Flight test: Bell 505 Jet Ranger X
- Credit: Archant
The long-awaited 505 does what it says on the tin – more simply, quicker and better than the much-loved JetRanger. What’s not to like? | Words Pat Malone - Photos Philip Whiteman
At last… it’s here! The first new light single- turbine helicopter since the R66, and all the more eagerly anticipated because it carries a great burden of history and expectation – for it is (drum roll…) the Son of JetRanger!
For almost five years JetRanger aficionados?a category which covers every helicopter pilot with a soul?have been breathlessly awaiting a replacement for the venerable Bell 206, inexplicably cancelled in 2010 after 48 years during which nearly 8,000 were sold. Why kill off a best-seller?
Who knows?but Bell began to have second thoughts after a change at the top, and in 2013 whispers started coming out of their Mirabel headquarters that suggested they planned to reclaim a category they had themselves invented and dominated.
The JetRanger would return, and like the Six Million Dollar Man (you’re too young) they could make him “better than he was before?better… stronger… faster”. And he wouldn’t cost six million bucks, either; one million was the number.
While five years is not a long time to develop a new helicopter?they started with a blank sheet of paper?the rumour mill (and sometimes the sales force) over-promised on delivery dates. As those dates were missed, stories circulated about problems with design, or engineering, or the level of commitment at Bell, or whatever Twitter or the forums chose to invent.
With would-be buyers fretting like kiddies before Christmas (Bell had more than 400 orders before they flew), each delay was keenly felt. But finally?no more sleeps!
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After flying the first ‘Bell 505 Jet Ranger X’ to land on European shores, it is my humble opinion that there will be no disappointed children this Christmas. It is indeed better, stronger, faster. I flew it out to 130 knots and, despite the fact that it retains a two-bladed rotor system, vibration was lower than you’d get with a well-balanced JetRanger at 105.
With 505 shaft horsepower (and a transmission rating of 475shp, compared to the JetRanger’s 317 maximum) it is vastly more powerful than its predecessor. You can fit five full-sized adults inside and, if they’re not too fat to get the door shut, the 505 will take off vertically?even with full fuel. It handles crisply and autorotates like a dandelion seed, even at 45 knots.
The beastly JetRanger bulkhead that cages your passengers like drunks in a paddy wagon is mercifully absent from the 505 and, best of all, you can’t really get a hot start! Never again will you be able to tell a beginner, “if you can start it, you can have it”. Take finger, push button?voilà!
But in true flight review fashion, I start with the whinges. I’m not sure about the looks, especially the front. It doesn’t have the JetRanger’s businesslike beak, the camel-hump on the roof is not aesthetically pleasing, the horizontal stabiliser’s mounting looks like an afterthought, and the cabin seems a little spartan.
These matters are peremptorily dealt with by Gary Slater, co-owner of the Bell dealership Helix AV at Manston; the cabin trimmings, headliner, carpets etc, will be added later but they wanted the demonstrator to be delivered without them rather than incur a further delay.
The horizontal stab was in fact moved forward along the tailboom because it wasn’t powerful enough for the helicopter outside the downwash. And importantly, they didn’t really want it to look like a JetRanger.
Gary speaks as an insider?he was one of thirteen pilots, engineers and operators on Bell’s Customer Advisory Council who kept up a steady flow of advice during the design and build phases, mostly majoring on ‘bigger’ and ‘more power’?and their advice was in fact acted upon.
Gary cites the experience of another helicopter manufacturer, who produced a turbine helicopter that looked almost identical to its piston-engined predecessor. And guess what, they found that people who paid extra for the turbine didn’t want onlookers to mistake it for a piston?so the new Jet Ranger X had to be visibly differentiated from the JetRanger.
Gary already has fifteen paid-up orders for the 505 in the UK (the price went from a million dollars to a million quid during development) so the looks obviously aren’t hurting sales. Eye of the beholder...
We were to fly G-DONE, which was done up in a glossy grey coat ahead of the application of a bespoke paint scheme?it didn’t even have the all-important ‘Jet Ranger X’ written on the side. For a fleeting moment Bell thought of abandoning the name for the new model, but all thirteen members of the advisory council told them they’d be insane to do that?so Jet Ranger X it is.
