Six years after a catastrophic accident, Bell Textron Inc. has settled a lawsuit filed by the families of two pilots who died in a crucial test flight of an experimental prototype of an important and ambitious all-new helicopter model.
Ellis County District Court Judge Bob Carroll approved the settlements in a court order entered July 11.
Test pilots Jason C. Grogan and Erik A. Boyce were killed July 6, 2016, when the test flight of the Bell 525 Relentless went badly awry on a high-speed flight over Ellis County. The helicopter’s main rotor blades sliced off both the tail boom and nose cone, and the cabin section plunged 4,000 feet to the ground below.
The accident was a severe setback for Bell in its efforts to develop an advanced, high-tech commercial helicopter. The 525 Relentless is the largest, most complex non-military aircraft ever undertaken by the company. It was launched by Bell in 2011 in an effort to stem a decades-long decline in its share of the world’s commercial helicopter market.
Lynn Grogan and Sarah Boyce, wives of the pilots, filed the lawsuit in Ellis County District Court in 2018. It alleged that Bell management, facing time and financial pressures, made critical decisions and took shortcuts that led to the accident.
“Bell sacrificed its pilots’ lives on the pyre of expediency,” Bruce Lampert, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, charged in court documents.
Grogan, 43 and Boyce, 36, were retired Marine Corps officers, graduates of the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School, and experienced pilots who had flown many combat missions in Iraq in Bell AH-1W Cobra attack helicopters.
Officials of Fort Worth-based Bell, declined to comment on the lawsuit or the settlement. Neither widow of the two pilots returned telephone calls seeking comment for this story.
Also named as defendants in the lawsuit were three of Bell’s suppliers: General Electric Co., the engine manufacturer; and Garmin International and BAE Systems, which provided key components of the aircraft’s fly-by-wire flight control systems.
All four companies recently agreed to financial settlements with the pilots’ families, according to court filings. The terms of the settlements were not disclosed.
In its court filings, Bell claims the accident could not have been foreseen and was the result of flight-testing a new, extraordinarily complex helicopter. “The record is replete with evidence that Bell took great care in mitigating risks (including) having a robust” safety plan that was approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Bell also claimed the pilot’s actions contributed to the accident. In its legal response, the company that when the test helicopter unexpectedly experienced severe vibrations, the pilots did not react as trained and briefed and that some of their actions and reactions, intentional or unintentional, contributed to the accident.
Jay Miller, a longtime Arlington aviation historian, and author, said the history of new airplane and helicopter breakthroughs is replete with tragic accidents resulting from the industry pushing against the boundaries of science, technology, and human endurance. Many resulted from corporate mandates and pressure on managers, engineers, and pilots to meet arbitrary deadlines and curtail development costs.
Miller cited the checkered development history of the B-58 Hustler supersonic bomber, designed and built by Convair in Fort Worth in the 1950s. There is a vast difference between a supersonic jet and a helicopter, but one specific B-58 accident was eerily similar to that of the Bell 525. In 1959, a B-58 broke apart in mid-air over Oklahoma during a supersonic test flight after Convair management and the U.S. Air Force ordered flight test managers to skip several interim tests. The accident killed both the pilot and flight test engineer aboard that aircraft.
The Bell 525 “accident, it can be argued, shouldn’t have happened,” said Miller, who has longstanding professional and personal relationships with many aeronautical engineers, pilots, and other experts in Texas and globally.
“These pilots found themselves in a new part of the flight envelope and dealing with conditions they never expected,” Miller said. “They had a bad day, but they still should have been able to go home and talk about it later.”
Several helicopter test pilots and engineers were interviewed and reviewed documents for this story, none of whom could speak for the record due to their involvement with the litigation and confidentiality agreements, past employment or other ties to Bell, or employment with one of its competitors in the small world of helicopter manufacturers. All have decades of military and commercial experience designing, flying, and testing civil and military helicopters.
