If you’d have asked someone in the 1970s to draw you a helicopter, the chances are it would have looked like a Bell 206 Jet Ranger. Over 8400 were produced after the first delivery in 1967, and they were used for almost everything between delivering businesspeople to boardrooms and carrying casualties to hospitals. In over 40 years the underlying design barely changed, and the Jet Ranger has probably been flown and loved by more pilots than any other helicopter.
So when Bell announced the end of production in 2010, there was a collective intake of breath. But by 2013, the company had come to their senses and light helicopter owners all over the world could breathe once more, as Bell Helicopter announced their Short Light Single (SLS) concept. Bell had so much confidence in their new helicopter that they bestowed upon it the vaunted Jet Ranger title. The question was, would the X live up to the family name? Eight years later, I was kindly hosted by Robert Hields at Leeds Airport to answer that question.
Eye of the beholder
Depending on who you ask, the Jet Ranger X has either had a facelift or some sort of freak accident. Foregoing the distinctive Bell nose, the more aerodynamic form of the 505 divided opinion as soon as it was revealed. While it is a clean-sheet design the transmission comes straight from the Bell 206L-4 Long Ranger, which is why it has a longer tail boom than the original Jet Ranger models.
Preparing the aircraft for flight is not at all onerous and the external walk-round can be completed in just a few minutes. It’s necessary to use the open baggage bay as a footstep to clamber up the side and check the transmission bay, and while Bell do provide a pip pin to prevent the door shutting in the wind and leaving you stranded, I couldn’t help thinking that a gas strut would have seemed like less of an afterthought. The same goes for the slotted horizontal stabiliser, slung under the tail boom by means of a bracket and completely devoid of the aerodynamic finesse of the front-end.
Boarding the aircraft is straight forward for those occupying either of the front two seats, thanks to a large crew door on each side, and getting into any three of the seats in the back is much easier from the left by means of a clamshell door fitted on that side.
Whatever onlookers might say about the aircraft’s external appearance, there is no denying that the new design has made a radical improvement to the view from within. The vast moulded acrylic windshield allows the front seat occupants excellent visibility, and passengers in the back can also enjoy the view even if they’re seated in the centre. Centre seat occupants of the 206 had little to see except the central pillar between the pilots, but in the Jet Ranger X this is arguably the best seat in the (back of) the house, with an unobstructed view forward.
Passengers will also enjoy the additional 25cm (10 inches) of cabin width, which allows three full-width energy-absorbing seats in the rear, while anyone moving cargo will appreciate the ease with which those seats can be removed to leave a completely flat floor behind the pilot. Simply pull a tab behind the seat and hinge it forward and it can be lifted out by a single person. Any or all of the three rear seats are removable in this fashion.
View from within
However good the view was in the back though, I wasn’t going to be coaxed out of the front. The Bell 505 can be flown solo from either front seat, but I went with tradition and installed myself into the front right, with Robert next to me.
Starting couldn’t really be any more straightforward. A small handful of checks ensure that the battery voltage is sufficient and allow the Garmin G1000H avionics to test all the necessary alerts and alarms. After that it’s simply a case of turning the engine control to Start/Run, and letting the software engineers at Safran take care of starting the single Arrius 2R engine, which is entirely controlled by a twin-channel FADEC (Full Authority Digital Engine Control) throughout the entire flight envelope. This selection of powerplant marks another departure for Bell Helicopter, being the first time that a Safran engine has been paired with one of their aircraft.
It also marked new territory for me, as it’s the first helicopter I’ve ever flown without any manual fuel control whatsoever. Instead of a rotating throttle, each collective is fitted with a large red switched marked FLY at the top and IDLE below. The engine will govern with either switch selected to fly.
The FADEC kept the Nr (rotor RPM) rock steady at 104% as I picked the Jet Ranger X up into a 5-foot hover and spent a few minutes getting used to the handling. It didn’t take long to get comfortable. The aircraft doesn’t have any stability augmentation, but it doesn’t need it in the hover; the controls are just firm enough to be direct without it feeling twitchy. The longer moment arm to the tail rotor provided by the L-4 transmission gives it ample yaw authority. I later flew the aircraft with the wind at its 25-knot limit for sideways flight, and while turning the tail through the wind in such conditions required a little finesse, there was plenty left in the pedals to control the rate of rotation.
While the main rotor controls are hydraulically assisted using a single boost system, tail rotor pitch is directly controlled by means of cables. In the event that the hydraulic system fails, which Robert simulated by switching the hydraulics off, the cyclic and collective controls become much stiffer but the aircraft is still easily controlled to a hover landing.
The transition and climb were a non-event, with the 505 able to accelerate up to its 135kt Vne (never exceed speed) with Robert and I on board once level at 2000 feet. You wouldn’t want to stay here for too long, as while the vibration was manageable it wasn’t comfortable, although the ungainly horizontal stab did a good job of keeping the attitude comfortable in both the 60kt climb and high-speed cruise.
Easing off to 120kt provided a much more comfortable ride, and I eventually settled for 110kt to reduce the wind noise as I was missing my usual Bose A20 headset. Cruising in the 505 was unremarkable, but a fair bit smoother than in the 206, thanks to the LIVE (Liquid Inertia Vibration Elimination) mounts that do an excellent job isolating the fuselage from main gearbox vibration.