On to the walkround; in truth there’s not much to check, and everything you need to see is in your face. There are sight glasses for the hydraulics and the transmission. You can shin up the side on generous steps to make sure the head’s still on and the links are fine?it’s got the LongRanger’s rotor system and transmission so it’s tried and tested, but that’s the only legacy item in the new helicopter.
The 206’s monocoque bathtubs have been abandoned in favour of a tube frame covered in composite and aluminium panels, leading to substantial weight savings and reduced manufacturing costs.
And shock of shocks, it’s got a French engine!
For years Safran has been trying to break into the American market, and now it’s got a toe-hold with the Arrius 2R, as customised for the 505. It is said that Rolls-Royce didn’t have an engine with dual FADEC (full authority digital engine control) systems and Pratt & Whitney quoted prices that froze the blood.
I suspect that a side-effect of choosing Safran was to expedite EASA certification, which took a few months compared to four years of pedantic stupidity for the Rolls-Royce-equipped Robinson R66. The Arrius 2R is the most modern version of the Turbomeca Artouste IIIB that’s been around for yonks, and the dual channel FADEC?both running simultaneously?makes handling a joy, improves fuel efficiency and also records engine data for the benefit of the engineers.
With a five-minute rating of 505shp and a max continuous of 459, it wipes the floor with anything previously installed in a JetRanger, and it has a healthy 3,500 hour TBO. Importantly for buyers, Bell retains the product support responsibility for the engine, rather than Safran.
Bell’s support reputation is unimpeachable, while among small one- or two-helicopter operators, French support stinks. So the French will undertake the work, but the North Americans will ride shotgun. Obviously as a new supplier Safran wants to keep Bell happy (one presumes) so there shouldn’t be any problem…
On the right side of the fuselage there’s a hatch into the avionics bay where you’ll find the only circuit-breakers on the ship. There are none at all in the cockpit?Gary says Bell wants to wean pilots off using circuit breakers as switches, or resetting breakers that should not be reset. Hmm. Next to the hatch there’s a big cargo hold you could get a 250 lb person in, at a push.
Along the tailboom Bell has mounted a cambered horizontal stab with a leading-edge slot that improves stability in the climb, and right at the back they have a metal mass that balances out tail rotor vibration. This is a version of the ‘frahm’ system of the 407 and the L4; the 505 also has a passive ‘LIVE’ system?again adopted from the 407?to damp down the two-per-rev vibration from the main rotor.
LIVE stands for Liquid Inertial Vibration Eliminator, and it’s an elastomeric-hydraulic system bolted to the transmission, with arms attaching to the helicopter’s structure. And as we are to find out, it really does the business.
The doors are wide enough to drive a family car through, opening book-style on the left side (only) to allow three passengers access to the back seats. The middle seat is not the dinky joke of yore, it actually fits a person?in fact, all the seats are a vast improvement over the milking stools in the 206, and the legroom in the back is far better.
Getting into the front left seat is work for a very bendy person, given the positions of the step, the collective and the cyclic. The helicopter can be flown from left or right as the fancy takes you. The front seats, oddly, are not adjustable and slide only for getting in and out?the forward (flying) position sets the seat right above the crash protection. The pedals are however adjustable, and the fully forward position was right for me (six foot).
Harnesses are four-point and, as mentioned, having no bulkhead makes for a much friendlier cockpit. The cabin is remarkably roomy – Bell says that at 61 cubic feet it’s half as big again as that of the JetRanger, and I believe it – and there’s ample headroom, even in the back.
The view compares to that of the EC120, with low sills and stupendous all-round visibility, a great improvement on the 206.
The sticks are innocent of trimmings; just a PTT on the cyclic, no coolie hat, none of the buttons they crammed onto the collective in the old days. It doesn’t even have a throttle; although the word ‘throttle’ is written on it, in fact it refers to a two-position rocker switch, ‘idle’ and ‘fly’. You can start up in either regime, and the right-seat collective ‘throttle’ switch overrides the left.
