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Bell Bearish on 609

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Defense Tech friend and contributor Bob Cox of the Fort Worth Star Telegram has been a Bell-Boeing/Osprey/tiltrotor watchdog for years. His latest story is quite a scoop and looks like a crushing blow to the civilian tiltrotor industry in which Bell had invested a lot of effort and hope.

Bell Helicopter spent a half-century developing tilt-rotor technology and the V-22 Osprey, but the companys once-enthusiastic commitment to build a similar aircraft for the civilian market seems to have diminished considerably.

The company doesnt see a promising market in the U.S. for the BA609 tilt-rotor aircraft and has shifted a larger share of the continuing development work to its Italian joint-venture partner, AgustaWestland.

Bell will continue to provide personnel and some funding for continued development and testing of the BA609, but Mike Blake, executive vice president of programs for the company, said AgustaWestland will provide more capital and take the lead in completing flight testing and production of the aircraft.

"I think Bell will always be involved in the 609 program in some way," he said in an interview with the Star-Telegram. "How is to be determined."

Officials of the two companies met recently and agreed on the latest revision to the development plan and timetable, Blake said. Test aircraft three and four have been delivered to AgustaWestland, which will now operate three of the four test planes. Bell will continue test flights of the first aircraft from its Xworkx facility in Arlington.

A six- to nine-passenger aircraft, the BA609 was designed to take advantage of tilt-rotor technology to provide an aircraft for government and private-sector users that combines airplane speed with the vertical takeoff and landing capability of a helicopter.

When the Bell-Agusta alliance was formed in 1998, company officials advertised the BA609 as a $10 million aircraft and said they had 68 orders. Now they have about 80 orders, many of them on the books for a decade. No firm price is quoted publicly, but numbers in the range of $15 million to $20 million each are tossed about within the industry.

Publicly, Bell officials continued to voice support for the program. But privately its another matter.

Again, as you all know I'm a proponent of tiltrotor technology and think that opposition to it has become almost like a religion. And with the bleak history of the V-22, who can blame them.

But to me if the civilian version of the V-22 can't get any traction then it seems that tiltrotors still have a long way to go before they can be considered viable alternatives to rotorcraft. And I guess cost and convenience would have to play a large role as well.

Good on Bob for keeping Bell honest.

-- Christian

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