Photos: Bell Helicopter makes Prague its European base

Photos: Bell Helicopter makes Prague its European base

Rotor aircraft giant hopes to significantly increase its presence in the second-largest market

Bell Helicopter has set its eyes on the European market, and has decided to make Prague its headquarters in Europe. The company, a subsidiary of aviation conglomerate Textron, has acquired an existing facility at Václav Havel Airport Prague and has rebranded it as Bell Helicopter’s customization, completion and delivery center for all helicopters that it sells in Europe.

“The European market is the second largest-helicopter market in the world. Our position in that market is underrepresented. So we have a strategic focus to grow in Europe, and we are making investments in our people, our products and our facilities,” John L. Garrison Jr, the president and CEO of Bell Helicopter, told the Prague Post during the official relaunch and rebranding of the facility.

While markets like China and India are rapidly expanding, Garrison said he expects that in 20 years Europe will still be the second-largest market. “It is too large a market for Bell Helicopter to ignore,” he said.

Bell looked at several options before choosing Prague. The city’s central location was one factor, as the company is targeting both Eastern and Western Europe.

Available know-how was another factor. “The Czech Republic has a history of aviation and technical competency in aviation, and so you have the ability to attract the other element of business success, which is great people. We believe we will the ability to attract the engineering talent, the technical talent, the technician talent. And also there is a great university system, and we have the ability to work with universities to develop talent,” Garrison said.

Inside of the Bell completion and customization center in Prague.
Inside of the Bell completion and customization center in Prague. Photo: Raymond Johnston

Some 30 people are now employed at the completion center. “I’ll be very disappointed if that number doesn’t increase dramatically, to two- or threefold over the next couple of years,” Garrison said. While there is now an expat in senior management, the goal is to have a 100 percent indigenous workforce.

Garrison also pointed out that there is currently a very business friendly government environment. “They are focused on growing export-related products,” he said, adding that this was also a factor in selecting Prague.

Photos: Bell Helicopter

The new facility is not a helicopter factory. “The base aircraft, the green aircraft, is assembled in Mirabel, Canada. The rotors and drives come from Fort Worth, Texas. From there the green aircraft, unpainted and unfinished, will come here [to Prague].And here is where it is customized. And there are no two helicopters that are the same. Different avionics packages, different radio packages, complete different customization. We do that work here,” Garrison said. Hospitals, police, forest rangers and other users all require special configurations.

“In some customizations there are more hours in the customization than there are in the original assembly of the aircraft. Some of the customizations can be quite comprehensive, so we will build that capability here for our European customers. In customization of rotor craft there is a lot of value added at the end of the process,” he said.

Bell 429. Photo: Bell Helicopter
AH-1W performs during an airshow in San Diego – Miramar MCAS (NAS) / Mitscher Field (NKX / KNKX)

While there are several Czech aviation companies that make parts, right now they are not part of the picture. “Over time, we will see if we develop indigenous Czech support infrastructure, but right now it will be the customization work here,” he said.

Bell has already had success since it turned its focus to Europe. “Two years ago we had only two Bell 429s in Europe now we have over 40 429s flying. We’ve tripled the number of 409 GXs,” Garrison said.

Places where Bell has had success include the Czech Republic, Russia, Ukraine, Slovenia and Turkey.

“We’ve had success selling to the Turkish national police and forestry [departments]. They are highly configured airborne law enforcement type aircraft,” he said.

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The company is also having success in Eastern Europe with the Bell 429 for emergency medical services (EMS). Corporate transportation and general utility are also important markets. “We are not dependent on one segment, be it government or commercial,” he said.

The Prague headquarters is far from being Bell’s first presence in Europe. The company has been here for 50 years and has had a warehouse and distribution center in Amsterdam for 40 years.

Control panel on a Bell 407GX. Photo: Bell Helicopter
Control panel on a Bell 407GX. Photo: Bell Helicopter

Customer support is a crucial in the helicopter business, and customers need to look at not only the purchase price but the whole life-cycle cost.

“Helicopters offer tremendous value, and we’re focused on that value. When you sell a helicopter it is a long-term relationship. It’s not unusual for Bell helicopters to last 30, 40, 50 years, and so the support side is really important,” he said.

“The other great thing about a Bell helicopter is they retain their value, we do quite well with residual value,” he said, adding that it is not uncommon for a well-maintained helicopter to sell for more that its original purchase price after 10 or 15 years.

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Currently Bell has four models available in Europe: the 207L, 407GX, 429 and 412. “The Czech Police have operated a Bell 412 for a number of years,” he said. Uses range from transport to police, fire and rescue operations.

Two more models are soon to be added. The Bell 505 Jet Ranger X will specifically address the low-cost segment, with a base price around $1 million, which Garrison said was “very competitive” making it a “high value” aircraft. The model has already attracted purchaser interest, with several letters of intent already signed. It can carry five passengers and one crew member.

bell-505
Bell 505 used in forestry. Photo: Bell Helicopter

The other new model, the Bell 535 Relentless, is going to revolutionize large helicopters, according to Garrison. It can carry 16 passengers and two crew or be configured for cargo. Applications include taking workers to offshore oil rigs, firefighting, search and rescue, and “VVIP” (very very important person) transport.

Textron, the parent company of Bell, also owns Cessna and Beechcraft. Garrison envisions synergies among those companies at the Prague hub in the future as well.

n 1935 Larry Bell founded Bell Aircraft Corporation, which specialized in the design and production of fighter aircraft.

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