High-speed computers that allow engineers to simulate the extraordinarily complex physics of flight and aerodynamics have enhanced the ability to design and build improved aircraft. But engineers say that unlike airplanes, where the science of flight is well understood, math and science do not always reliably predict what happens with helicopters in vertical flight.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates aviation accidents, issued a final report on the 525 Relentless accident in January 2018, more than 18 months later. NTSB experts examined volumes of aircraft performance data, Bell’s manufacturing, maintenance, and testing records, and flight test planning and documentation. Investigators also interviewed numerous Bell personnel including engineers and other 525 test pilots.
The report cast no specific blame for the accident, but chronicles in great detail the chain of events and contributing factors. NTSB officials could not be interviewed but did provide written explanations to a reporter’s questions about technical issues.
The NTSB report concluded the Bell pilots suddenly, within a matter of six or seven seconds, found themselves beset by extreme vibrations that resulted in the helicopter’s 25-foot-long rotor blades flapping wildly out-of-control, and slicing off the tail boom and nose cone.
Bell had high expectations when it launched full development of the 525 Relentless in 2011. Long a global leader in commercial helicopter sales, Bell’s orders ebbed in the 1990s as its principal competitors introduced new or vastly improved models. In the U.S. market, Airbus Helicopters alone has outsold Bell every year since 2002. .
Bell had long relied on modest upgrades to its existing commercial helicopters, which were themselves spinoffs of the UH-1 Huey and Jet Ranger aircraft developed during the Vietnam War. The company focused most of its research and development spending on military aircraft, notably the Marines MV-22 Osprey, relying on Pentagon orders and predictable funding.
Bell unveiled a model of the new helicopter in 2012 at the Heli-Expo trade show in Dallas, the highest-profile sales, and public relations event for the global helicopter industry. The model, painted in the bright yellow color and markings of the key potential customers, drew oohs and ahs from the audience and trade media.
The 525 Relentless was not a warmed-over design. It would be the world’s first commercial fly-by-wire helicopter, with high-speed computers instantaneously translating the pilots’ commands to the engines and flight control mechanisms. A five-bladed rotor system would be the largest ever designed by Bell, a design that introduced new complexities.
The new helicopter model was targeted at the offshore oil industry, where helicopters ferry personnel and supplies to rigs far from the coast. The 525 would carry up to 18 passengers, be capable of flying more than 250 miles one way, and return to base on a single tank of fuel. It would be significantly faster than any comparable helicopter, with a planned cruise speed of 200 knots (230 mph).
Longtime aviation industry analyst and forecaster Richard Aboulafia, managing director of AeroDynamic Advisory, was skeptical of Bell’s forecast the 525 Relentless plans from the beginning. It was an expensive development program aimed at a narrow slice of the helicopter market.
“It came down to the oil and gas market and there were already some good new products competing for a small number of annual sales,” said Aboulafia.
Bell’s development schedule was optimistic. The company said it would develop, flight-test, obtain Federal Aviation Administration safety certification, and deliver the first 525 Relentless to a customer by early 2017.
Ambition quickly gave way to reality. The first flight in July 2015 was six months late. Still, by early 2016 the highly visible orange test helicopter was often flying in and out of Bell’s test facility at Arlington Municipal Airport.
The accident was a severe blow to the program. Flight testing halted for a year while Bell and the NTSB sorted out the crash circumstances and implemented testing changes to enhance safety. In addition, Bell made numerous revisions to the flight testing program to meet additional FAA certification requirements prompted by the crash.
Now, more than a decade since it launched the development of the 525 Relentless, Bell has yet to receive FAA certification for production and sales. Bell continues to invest heavily in hopes of recording future orders and revenues.
“I would say this is at least a $600 million project to date, and probably more,” said Aboulafia. “The good news is they (Bell) haven’t canceled it.”
After years of optimistic pronouncements about certification schedules and sales potential, Bell has said little publicly about its progress in recent months.
“The Bell 525 program has been focused on FAA certification and entry into service,” Bell spokesperson Blakeley Thress said in an email response. Thress also said Bell would no longer discuss or disclose details of possible customer orders, past or present. Aircraft manufacturers often publicly announce they have received non-binding “Memorandums of Understanding” and “Letters of Intent” indicating a customer’s interest in placing orders.
Bob Cox is a freelance reporter.