Born: United States of America
Primarily active in: United States of America
From Leadership Profile: Vertiflite Spring 2008
Michael D. Blake, Executive Vice President, Customer Solutions, Bell Helicopter Textron
As executive vice president for customer solutions, Mike Blake leads all Bell Helicopter commercial and military customer service and support operations; completion and repair subsidiaries including Edwards & Associates, BellAero and US Helicopter; and all commercial production activities, including Bell Helicopter Canada. Bell has a service presence in 37 countries, and Mr. Blake also oversees the company’s commercial teaming relationships, including the BA609 tilt rotor under development with AgustaWestland in Italy and the long-running cooperation with Mitsui Bussan Aerospace in Japan.
Mike Blake came to Bell in 2004 after 28 years with United Technologies, most of that time at Sikorsky Aircraft and all of it involved with helicopters. His attachment to rotary-wing flight reaches back to childhood. “I tried to make a helicopter once out of a trashcan and a washing machine motor,” recalls Mr. Blake. “I hadn’t figured out anti-torque at six, but at least I had some concept of lift.”
Helicopters remained an interest all through Mike Blake’s school years. “Growing up in Massachusetts and Connecticut, of course Sikorsky was there, and we knew a lot about Igor Sikorsky.” Undergraduate studies at Western Connecticut State University nevertheless steered the young aviation enthusiast to a degree in business economics. “I went there as a history major. I had always loved history,” acknowledges Mr. Blake. “I took a course in American economic history, and I became fascinated with the business implications of the American Revolution going forward.”
A working year off from college in 1975 introduced Mike Blake to United Technologies on the Hamilton Standard shop floor as an aviation sheet metal mechanic. He observes, “A scary thought is I made a lot of parts that ended up on airliners that you probably flew on.” The helicopter connection nevertheless continued. “We were starting to make parts for something called the S-70 – the UTTAS.”
Job interviews after graduation led back to Hamilton Standard. “I wound up in the Product Support Section, doing a lot of product support for Sikorsky at the time for the S-61s and also the fledgling Black Hawk program. The S-76 was big then too.” Promotions up through Hamilton Standard product support, business management, and program management positions led Mike Blake to Sikorsky as assistant program manager for the SH-60F – then the U.S. Navy’s new carrier helo. “I got a chance to walk the first helicopter down the line to first flight, which I’ll never forget to this day.”
Subsequent assignments covered the Sikorsky Naval Hawk product line business management including the SH-60B, HH-60H, Coast Guard HH-60J, and Royal Australian Navy and Republic of China Navy S-70Bs. Early in 1987, Mike Blake became program manager for the SH-60B Seahawk. “It was kind of intimidating because there weren’t many non-pilots/non-engineers running helicopter programs at the time,” he admits. “I got to take it through early production and Operation Earnest Will where we modified Seahawks for that mission.” SH-60Bs were designed to hunt submarines, but were now to be used to deal with gunboats and other threats in the Persian Gulf with FLIRS, ECM, missile launch detectors, and other new equipment.”
Six months away from Sikorsky at the Defense Systems Management College earned Mike Blake a program management certification in 1989. He returned to take responsibility for the U.S. Presidential helicopters – the White Tops. “You didn’t know a lot about that for obvious reasons. It was probably my favorite program. . . . There was something about the responsibility for the President of the United States, the tradition, the enormous pride you felt. I used to say this is a helicopter that was front stage, center stage for American aviation.” Bell now awaits the chance to test and support the Anglo-Italian VH-71 for future U.S. Presidents.
Sikorsky Aircraft subsequently appointed Mike Blake head of Heavy Lift and Presidential product lines, including H-3s, CH-53Ds and Es and the Presidential VH-3Ds. He recalls during 1995 when one of his Marine helicopters rescued an Air Force pilot down in Bosnia. “One of my customers from HMX-1, Major Tarbutton, was the command pilot for the ‘53 that picked O’Grady up from out of the woods. That was a pretty special mission.”
While managing the Presidential helicopter program, Mike Blake earned an MBA from the University of New Haven. At the urging of then-Sikorsky president Eugene Buckley, he spent another three months in a program for management development at Harvard before returning to head worldwide customer service for Sikorsky’s military and commercial operators. “They both have a mission to do,” explains Mr. Blake. “The metrics for a military commanding officer are successful missions and whatever that means in sorties and lifts, not so much the dollars and cents, although that’s important to him too. But when you get into the commercial world, you’ve got to make a buck. You’ve got to understand what drives that operator to be successful. . . . In this job, I found that if I cared as much about his or her fitness report or business plan as my own – whether they were military or commercial – I’d almost always be successful.”
In part due to his Presidential helicopter experience, Mike Blake helped formulate some of the requirements for the new-generation S-92. “At that time at Sikorsky, we knew we needed a cabin-class replacement for the S-61 Sea King. We probably waited too long, but . . . one of the very serious thoughts was that it had to be the replacement for the H-3 on the White House lawn. That thought was early on in S-92 design process. It didn’t work out that way for them in the long run.”
A bigger disappointment was the Army’s cancellation of the RAH-66 armed reconnaissance helicopter. Mike Blake admits, “The piece of history I’d have preferred not to have had was to be the last director of the Comanche.” With the Army in a two-front war and hard-pressed to pay for Aircraft Survivability Equipment and other combat necessities, the stealthy Comanche became an obvious target. “We got the program right,” observes Mr. Blake. “When we were terminated, we were right on schedule and a little above cost. . . . Unfortunately, we were budgeted for over a billion dollars a year in the DoD budget, putting a bull’s-eye on our program.”
