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Crashed Helicopter Came From Experimental Facility

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Today’s fatal crash of a B525 helicopter is more than an aviation tragedy. It could be a blow to a local industry trying to create innovative aircraft designs.

Federal officials are investigating the crash, in Chambers Creek, which killed two employees of Bell Helicopter. This investigation means very little information will be released. But a company statement indicates that the crash was part of an ongoing effort with the company’s test labs to make a new, sophisticated civilian helicopter called the 525 Relentless. 

The company’s statement on the crash says:

On July 6, 2016, a Bell 525 was involved in an accident while conducting developmental flight test operations south of our Xworx facility in Arlington, Texas. Unfortunately, the accident resulted in a loss of two crew members. This is a devastating day for Bell Helicopter. We are deeply saddened by the loss of our teammates and have reached out to their families to offer our support. Bell Helicopter representatives are onsite to assess the situation and provide any assistance to local, state, and federal authorities.

Several things stand out. One, the company references Xworx. Whenever you see “-works” or any variation, it means an aviation company’s shop for experimental programs. (Lockheed Martin has Skunkworks, Boeing has Phantomworks, for example.) Bell Helicopter, which develops military rotorcraft as well as civilian, dubbed theirs Xworx, and flies helos out of Arlington Municipal Airport.

In fact, the company just signed a new 50-year lease with Arlington to continue flying from there. Bell, the largest and longest leaseholder at the airport, “was paying just under $69,000 to the city annually under the prior lease but will now pay at least $411,000 per year under the new agreement.”

The Relentless is one of the new programs flying from the airport. (Unmanned aerial vehicles are also tested there.) The company introduced the B525 in 2012, dubbing it the first “fly-by-wire” helicopter for commercial use. That means that, instead of a stick to directly control the machine, it has a computer interface that translates a pilot’s input into the movement of flight control surfaces. Most airplanes operate this way — the stick in the cockpit doesn’t directly control the rudder, for example, whereas a car’s steering wheel is physically linked to the front wheels.

"When we started designing the Bell 525, our customer advisory panel really stressed the need for a flying experience that's safer, easier and more repeatable," said Matt Hasik, senior vice president of commercial programs at Bell Helicopter, in one earlier release. 

The Relentless is a sophisticated aircraft, meant to dominate a market to transport people. The first potential buyers are primarily oil and gas companies that need to ferry employees to sea rigs. But with oil prices low, Bell had already started to consider other markets for the helicopter. The range is reportedly more than 400 nautical miles.

Crashes during development, even fatal ones, do not signal the end of aviation programs. Often times, they actually lead to significant improvements on designs. But they do cause delays and cost overruns, not to mention the morale of losing employees. In a tight market, other companies can take advantage of the impact on the development to offer their products to eager customers.       

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