Bell’s 206 Jet Ranger is one of the most successful helicopters ever made. Until the lightweight Robinsons came along, it outsold all other helicopters and also held the title as one the safest single engine general aviation aircraft. The big question is whether the new and reborn Bell 505 Jet Ranger X can live up to its predecessor’s huge reputation?
About 8,000 Bell 206 variants have been produced, approximately 4,500 of which are still flying today, being used in such varied functions as law enforcement, flight training, corporate transport, utility and military missions – essentially the same missions for which the 505 was designed.
The 505 Jet Ranger X was certified in December last year, and the first of the type was delivered at this year’s Heli Expo in Dallas, where there was a long waiting list to fly the demo models. South Africa’s sole agent for Bell is NAC, and helicopter division director Gary Phillips managed to score a test flight, as did customer Trys Schroeder, who has bought not just one, but two 505s for his transport business.
On their return from Dallas, I cornered Gary and Trys for their first-hand experience of flying this hugely important new chopper and have combined their reports for this flight review.
Bell’s director of marketing and sales, Chuck Evans, said the key objectives in making the 505 Jet Ranger X a worthy improvement on the iconic 206 ‘Jetty’ were a more-powerful engine with full-authority digital engine control (FADEC), a genuine five-place cabin and an all-glass cockpit with great visibility. Oh, and around a US$1 million price tag to keep it competitive with the very successful Robinson R66.
Using the now old adage, ‘if it ain’t broken don’t fix it’, Bell has retained many of the dynamic components of its 206L4 Long Ranger, particularly the two-bladed teetering rotor system and transmission. Apart from its simplicity and fully proven design, this is a high inertia rotor and thus has good autorotation capabilities.
To make sure they got it right, Bell created a Customer Advisory Council to advise on the design of the 505. The customer focus groups revealed that apart from the inevitable ‘more power’ request, what pilots wanted was modern avionics, particularly Garmin’s G1000H glass panel. Bell has already very successfully used the G1000H in its 407GX (reviewed in SA Flyer March 2015).
In its helicopter application, the G1000H is an excellent aid to situational awareness, with synthetic vision, terrain awareness and warning system (TAWS), traffic alerts and ‘highway-in-the-sky’ guidance.
A real eyebrow raiser for patriotic Americans was Bell’s selection of a French engine – the Arrius 2R, which was customised for the 505. But the French really do know how to build quality helicopter engines and the Arrius 2R is an evolutionary development of the well proven Turboméca Artouste IIIB which powered the SAAF’s Alouette 3.
The French trumped the traditional American light helicopter turbine engine makers, and Rolls Royce who supplied the engines for the 206 and Robinson R66, by creating a simple, reliable, affordable and most of all effective, dual channel FADEC for the Arrius. This provides full redundancy, much easier handling and improved efficiency through its electronic fuel flow regulation. The FADEC also records engine data, which makes troubleshooting much quicker in case of any mechanical problems and hot starts. The 505’s Arrius 2R is rated at 504 shp for takeoff and 457 shp continuous, which is a useful step up from the 420-shp Rolls-Royce 250-C20J in the 206, which was in turn limited by the transmission to 317 shp at takeoff. In terms of all-important operating costs, the Arrius has a reasonable 3,000 hour TBO.
Inside, it is clear that Bell has done much to improve the 206’s cabin. Cabin volume has been increased by 50%, from 40 cubic feet in the 206 to 61 in the 505. The cabin’s useful area has been improved dramatically by using a flat floor and three stowable upward folding seats. Thanks to larger and lower windows and much improved headroom, the cabin also feels much more spacious, and it no longer has the 206 Jet Ranger and Long Ranger’s hugely intrusive central pillar, which housed the control rods and cables and which created the ‘broom closet’ for rear passengers.
Some traditional Bell pilots, like Andre Coetzee of Henley Air, nonetheless say that they miss the structural pillars on the Jet Ranger. The 505’s pillars are in the shell of the fuselage and, being composite, may give some concerns as to how they would keep the cabin shell intact in a roll over. Bell says the 505 has been designed to meet the latest crashworthiness and safety standards of Transport Canada, the FAA and European Aviation Safety Agency, and that these are significantly more stringent than they were in 1964 when the 206 was designed.
It’s evident that a lot of thought has gone into making the pre-flight pilot friendly – and the mountaineering not too athletically demanding. Everything that needs to be checked – sight gauges, engine inlets, avionics bay – are easily accessible. Climbing up to inspect the rotor head and engine is straightforward, and wingnut fasteners make hatch removal and replacement quick and easy.