Mike Blake says the lesson of the Comanche remains, “Don’t take that long and cost that much.” He adds, “I’ll always be thankful to the Army for allowing us to have an orderly termination – stop work – that we were able to catalog and store most of the data. Mr. Blake adds, “I also must give a lot of credit to Steve Finger, the CEO of Sikorsky at the time. Steve allowed me to keep the staff to do the job right. He also helped in reassigning a lot of people. The most important thing for me coming out of Comanche was to make sure those brilliant minds got back in Sikorsky in the mainstream. Out of 1,200 people we placed all but 156. The most important thing was to keep as much gray matter in the business at Boeing and Sikorsky as we could.”
The Comanche led the helicopter industry in Lean Manufacturing at the time with a moving line, just-in-time supply, and pre-kitted parts. “I give much of that credit to Joe Amico, our manufacturing leader,” says Mr. Blake, “The closest to it now is the Apache in Mesa and the V-22 in Amarillo.”
After the Comanche termination announcement in 2004, Mike Blake helped lead an orderly industry shutdown that capped termination costs to give Army aviation the money it needed to fight the Global War on Terror. Several companies offered jobs, and he acknowledges, “Bell and Sikorsky, because their values – what we believe in – are so similar, I was very attracted to Bell. Both companies have been very good to me and I’ve been quite lucky to work at both.”
As senior vice president of Bell’s commercial business unit in September 2004, Mike Blake joined a major U.S. aerospace manufacturer losing market share to European competitors. He acknowledges, “I could whine about some of the advantages they have. But I have to accept as a challenge that we have to fight a war, and so do my colleagues in Mesa, Philadelphia, and Stratford. We have to do that and compete in the commercial marketplace. . .
“Quite frankly, what’s happening with Eurocopter and Agusta is that they’re designing and building damn good products, and they’re producing them at competitive prices. . . . We may have let our guard down in the ‘90s and we’re trying to fight our way back.”
Mr. Blake explains, “Right now, they can out-produce us in capacity, which we’re trying to grow as fast as we can. . . . We’ve got to grow our capacity, remain competitive price-wise, and have a technological edge, without sacrificing support.”
In June 2005, Mr. Blake was named executive vice president and chief operating officer for Bell’s commercial business. With 240 orders already on the books, the new Model 429 leads Bell’s Modular Affordable Product Line (MAPL) and aims to restore the company’s commercial leadership. Mr. Blake notes, “We’ve accelerated 13 of the MAPL technologies and used them to produce a better ship.” He adds, “Certainly there is an opportunity for us to look at the 429 as a basis for let’s say an intermediate-size helicopter – growing it a bit. Also, there could be a single-engine derivative down the line.”
The popular Bell 407 meanwhile enjoys a three-year order backlog, and the veteran Bell 412 is near JAR-OPS 3 Phase 1 certification. Mike Blake summarizes, “We’re looking at the good, solid, durable, well-performing helicopters, making them better, modernizing them, as well as creating a new one with the 429. We are finalizing a well thought-out production rationalization.”
Commercial market success is tied to product support. Under Mike Blake’s leadership, Bell maintains about 160 service facilities around the world with parts available within 24 hours. Mr. Blake also notes that Bell recently won an Operational Sustainment Support Technologies contract from the Army Aviation Applied Technology Directorate to develop engine and dynamic system sensors that will support on-condition maintenance. “The cost-sharing will enable us to develop key customer service technologies, which I think are going to be the future of product support for helicopters over the next 50 years. . . .”
“That’s one of the things I want to leave at Bell, the legacy that we not only had good hands-on customer service, but that we pushed the envelope in technology. I think when we get there, that’s when we’re going to have safer, more affordable rotorcraft. This goal is a passion for me. . . . We must succeed.”
Bell is a Platinum member of the International Helicopter Safety Team, chartered to reduce helicopter accident rates 80% by 2016. Mr. Blake says, “We realize you can’t get to the goal unless Bell is successful, because we have so much of the installed base.” The company has therefore advanced Light, Affordable Maintenance Safety Systems, a suite of safety technologies including cockpit cameras, vibration sensors, and other non-invasive tools with maintenance payback.
Technology also promises quieter, more reliable helicopters for more applications. “We’ve got to be less noisy, less intrusive on people’s lives, and perceived to be safer. . . . We’ve got to have high dispatch rate in excess of 99%. If we’ve got that sort of reliability, and we’re accepted by the public, you’ve got a business that’s going to grow.”
The loss of life after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami also underscored the need for helicopters in developing countries. Mr. Blake says, “We should be able to develop affordable helicopters like Huey IIs and upgraded JetRangers that are simple to operate, affordable, and maintainable, so when you have a tsunami, earthquake, or some other disaster, you’re able to help your population.” He adds that in the same countries, helicopters, like cell-phone networks, can accelerate economic development. Mr. Blake says, “There’s an opportunity here for helicopters to be used in place of the infrastructure that doesn’t exist today. We in industry have got to pay attention not just to requirements, but to what’s happening with demographics – what are the gaps in these societies and how can helicopters help fill them.”
To fill the need for helicopters, Mr. Blake says, “Bell is already global in its presence, in its installed base, but we need to open up more when it comes to fleet sales, co-production, and innovative ventures. . . . We’re looking at countries around the world that have investment, capability and market.” He sees Bell Canada as a model for global expansion with sustained provincial and federal support, high-quality educational institutions, and quality civil and military customers. “If we could replicate that around the world, we would establish the Bell of the future.”