Carl Forsling, global military sales and strategy manager at Bell, a Textron company, discusses the merits of the company’s 407GXi as the US Navy’s next helicopter trainer to replace existing Bell TH-57 Sea Ranger aircraft with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian. The interview was conducted at the Navy League’s 2019 Sea Air Space conference and tradeshow near Washington where our coverage was sponsored by GE Marine, Huntington Ingalls Industries and Leonardo DRS.
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here at the Navy League’s Sea Air Space Conference and Trade Show outside Washington, DC, the number one gathering of U.S. Navy leaders from around the world to meet with their international counterparts and talk about strategy, technology, budgets and more. Our coverage here is sponsored by GE Marine, Huntington Ingalls Industries and Leonardo DRS.
We’re here at the Bell stand — full disclosure Bell sponsors our weekly podcasts — to talk to Carl Forsling who is a Business Development Manager for International Sales at Bell. A former Marine, former Frog pilot, CH-46, the legendary Sea Knight, the V-22 Osprey which is by the Bell-Boeing team, and also the H-57 which bears a striking familiarity to the airplane behind you. Obviously the legendary Jet Ranger, in the Navy training iteration.
Carl, the Navy is looking at recapitalizing its training aircraft fleet. That’s obviously been a Bell franchise for a little while. Competitors include Leonardo — full disclosure, they’re one of our other sponsors — and Airbus and you guys are in the competition.
Talk to us a little bit about the contours of the competition, when the Navy wants to make a decision, and how many airplanes it needs for the mission.
Carl Forsling: It’s been an iterative process, but they’ve released the RFP earlier this year in January. Responses were due in April, so we turned in our response. The other two competitors being Airbus and Leonardo, as you mentioned. The Navy is looking for 130 aircraft over a five-year period. One base year, and four options, to replace their existing CH-57 fleet which they purchased in the early ‘80s. And of course the 57’s served all the way back since 1969 in one iteration or another. So Bell’s been in this Navy training game for a long time. In addition to other Navy/Marine Corps products.
Mr. Muradian: And there are those folks who say look, it’s still a Jet Ranger. What do you think the clear attributes of your airplane are? This is nothing like the 57 in its current iteration. Talk to us about the differences in the airplanes, and why you guys think you guy have the best solution, because obviously each of the two competitors look at it the same way that they’ve got the best answer.
Mr. Forsling: I think the thing that defines Bell’s answer, this is the best value proposition for the Navy. We think we have the sweet spot of a multi-mission aircraft. This aircraft, the 407, has been in service since 1996. Over 1600 of these in service throughout the world. Commercial, military, para-public, EMS, all sorts of environments from polar to desert to everywhere in between. Five and a half million flight hours.
That said, this 407GXi is the newest iteration of that. It has a brand new Garmin G1000 NXi. That’s Garmin’s flagship product, adapted especially for this aircraft. So it’s basically a good aircraft, rugged, and it withstands daily use with familiarization flights all the way through BI, radio instrument and tactics while still allowing the modern mission management that you get with glass panel avionics. So it offers that multi-mission capability, but more importantly, it gives it at an affordable cost per flight hour. That’s what we see as being the big value proposition here.
In its class, it’s by far the cheapest to operate, both on a cost per hour for fuel, oil and the like, as well as your overall costs or time. Very predictable, very stable, and the lowest price in its class. So right now O&M funds, for example, a little bit more flush, but later on you don’t know what that budget’s going to do. But the Navy and Marine Corps will still be able to fly the flights we need to graduate the aviators in need for the fleet operations, make sure they’re prepared.
Mr. Muradian: And cost per flying hour is like 560?
Mr. Forsling: 562 dollars average, less than 1.3 maintenance man hours per flight hour. So we think that’s very competitive in the training environment. The Navy wants to fly nearly 700 hours per aircraft per year. That adds up pretty quickly, and you want an aircraft that starts up every day, flies every day, is reliable, easy to maintain so you keep those production X’s, and an affordable rate into the future. The longer you keep this aircraft, the more money the Navy and Marine Corps is going to save.
Mr. Muradian: Tell us a little bit about why you guys think — you were talking about durability. Auto rotation practice, for example, is something that’s critical for anybody who’s flying a rotary wing airplane. You guys are using this at your training school, right? So talk to us about the kind of sets and reps those airplanes are doing and why you think that applies directly to what the Navy wants to do with those airplanes, given that once upon a time you were both an instructor in the airplane and also a student.
Mr. Forsling: Auto ration just is one example of how rugged this aircraft is. You can perform auto rotations without any maintenance penalty whatsoever. So for example, at our training academy, which is actually one of the largest non-military helicopter training facilities in the world, they do up to 10 or more auto rotations in a one hour flight. So every few minutes you’re doing an auto rotation. Again, they’re doing this every single day with guys who haven’t flown 407s before and it gets up every single time.
Other ruggedness features you see especially is the composite rotor hub. We think that’s a huge advantage. We call it soft in plane system. So instead of a fully articulated system which has lead/lag and flapping hinges in it, require extra maintenance, add fragility, complexity. This allows the lead and lag and flapping motion in plane, allows aggressive combat style maneuvering as well as it’s forgiving to a beginning pilot.
Additionally, it’s not as fragile as say a rigid rotor system. Again, that low maintenance designed to be flown every day, reliable, at an affordable cost, while still doing the widest range of mission sets of any helicopter out there.
Mr. Muradian: That’s right, because articulated, you also have a lot of bearings and a lot of lubrication and maintenance you have to do, and on the rigid mass you have to look at your magic gauge to make sure you’re not over-stressing the entire structure.
Talk to us a little bit, I mean this has been an extraordinary product line. I know that Bell under Mitch Snyder when we talked to the CO before about how you guys are actually reinventing how you also produce all your products to try to increase reliability but take cost out of the platform.
Talk to us a little bit about how many, both Jet Ranger, but 407 Series helicopters are actually out there in the global fleet.
Mr. Forsling: It’s over 1600 and climbing every single day. We have a production line for this particular model that’s been open since ’96. We think we’re going to easily be able to make the Navy’s production requirements on time. We’ve also added into this process at Ozark to make the 407 variant which is the MQ-8C Fire Scout. So final assembly of this aircraft is going to be done at Ozark, Alabama just a few miles away from Whiting Field. We think this is going to allow easier delivery. Again, on time, every time for the government as well as that supply and logistics backup directly coming out of Ozark and from our facility in Fort Worth, is going to make sure they have the parts they need to keep this aircraft flying during the sorties they need. A very mature supply system and again, just like Defense Acquisition University says, 70 percent of every military acquisition goes in the life cycle, and we think the proven life cycle, reliability, maintainability of this aircraft is going to keep this Navy aircraft flying 20, 30 years or more, just like our Jet Ranger did.
Mr. Muradian: Carl Forsling, of the Bell team. Manager for Business Development. Carl, thanks very much. Best of luck in the competition and down-select again will be?
Mr. Forsling: We’re expecting a decision in November from the government.
Mr. Muradian: We’ll keep our fingers crossed, and best of luck to you.
Mr. Forsling: Thanks, I appreciate it. Thanks for your time.