The baggage bay is claimed to be big enough for four sets of golf clubs and can load 250 lbs. Open the avionics hatch and you can see the tubular frame structure housing a row of circuit breakers and a battery to power the electronic power supply unit (EPSU). This controls the generator, battery charging, and all power distribution.
In a bold and controversial move, Bell has removed all circuit breakers from the cockpit. Bell says it wants “to wean pilots from using circuit-breakers as switches, or resetting breakers that are trying to tell them something.”
The largely composite forward fuselage is a big step up from the 206 series, and the whole aircraft is bigger yet lighter. The 505 is two feet longer than the Long Ranger 206L. A slotted horizontal stabilizer is mounted midway along the underside of the tail boom, which also helps keep the cabin noise level down in the cruise.
Climbing into the cockpit is an easy step up with the standard skids. Once seated, the much lower window sills make for a much-improved view out – especially of the ground. Head room is excellent. On the left side, a ‘suicide’ rear hinged door creates a cavernous opening for access to the three cabin seats, which are easily removed to create plenty of room for cargo and loading stretchers.
The pilot seats are comfortable but, remarkably, they are not adjustable. You lock them forward in the ‘fly’ position and then adjust for pilot height by moving the pedals backwards and forwards like in a glider.
The pre-start checklist is a brief one page in the POH. Flick the battery switch to ‘On’ and the G1000H comes alive and tells you everything you need to know about the state of the engine and airframe. A weight and balance display page makes the envelope calculation startlingly simple. Just enter the weights in the diagrammatic of the seats, add the fuel and you get the answer. For Gary’s demo flight, they had Henley Air’s Andre Coetzee in the back with a Bell employee, and so were four-up. With around half tanks they were around 200 lbs below max all-up weight of 3,680 lbs. This is a full 480 lbs up on the 206’s basic MAUW of 3,200 lbs.
The design equipped useful load for the 505 is 1,500 lbs. But add popular options such as dual controls, a second comm radio, emergency locating transmitter (ELT), terrain awareness and warning system, synthetic vision, traffic advisory, premium leather seats, and a rotor brake and they will take 75 lbs out of the 1,500 lbs. And if you want air conditioning, that’s another 75 lbs. The external load gross weight is 4,475 lbs with a cargo hook limit of 1,500 lbs.
FLYING THE 505
The FADEC engine management system makes the start a pleasure. Trys Schroeder says, “It’s helicopter flying for dummies.” On both the collectives is a switch labelled IDLE and FLY. You make sure both switches are set to IDLE and then just push the Start-Run button on the centre pedestal and sit back and watch as Nr (rotor speed) and Np (power turbine speed) indications rise as the engine spools and then lights up.
When you are ready for lift, simply move your collective’s throttle switch to FLY. If both collectives are selected to FLY, the aircraft lets you know you are in dual-pilot mode and the right-side collective can override the left side’s Fly/Idle switch (like dual stick inputs on a fly-by-wire system). As is the case with a multi-crew airline environment, flying with two pilots requires good crew coordination. But the FADEC will run the engine to a 104% rotor speed as long as either switch is placed to FLY. The collective’s twistgrip does not move with power changes.
Compared to the 206, the lighter aircraft weight and increased power is immediately evident on takeoff. Lifting off using about 95% of continuous power, for about 85% torque, yielded a healthy 1,750 fpm.
The G1000H provides range rings that show fuel reserve and run-dry circles on the moving map. They update automatically as speed, consumption rate and wind factors change. The 505 holds 550 lbs of fuel and at a burn rate of about 200 lbs per hour, you can expect about 2.5 hours of flight and a fair planning range of 250 nm. Typical cruise numbers at mid weights will be 120 knots at 200 lbs per hour, a 5 kt improvement on a low skid 206.
Bell has paid a lot of attention to smoothing out the ride and damping vibration, and this will make the 505 much less tiring to fly on long missions. The Long Ranger derived ‘tailboom damper’ is a 25-lb moving mass which dampens vibrations from the tail-rotor system. Bell has also created a system they call LIVE which stands for Liquid Inertial Vibration Eliminator. It’s a hybrid elastomeric/hydraulic system developed for the 505 that provides vibration elimination for the two-per-revolution frequency of the airframe. Four bolts and a brace mount the LIVE to the main rotor transmission. In turn, arms extending from the LIVE mount it to the aircraft structure. The LIVE is a passive system that allows Bell to get more speed out of the aircraft with less vibration for more passenger comfort, and it appears to work very well.
