Lisa Atherton

United States of America


From Leadership Profile: Vertiflite, May/June 2024

Lisa Atherton, President and Chief Executive Officer, Bell Textron

Lisa Atherton oversees the Bell global enterprise with facilities from Fort Worth, Texas, to Singapore and more than 8,300 employees designing, building and supporting rotorcraft. When asked to describe her scope of responsibility, she acknowledged, “I actually have it all. Bell Canada, service centers, manufacturing; anything that says Bell on it falls under my purview.” The landscape includes just over 2,000 engineers. “We have done a very significant increase of engineering talent over the last couple of years as we prepared to ramp for the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft — FLRAA.” Recent expansion focused largely on electrical, flight control, software and cyber specialties, but Atherton noted, “Now that we have a more-dense engineering population in those disciplines, we also need to have strong mechanical, structural and stress-fatigue resources. Obviously, a good systems engineer is always a high desire as you start putting these complex systems together.”

Bell’s complex military and commercial systems include the V-280 Valor tiltrotor for FLRAA, 525 Relentless fly-by-wire commercial helicopter and, until its abrupt cancellation, the Bell 360 Invictus for the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) program. Atherton conceded, “Obviously we are disappointed by the decision on the FARA. I think it would have been a highly successful and capable aircraft. That said, I understand the Army’s decision and their rationale for it. We’re continuing to work with them as we wind down that effort.” The Bell CEO added, “The great thing about having the FLRAA program here is we were able to quickly take 85% of those engineers and move them to where I need those skillsets, almost without missing a beat.”

The need extends to the Speed and Runway Independent Technologies (SPRINT) initiative of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), aimed at a 400–450-kt (740–830-km/h) vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) X-Plane. Bell tested folding rotor, integrated propulsion and high-speed VTOL (HSVTOL) flight control technologies last year at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico; it is awaiting a DARPA Phase 1B decision aimed at a preliminary design review. Atherton noted, “We are continuing to explore moving the envelope not just from vertical takeoff to horizontal flight but to high-powered jet flight.”

Production of AH-1Z attack and UH-1Y utility helicopters continues in Amarillo, Texas, with an order from Nigeria. “We do see increased demand in that attack helicopter space, noted Atherton. “I don’t know that it would be in the hundreds like we saw in the past for the H-1s, but we do continue to see interest in various countries for the H-1 product line. From the US Marine Corps, we’ve just received our first aircraft to go back through the line for what they call a structural improvement and electrical power upgrade [SIEPU]. That upgrade or mid-life update to that platform will be critical to our production line.”

Atherton added, “We continue to see positive demand across all of our lines of commercial platforms. I would say too, with certain conflicts in the world, the need for special mission aircraft or commercial aircraft that have been specially outfitted for military applications has also seen a significant pick-up. We’re constantly trying to look at our technology roadmap for each of our five lines here — the Model 505, the 407, the 429, the 412 and the 525. I would say we’re staying very focused on the Model 525 Relentless first to get that launched well, but you’ll probably see us do some minor improvements in all those lines, and in the 429 space especially, because that continues to service the parapublic/EMS [emergency medical services] area. We’re getting lots of feedback from those markets to do some minor modifications and updates.”

The Bell CEO routinely balances production and development programs. “If you’re of a certain age, you remember those toys – kaleidoscopes – where you’d zoom-in and zoom-out all the time. I spend my day, probably 50%, zoomed-in on what do we have to do today in order to make sure that we perform and get ready for tomorrow.” She noted, “COVID taught us a lot of lessons around the supply chain and how people work and how people move. Making sure that we stay focused on how our customers work ensures the longevity of the business. It’s hard to have a business without happy customers.”

Finding Focus
Lisa Atherton grew up in Zephyrhills, Florida, northeast of Tampa and played basketball for Zephyrhills High School. She recalled, “My parents were math teachers, so I certainly had a background in math in our household. I was recruited by the Air Force Academy to play basketball and when I went out to visit their campus just fell in love with the rigor, the structure of the Academy, the importance of doing something greater than myself. I didn’t go there with an aviation aspect as much as a patriotism aspect.”

The cadet got an incidental introduction to helicopters. “We would do SERE — Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape — training. You were dropped off in the woods for a week and had to work your way to a rendezvous point, and we got picked up in the back of a Chinook and dropped off at the parade grounds back at the Academy. That’s the first time it all became real-world — the need for vertical lift to get out of somewhere.”

Academy studies nevertheless took a different path. “I started off declared as a human factors engineer — what we’d call a systems engineer today, but with a human factors/ergonomics component. But in my junior year, I had a moment in my life when I had a desire to put bad people away and got interested in law. I did a legal studies undergraduate degree and became a contracts officer. That actually parlayed itself into my work in acquisition and negotiations.”

