concepts. 1985 gave way to the formal Bell Boeing V-22 tiltrotor program. These unique aircrafts lift like a helicopter, yet fly like an airplane with twice the speed, three times the payload, and five times the range of traditional helicopters. The V-22 adopted Fly-by-Wire (FBW) controls and the highest composite content on any aircraft at the time. After a successful first flight, Bell Boeing and the FAA worked toward civil certification for future variants. In addition to product innovation, Bell’s Customer Support and Services program advanced customer/manufacturer relationships, winning Pro Pilot Magazine’s designation of number 1 in CSS for the first time – a title the company still holds 21 years later.
In the early 2000s, the Bell-Agusta 609 made its first flight as the V-22’s commercial variant in Arlington, TX. Continuing commitment to experimental research and development, Bell Helicopter opened Xworx, its advanced research and development center. Xworx houses IRAD programs, as well as a state-of-the-art rapid prototyping lab, where air-safe parts can be printed in small batch quantities using a large-scale 3D printer. Other partnerships of interest include the Northrop Grumman Fire X and Fire Scout unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) – based on the body of a modified Bell 407.
As the company moves into the future, Bell Helicopter is bringing three new programs into development simultaneously – unheard of in the rotorcraft industry. The Bell 525 Relentless is the company’s first venture into the super-medium market. The 525 completed a successful first flight in summer 2015, and is scheduled for first deliveries in 2017 with more than 60 orders. It will also be the first commercial helicopter certified with FBW technology. The V-280 Valor mockup was unveiled at the Army Aviation Association of America (AAAA) Summit in 2013, and the technology demonstrator represents the next step in the evolution of the tiltrotor. In an unprecedented 20 month production cycle from clean sheet to first flight, the Bell 505 Jet Ranger X signifies Bell Helicopter’s return to the Short Light Single (SLS) market.
In addition to new program development, Bell Helicopter is committed to providing upgrades to current products, such as the wheeled landing gear modification to the Bell 429, or the glass cockpit kit for the Bell 407GXP.
For more than 80 years, Bell has celebrated the success of numerous innovations, both past and present, and continues to reach toward the future, developing its next generation of aircraft.