The Garmin’s G1000H glass panel is familiar to many helicopter pilots and makes everything a doddle?engine management, navigation, talking to the outside world, flying the helicopter and suchlike. It’s big enough to see all the parameters without peering too closely, and you can load it with options like synthetic vision and traffic alerts.
You can mix and match the data on right or left screens pretty much as you wish; Gary’s personal preference is for flying instruments on the right screen, engine and rotor on the left, but you’ve always got small engine data displays on the right side. The standby instruments are electronic.
Switch on the battery and the Garmin takes a few seconds to power up. After mentioning exceedences (hopefully stating ‘nil’) it gives you a weight and balance representation, where you just dial in the weights of each POB onto each seat, add the fuel and your C of G comes up on a little balance bar thing.
We were two up and full fuel?nowhere near the 505’s MAUW of 3,680 lb. Empty weight is 2,180 lb, useful load 1,500 lb, and if you need a rhino shifting you can get 1,500 lb on the hook.
Now, with both collective switches at idle and the rotor brake off (if you’ve got one?it’s a $13,000 option) you press the ‘start-run’ button?that’s it. Sit back and watch the First Limit Indicator needle run up the dial and fall back from about sixty per cent, and the Nr indicator come to life.
If it doesn’t, you’ve forgotten the bit about the rotor brake, and somebody’s going to send you a bill for something expensive. The pre-start checklist is very short, but you still have to use it.
To recap briefly on the bad old days, you needed three arms and two brains to start a JetRanger. You’d have both thumbs on buttons on the collective, the stick between your knees, press one button to wind up the N1 turbine and start the igniters, then when N1 reached fifteen per cent, maybe thirteen if you’re lucky, you’d wind the throttle from the detent to the ‘idle’ stop (but don’t take your thumb off the starter) while keeping your other thumb over the detent button to make sure it popped out at the idle setting.
That sent fuel surging into the combustion chamber and whoosh, off you jolly well went. Not finished yet. If the Turbine Outlet Temperature gauge swept up past 793 degrees (and it happened in fractions of a second) you had to push the detent button with your left thumb and back the throttle into the ‘off’ position, and for heaven’s sake don’t take your right thumb off the starter because you needed all the airflow you could get to cool the engine.
If all went well you could take your thumb off the starter when N1 reached 58 per cent and the whole contraption was self-sustaining, but inattention at any point could generate an invoice with your name on it that started at £25,000 and went up into six figures.
But with the 505, it’s even easier! In your own time, simply flick the ‘throttle’ switch on the lever to ‘fly’, the FADEC runs the turbine up and the Nr to 104 per cent, and you’re ready to levitate.
I found the controls firm without play or looseness, the pedals slightly stiffer than I expected?I actually thought Gary still had his feet on them at one point. But oh, the power under the left hand was a revelation. Barely an inch of lever, it seemed, and we were off the ground, holding a hover at about 55 per cent torque.
We started out pulling a few pirouettes for Pilot editor Philip Whiteman, who was taking pictures from a LongRanger limited to sixty knots with the doors off, and given the occasional closeness of our rotors I left the handling to Gary, who has 5,000 hours in Bells alone?but once we’d split from the camera ship I was able to lay the whip to her. Pulling the limit out to 100 per cent and with the five minute ‘max power’ chime sounding, we raced across Dover harbour at 130 knots, and the vibration was nowhere near what I’d expected it to be: the mass dampers and frahm system make a world of difference.
The fuselage remained virtually level, with the horizontal stabiliser working well to keep the tail down. The helicopter feels more like a larger single or a light twin; retaining the advantages of a two-bladed rotor?simplicity, maintenance and hangarage issues?does not have to come at a serious cost in vibration at speed.
At 1,000 feet over the Channel, finding 110 knots straight and level called for just over sixty per cent torque, and she was sucking up about thirty US gallons an hour. Manoeuvrability is excellent and the collective needs little attention under most circumstances; the balance ball takes a little taming, but the habitual JetRanger pilot will settle it down in minutes.
In fact, jumping from a 206 into a 505 should be a doddle if you’re up to speed on Garmin glass?there’s far less to do, and the 505 does it all far better. Non-events just keep happening. Hydraulics off in the cruise is a non-event… the controls stiffen slightly but any adult would be able to maintain flight indefinitely without undue strain, and it’s noticeably better than the JetRanger. Even in the hover, the forces are not outrageous?something like the R66, really.
