Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Newest Bell Helicopter Features Fly-By-Wire

Newest Bell Helicopter Features Fly-By-Wire:

Bell Helicopter unveiled its largest commercial helicopter ever, and the 16-passenger aircraft is getting as much attention for its fly-by-wire system as its ability to carry, say, a crew of oil workers to an offshore drilling rig.

A pair of 1,800 horsepower General Electric turbine engines will allow the Bell 525 to carry a work crew (or a few VIPs) 400 miles at 140 knots (161 miles per hour). When it comes to quickly moving heavy loads, brute power remains key. But to control that power, Bell Helicopter will use fly-by-wire technology for the first time. Although such tech has been common in airplanes for many years, it remains rare in the rotary wing world.

Bell plans to join the small club of fly-by-wire helicopters, a move that will dramatically change the cockpit for the 525 pilot. The helicopter will be flown via two small joysticks rather than the large control stick and lever that has dominated helicopter cockpits since the early days of rotary wing flight. The extra room will open up the view for the massive touch screen displays.

The new cockpit of the Bell 525 featuring joysticks (with armrests) for both the cyclic and collective controls. The seats have been left out of the image.

It’s been more than 66 years since Bell first flew the Model 47, the bubble canopy helicopter everyone knows from the opening sequence of M*A*S*H. (Yes, the Army actually flew the H-13 Sioux.) The company cemented its iconic status more than 55 years ago with the UH-1 “Huey.” But in today’s world, a growing part of the industry is focused on ever-bigger helicopters that can carry work crews long distances, often to oil rigs in the middle of an ocean or mining camps in the middle of nowhere.

Bell has been late to the game of producing a model for the new class of “medium lift” helicopters. Civilian variants of its Huey were for decades a big player in the offshore industry, but it was left behind as Eurocopter, Sikorsky, AgustaWestland and others offered faster, more capable models.

Bell’s latest is aimed squarely at reclaiming lost ground. The fly-by-wire control system, and the paperless cockpit dominated by four large touch screens, put it a step beyond the competition from a technological viewpoint.

The fly-by-wire system on the 525 is similar to that of the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey, and a triple-redundant system ensures a measure of safety. Pilots will have to get used to flying through a computer rather than direct mechanical linkage. For the uninitiated, fly-by-wire essentially means the pilot tells the computer what to do, and the computer determines how best to fulfill the instruction. There are times when the computer can override the pilot if it determines the guy at the controls is doing something unsafe.

Of course, the potential disconnect between pilot and computer has led to problems and occasional disasters like the crash of Air France Flight 447.

Bell Helicopter’s Larry Roberts told Vertical the flight control computer on the 525 should not limit the pilot’s capabilities and the helicopter “will provide an impressively wide range of maneuvering capability and not require the need, or, for that matter, the ability, to override.”

According Vertical, the launch customer for the 525 is PHI Inc., one of the biggest players in the offshore oil transportation business. But the company also sees potential sales in search and rescue as well as other markets.

The Bell 525 Relentless is expected to make its first flight in 2014.

Images: Bell Helicopter

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