The demo pilots flew a variety of manoeuvres and bank angles at speeds ranging from 74 to 124 knots. The ride quality is better than a Bell 206 and overall you get the impression that, vibration wise, you are in a large single or light twin. And that’s no small feat considering the teetering rotor system.
For the demo flight, straight and level at 110 knots was comfortable and the collective did not need much attention, making for an undemanding cruise. However, the 206 Jetty legacy is still there, in that you have to make a conscious effort to maintain coordinated flight and keep the aircraft trimmed.
Gary Phillips enjoyed a 20-minute demonstration flight while Trys Schroeder got the benefit of a ferry to refuel. This gave both our pilots the opportunity to sample the usual range of test items such as autorotations and hovering, sideways and rearward flight.
Manoeuvrability remains excellent and they noted that they were easily able to smoothly move in either direction with relatively little pedal input to keep the tail behind the aircraft. Bell’s demonstration pilot, Brent Berwick, demonstrated speeds closer to the 25 knot sideward and rearward limit with no issues. With hydraulics off, you naturally need significantly more force on the cyclic, but the rates and movements are predictable and control need not suffer.
Turns around the rotor mast were smooth, and pedal turns needed just 78% torque, so loss of tail rotor effectiveness (LTE) seemed a remote threat. Because the 505 uses the L-4 transmission and tail rotor, its tail boom is longer than the 206B. This creates better tail rotor leverage than the famously marginal tail rotor power of the Jet Ranger.
Moving on to autorotations, they found that with the engine switched to IDLE (on both collectives), the 505 autorotated similarly to the 206 with about 2-3 inches of right pedal input. Minimum rate and maximum glide autorotations were flown with a minimum rate of descent at 50 knots of 1,400 fpm, and a maximum glide speed of 70 knots giving 1,850 fpm down. Trys says he was particularly impressed by how slowly it descended at just 45 knots, and had plenty of time to pick his spot and set it up for the landing.
Thanks to the FADEC engine protection, Brent Berwick went as far as the flare before pulling the collective and powering back up. Although the demo helicopter had skid shoes for the run-on, autos were not taken all the way to the ground, as the wear and risk with the intense demo flying would have been intense. The digitally controlled Arrius 2R engine responded rapidly, with little yaw to the right as power increased. This would be a useful feature for teaching power recoveries or full touchdown autorotations where the instructor determines the outcome may be less than desirable. The descent rates were as expected for the high inertia of the heavy blades of Bell’s teetering rotor design.
Direct operating costs (DOC) are important to helicopter users, as is time between overhauls (TBO). Bell predicts about US$420 per hour for the 505’s DOC. For now, some components are life-limited to 500 hours, pending fatigue testing. Bell says the goal is for all major components to have at least a 3,000-hour TBO.
The base price for the 505 is around US$1.2 million, but there are a lot of extra-cost options, and Bell is still working on certifying some of them, such as the rotor brake, air conditioning, Bose headset adapter, cargo hook and cargo hook mirror. All of those should be approved by mid-2017. Bell still plans to add a wire strike protection kit, hard points to mount cameras, searchlight and loud hailers, and high-skid landing gear. Later we can expect an autopilot, and even automatic door openers and a new access panel to wash the engine without removing the entire cowling.
The 505 Jet Ranger X does a good job of meeting Bell’s goals for power, digital engine control, cabin room, visibility and price. At about US$1.2 million for a base aircraft in 2017, it will compete well in the entry-level light helicopter market.
Gary Phillips summed up the 505 as follows: “My observation was that it handles somewhere between the Bell Jet Ranger and Long Ranger, but that is where the similarity ends. The modern avionics and cockpit layout really enhance the flying experience while reducing pilot workload. Engine start and management are a breeze, thanks to the dual channel FADEC and, due to the engine power, the overall performance is excellent. A simulated engine failure showed that the 505 is going to be an excellent training helicopter, as the autorotation turned out to be a non-event. The 505 is ideally suited to our market, and is going to be a great success!”
Trys reckons the 505 has a great combination of space, speed, power and agility, and is above all, easy to fly. Trys has gone so far as to buy a ‘his and hers’, as his wife Dorothy also flies their 407GX. He believes Dorothy and friend Vicky Sankey will be the first woman owners to be checked out on the 505, which he hopes to have delivered in Dubai in December.
In summary, Bell has stuck with what it knows in bringing the 505 to market. The aircraft has a proven rotor and transmission from the 206, but it also has a much more user-friendly cabin, a fully integrated avionics system, and a more powerful engine. The legions of died in the wool Bell fans should be very happy.