United States of America
Glenn Isbell, Executive Vice President of Customer Support and Services, Bell Helicopter Textron
With nearly 100 product support engineers and a global network of field service representatives, supply outlets, and maintenance, repair, and overhaul centers, Glenn Isbell is responsible for the strategic alignment, growth, and oversight of all services and support of commercial rotorcraft in the hands of Bell customers. “Basically, from the point of aircraft delivery forward, for the next 30, 40, 50-plus years, we own the relationship, and it’s my job to help enable the customer’s business or the operation of the aircraft. We work through fleet readiness issues and safety initiatives. We have maintenance conferences around the world just to help people understand how best to maintain or more efficiently maintain the aircraft.”
This customer focus helps shape Bell’s engineering, including for the 505 light, 429 medium, and 525 super-medium commercial helicopters. According to Isbell, “the more we’re able to focus on the business our customers are in and how we can enable them, the better off we will be. The focus is on availability, economics. Everybody wants to fly farther and fly faster, but if it costs you a million dollars on a non-recurring basis, a lot of people will take a lot less.” He added, “The price point is something you will see us focus on a lot, and then the operating costs.” High speed is a selling point of the US military’s V-280 Valor program, but Isbell noted, “In general, speed is a variable along with multiple other variables in the equation. Useful load, cabin layout, dependability, and reliability — all that goes together.”
Isbell started his Bell career over 20 years ago in what was then the rapid-prototyping New Product Development Center. “I spent the first 10 years just doing prototyping. I think I got to work on 19 aircraft in the first 10 years.” The new product engineer went on to serve as director of systems engineering and engineering operations, and subsequently became the vice president of the center, which by then had been renamed Xworx.
His current product support role still has a dynamic engineering component. “It’s the opposite end of the business I hired into, but there are a lot of similarities. It’s the same pace as the development side because the customers are operating at a very close pace to what we’re doing on the prototyping side.” He added, “The global business aspect of this customer support job is quite fascinating as well.”
Growing up in Huntsville, Texas — between Dallas and Houston — Isbell was drawn to engineering. He offered, “My dad is a civil engineer, so I tended toward the engineering realm early on. I took stuff apart all the time. Sometimes I got it back together; sometimes I didn’t.” Texas A&M offered a distinguished engineering education. “I liked mechanical engineering because it was pretty broad, and I didn’t really know at that point fully what I wanted to do. I wasn’t geared toward aviation at a really early age. I think the main thing that really shifted me was when I interviewed at Bell. I saw the assembly lines, and I saw the products. I just kind of fell in love with the place.”
Bell’s New Product Development Center then had about 20 engineers, a machine shop and some mechanics dedicated to rapid prototyping. “The first ones I got to work on [were] the 427 prototypes. I went up to Canada for a six-month stay in 1997, working on the shop floor literally to help build prototypes and work through any engineering issues we had — very hands-on liaison-type work. I built the static test article and got involved in the testing side and the flight side.” Later projects included flight test modifications for the then-BA609 tiltrotor and the electrical and armament systems for the Marine Corps H-1 Upgrade.
“The biggest job that I did was the Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter [ARH], all the prototypes we did for that project,” recalled Isbell. “I loved it all, that pace. I had full-build responsibility for a dual-pilot 427 aircraft that we had. I had to schedule my wedding around the first flight in 2000. We had a 427, cut the nose off, added a 430-style nose and a different instrument panel, and got an STC [supplemental type certificate] in five months or so. That was pretty rewarding. It was the first one I got to own completely, and I learned a lot on that project. We’re still flying it at our Flight Research Center as a chase aircraft.”
Isbell also changed the way Bell designs and builds aircraft in a digital environment. “I got pulled out of the Xworx environment around 2007 or 2008 and we were on a mainframe system that was paper-based. Everybody was filling out pieces of paper to make engineering changes. We were doing an SAP [brand enterprise application software] implementation, but in order to get SAP right, we had to get the bill of materials right from the beginning. I was the program manager and kind of the engineering technical lead for the Enovia PLM [Product Life-cycle Management] system that managed all the product data, the release flow, the signature cycle. In addition, we enabled CATIA V6 [engineering and design software].