Atherton left the Air Force in 1999 to become an embedded contractor at the Air Combat Command (ACC) Directorate of Requirements. “I spent eight years at Air Combat Command, and it gave me a great education on how we plan requirements — do you need a targeting system on an F-16; how many and when?” Atherton reflected, “It was a great education for me to understand how the military assesses wargaming scenarios, how they plan for that in their POM [Program Objective Memorandum] process and how they put together acquisition portfolios.”

Another ACC alumnus recruited Atherton to Textron Defense Systems where she led international business development for the CBU-105 sensor-fused weapon and other area attack programs. The experience provided a path to Bell. “Being a part of a company like Textron gives you the opportunity to move around,” said Atherton. “I was at an Air Force charity event, and Mitch Snyder, my predecessor here in the Bell CEO role, and I were having a conversation about program management. I came down to Texas initially as director of operations, chief of staff, for the executive vice president of military programs.”

The job soon gave Atherton the Bell program manager responsibilities on the Bell-Boeing V-22 tiltrotor. “We were in the middle of development for the CMV-22 [the Navy carrier on-board delivery (COD) Osprey]. KJ Jolivette, who was my counterpart at Boeing (see “Leadership Profile,” Vertiflite, Nov/Dec 2023), and I went out on the first COD demonstration on the USS Carl Vinson. Back then, we were at the highest rate of production in 2013, going into 2014, of the V-22. I believe we delivered 43 V-22s that year at the height of Multi-Year 1 production.”

When Bell combined its business development teams into a global group, Atherton became vice president of business development for global military programs. In 2017, she was named president and chief executive officer of Textron Systems, which includes Textron’s unmanned systems, Lycoming Engines, TRU Simulation & Training, and several other operating units.

She succeeded retiring Bell CEO Snyder in April 2023. Atherton observed, “We have invested heavily over the last decade. We’ve done five clean-sheet designs since 2011 from the V-280, the Invictus, the Model 525, the APT [Autonomous Pod Transport] program, and the HSVTOL — you should add the Model 505 in there as well. We have done a lot of R&D [research and development] investment over the last decade to leapfrog us to the forefront of technology.”

Work on the uncrewed APT has been set aside, but Atherton explained, “If something were to emerge, it could be easily moved to the manufacturing side of things. But at the moment, our focus is on executing for FLRAA, executing on the 525, and making sure our current portfolio is supporting our customers.” The Bell 525’s lengthy path to FAA certification is due to pay off this year with first production deliveries. Atherton conceded, “I think what we learned is doing commercial rotorcraft fly-by-wire is tough. We were pioneering that with the FAA and making sure they felt comfortable with what it was we were developing and how that’s going to benefit in the commercial space. I do believe once we get this certified and people see this in the marketspace, they’re just going to be blown away by what fly-by-wire technology brings to them.”

Bell is also leveraging its investments in digital manufacturing. “We have a manufacturing technology center here in Fort Worth separate from our main campus, where we spend a lot of capital and R&D figuring out new manufacturing techniques, new materials, new recipes, and frankly seeing what are the latest robotic tools out there to help us improve the takt time [delivery pulse] and rate at which we would manufacture. We have parts that we’ve been able to take down from 16 hours to minutes. Our initial intent is the FLRAA program, but we’re expanding some of that research to some of our legacy programs to see where we could see some manufacturing improvements.”

Atherton continued, “All of the updates we made in the Bell 280 are lessons-learned in the V-22, how to manufacture better, how to lay-up composites better, how to work with the supply chain so we can send demand signals to them better. The payoffs in terms of reliability and maintainability are the biggest if you want to put dollars to them. The manufacturing improvements are going to allow us to take time, cost and schedule out of what before were fairly complex parts.”

The former XWorX rapid prototyping shop has been superseded at Arlington, Texas, but Atherton explained, “We have a dedicated group of engineers who are somewhat unencumbered by traditional type of programs, giving them the freedom to move on some interesting concepts.” Atherton noted that the company had just signed a memorandum of understanding with Leonardo to explore the NATO Next Generation Rotorcraft Capability (NGRC) project. “Our two companies are the pioneers in tiltrotors, so as European countries start looking at what their requirements are, we thought it made sense that our two companies work together.”

Atherton first interacted with the then-American Heliocopter Society (AHS) in 2012 and observed, “Having a forum like VFS where we can share technical ideas and share interest around safety, as well as innovating on something that’s going to excite people about moving into the vertical space; I derive a lot from that. Having an organization like VFS gives us the opportunity to dream a bit about what the art of the possible is and how we can come together to share those ideas.”