Autorotation is the ultimate non-event; throttle switch to idle, maybe two or three inches of right pedal and you’ve got weeks and weeks to waste your rotor inertia while you pick a landing spot. Then you might see 1,750fpm on the VSI on the way down and have all that LongRanger inertia to help you touch the planet gently.
Recovering from the autorotation entirely fails to disturb the FADEC, and we saw the same 1,750fpm on the VSI on the way back up, without loss of speed. Pedal turns took the torque indicator up to about 75 per cent, and the tail rotor is a match for the power available?something you can’t always say for the 206, whose pilots always have loss of tail rotor effectiveness in the back of their minds. In fact, the 505 tail boom is two feet longer even than that of the LongRanger, so you’ve got a pretty muscular moment arm. In all big power movements, the FADEC kept the pointers right on the money.
Internal noise suppression is not the 505’s strong point, and it’s likely that even with the headliners and carpets that were, as yet, absent from G-DONE it would not be pleasant to endure a long flight without a headset. That said, the LongRanger isn’t noted for stealth in the audio department, and the 505 is about the same. Our passive David Clarks were okay, but if you’re going to spend £1 million on a 505 you should also budget for a good set of ANR cans.
The absence of a twist-grip throttle feels unusual. With all the fuelling back-up systems, the two computers and two sets of sensors, it shouldn’t be a problem, but there are times when the throttle becomes your only yaw control, and flicking it on or off might not do the business. What happens in case of a stuck pedal? How would you even train for it?
Missing from the package is a stabilisation system like the HeliSAS available in the R66 and the R44. Bell feels the lack and expects to bring a full autopilot to market ‘before the end of the year’, retrofittable to the first 505s. The model is in fact still in development and there are several tweaks in the pipeline, all of them apparently applicable to machines already in service.
With 550 lb of fuel?about 85 US gallons or 336 litres?it should be possible to get two and a half hours out of the machine, although not at 130 knots. If you don’t have a full pax load you might budget for about 200 lb per hour and 120 knots, and the Garmin helpfully gives you range rings. Switching off is as quick and easy as starting up… just turn the switch and let the FADEC do it. There’s no protracted cool-down period; the computers extinguished the turbine in thirty seconds, and we were free to walk away.
It’s clear that the 505 is a solid five-place single turbine, built down to a price to reclaim the JetRanger’s originally-unchallenged position in aviation, and that it does the job admirably. Whether Bell can keep the price within shouting distance of the Robinson R66 remains to be seen.
Eurocopter, or Airbus Helicopters or whatever it’s called today, has abandoned the sector after failing to sell any EC120s for almost two years. Airbus says there simply isn’t enough profit at the bottom to hold their interest, and with their overheads they need the margins they get from bigger kit. Part of Bell’s answer is to create a list of optional items, some of which come as standard on other helicopters.
I’ve mentioned the rotor brake, but you’ll pay $2,600 for a set of ground handling wheels, $6,700 for dual controls, $11,500 for leather seats… Bell seeks to make a virtue of this by saying not every buyer wants a set of wheels as standard?a fleet operator, for instance, might only need a couple no matter how many helicopters he bought.
So what’s the competition? There are still around 4,500 legacy JetRangers out there, some of them available quite cheaply. But even the youngest is eight years old, and most have had lifetimes of good use?for power, for comfort, for the pilot-proof engine, the 505 leaves them for dead.
What’s more, I noticed something as I walked into a hangar full of 206s after our sortie. They all looked… well… old. The EC120 has quit the field; what about the R66? Purchase cost is lower, operating costs are likely to be substantially lower. But it looks like an R44, has a miserable fifth seat, and can’t lift the load.
The 505 is a Bell, it’s a Jet Ranger, it’s at the beginning of its development cycle, you can’t metaphorically poke your finger through the side, and it can tap into that indefinable fount of goodwill towards JetRangers that’s been built up over the last fifty years.
Despite the niggles, it’s a very, very good machine. I believe the JetRanger’s hard-won reputation is safe with the 505.