“I realized at that point: I like creating things. I used to think I’d like to be an aircraft-only guy, but then I realized creating a system was as rewarding or close to as rewarding as the aircraft side. What we really did was enable everybody to have visibility of the design process and to engage earlier. Before the product is released, we already understand how it’s going to be built and how it’s going to be put together. We also expose downstream to the engineering community how it’s going to be built.” Isbell noted, “We were able to get a lot of benefit on the 525. Everything fit and worked. On V-280, we installed the engine for the first time in six minutes. Part of it was the tools. Part of it was the deep level of coordination between the design guys that were looking at functionality and the manufacturing folks that were looking at manufacturability.”
As vice president of Business Optimization, Isbell developed Bell’s strategic direction and worked to make the business more competitive. “What I was looking for was a small, hand-picked strategic team to look at how we are going to transition if we have a bigger commercial load than military — and how are we going to lean out our business.”
Isbell noted, “Generally, this is where we’re different from the other OEMs. We do almost all of our manufacturing in North America. All the core components are still done in Dallas. We do the assembly in Montreal. We do a lot of customizing in Piney Flats, Tennessee. Obviously, almost all of our manufacturing is done here. We’re still very rooted in North America. A lot of the other OEMs have just spread work across the world. We are still very much a build-in-North America-and-export-the-products [company]. What we try to have is a global presence. From a maintenance standpoint, from a spares standpoint, operational support is regional at least. We support globally, but we are manufacturing domestically. We do have global suppliers, but from a Bell footprint, it’s almost all North America.”
Global customer support nevertheless draws on Bell support facilities in Singapore, Prague, Amsterdam and elsewhere. “It’s generally a network of all the parts, supply, and logistics to get those parts delivered, as well as the technical expertise across the different regions as well.” Bell recently opened a Bell 429 training academy in Valencia, Spain, with a level D simulator. “We will probably have more expansion globally as we go forward. It’s region-by-region analysis.”
Customer support also continues to drive product engineering. “Your dynamic components are a big cost driver from a parts standpoint,” acknowledged Isbell. “Parts are about 20–25% of the operating cost or so. In the past designs, we had a lot of timed-life components. At 2,500 or 3,000 hours, there was a big bill coming. That’s something everybody accepted over time, but it was still a big event for them. On the 429, we shifted to a lot of on-demand parts, and we’ve done quite a bit of upgrades recently on dynamic components. We’re always monitoring the high-time aircraft for issues, so we can have a fix before the bulk of the fleet gets to that point. We’ve just continued to push for longer life of components on some of the newer aircraft. On the 525 specifically, we’re pushing the operating-cost-per-seat-mile down to be best-in-class. That was definitely one of the core design parameters of the aircraft.”
Health and usage monitoring systems have yet to find favor on light helicopters. “They tend to be relatively expensive, so they’re not widely used,” observed Isbell. “That is something from a Bell standpoint and an industry standpoint … we need to be focused on, something at a lower price point that will be much more widely distributed. On the newer designs, like the 525, we’re trying to have more of a self-detection capability on the aircraft that will help us and help the operator identify what’s coming up and what those costs are.”
Bell exhibited its the FCX-1 mock-up at the AHS Forum to highlight a range of promising vertical flight technologies. Isbell offered, “I think some of the pilot-augmented flight capabilities — how smart can we make the aircraft — I believe that specifically is very key. How does the aircraft synthesize data in a way that helps the pilot direct and command the aircraft and not manage all the systems on the aircraft?”
Isbell was elected this year as the Secretary/Treasurer of the AHS International Board of Directors. New business directions took him away from advanced technology, but Isbell says, “I’ve started this year getting back into the more technical part of the business, which I really like. I think any time you can connect the right technical people internally and across the industry, [it] helps move the industry forward.”
Vertiflite Leadership Profile: Vertiflite September/October 2017