The widely used Garmin G1000H avionics provide a PFD (Primary Flight Display) and MFD (Multi Function Display) that will of course keep you appraised of your orientation, position and power, but I found myself missing proper VFR charts and the detail that comes with smaller scale maps. Charting apps like Airbox’s RunwayHD are far easier than either juggling a paper map or wrangling the avionics to find landing sites that aren’t in the Garmin database, and that’s likely to apply to a lot of places that operators of the 505 want to go.
Once away from the airport I replaced the engine instruments on the MFD with a map, and the Power Situation Indicator automatically appeared instead on the PFD. Reading the instruments is no longer the chameleon act it once was, with pilots trying to read various gauges simultaneously. The Garmin avionics in the 505 combine all of the engine operating variables into one needle, which displays power as a percentage of the first limit that it calculates you will reach. Venturing into time-limited power levels will result in a change of colour of the needle to either amber or red, according to urgency, and a timer counting down the allowable time remaining at that power level. All exceedances except Nr are recorded and generate cautions that can only be cleared by an engineer.
While only minor nudges were necessary to maintain attitude and direction, they were constant, and I can imagine that the Genesys HeliSAS autopilot that was recently certified on the 505 will be popular among customers anticipating long cruise times. Garmin are also expecting to certify their own GFC600H autopilot on the aircraft in due course.
Joining the circuit at Sherburn-In-Elmet, Robert demonstrated an autorotation to landing and then it was my turn. Handling in autorotation was a breeze, with only minor adjustments necessary to collective position to keep the Nr under control. The blades have plenty of inertia too, granting a generous margin for error in the final stages.
Flying a few quick-stops, the aircraft behaved impeccably, being spritely and responsive on the controls. Even agricultural handling with fairly rapid and pronounced collective inputs failed to catch the FADEC out, and the Nr remained pegged throughout. The large transparencies definitely made the attitudes easy to see, although even with the outside air temperature only reaching into the early twenties centigrade, direct sunlight elevated the cockpit temperature to an uncomfortable level without the (optional) sliding window vents, and it turns out that the fans are only there to keep the avionics cool. Less of a problem at higher altitude and higher speed, but the lack of ram air in the hover left me over heating.
Before retuning to Leeds, we flew an approach and landing within the relatively confined area of the aircraft owner’s back garden. Still sweating, I was nevertheless grateful again for the great visibility, in particular forwards and down during the approach. Landing was a non-event, even on a 5 degree slope. However, Robert explained that with three passengers in the back, the 505 wants to hover relatively nose high so good tail awareness is required.
All too soon it was time for a leisurely 100kt transit back to Leeds, but before entering their airspace, Robert had one last trick up his sleeve. At 2500 feet he directed me to enter a hover and then pull to 100% power. The result was nearly 2000 feet per minute rate of climb. Granted, we were fairly light on fuel but that kind of excess power will not only be very gladly received on hot days in the mountains, but also helps to insure against inexperienced hands running out of talent and power at the same time.
Once back on the Leeds airport south dispersal, shutting down was even less complex than starting, with no requirement to allow the engine to cool down as on the Rolls Royce-equipped 206.
Stepping out of the 505 as a thunderstorm rattled its way towards us, I chatted to Robert about the utility of the aircraft. While he does have one student about to complete their PPL on the Jet Ranger X, the expense of a turbine helicopter predictably limits its appeal as a first type. For a first turbine or a personal helicopter though, the relatively vice-free handling and decent useful load make it attractive. Passengers in particular are better served than in any competing types, with more room and a better view, and pilots will benefit from the power and ease of handling provided by the FADEC.
So can the 505 repeat the success of the original Jet Ranger? On paper, the X has everything that made its forebears so popular and more besides. No other helicopter in its class has the sort of technology that Bell are providing as standard in the 505, less still the almost gratuitous excess power that Bell have provided courtesy of Safran, whose engine provides almost twice the power of the 505’s closest rival. But the original Jet Ranger was virtually the only light civil helicopter available with more than two seats for almost thirty years, and this was undoubtedly a factor in its success.
While the 505 is proving popular with operators in the USA who are using it for utility and public service missions, competition now is much fiercer and its chief rival – the turbine-powered Robinson R66 – has already sold over 1000 units compared with just over 300 of the Jet Ranger X. In Europe particularly, Bell will find it hard to usurp the established types in those roles with the single-engine 505.
This leaves the Jet Ranger X fighting for space in the private and charter market, competing against the R66 and its own ancestors – many of whom are still gainfully employed there, and most of which are available for less than the approximately $1.4m asking price for a used 505. While this makes running costs and cost per mile seem expensive, the figures do not account for down-time or expenses of mistreatment that a FADEC could prevent.
And this surely is a key selling point for Bell Helicopters. Coming equipped with tech for the next decade rather than the last, perhaps the ‘contemporary’ look of the 505 shouldn’t have been such a surprise. The message from Bell appears to be that they are designing for the future, rather than resting on prior success.