Flight test: Bell 505 Jet Rangerx

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?

Pilot - - CONTENTS - Words: Pat Malone Pho­tos: Philip White­man

Long awaited, the brand new tur­bine he­li­copter lives up to our flight-tester's ex­pec­ta­tions − fa­mil­iar but so much bet­ter

At last… it’s here! The first new light sin­gle­tur­bine 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!

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 twohe­li­copter 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 right­seat 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 orig­i­nal­lyun­chal­lenged 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.

TOP TO BOT­TOM: fixed bal­last and wire­sus­pended vi­bra­tion damp­ing weight at the end of the tail boom; tubu­lar pod fuse­lage frame, vis­i­ble through in­spec­tion hatch; and the fuse­lage mounted fuel filler

CLOCK­WISE FROM ABOVE: Garmin G1000H glass panel, here with en­gine and ro­tor data on left panel ‘makes ev­ery­thing a dod­dle’; while the seats are fixed, the torque ped­als are ground ad­justable; and the over­head ro­tor brake – a $13,000 op­tion

Split­ting from the cam­era ship and ‘pulling the limit out to 100 per cent... we raced across Dover har­bour at 130 knots’

ABOVE: demon­stra­tor’s bat­tle­ship grey con­trasts with lo­cal oilseed rape crop

BE­LOW: while at other times the striped ro­tor blades dis­tin­guish the Bell from the back­drop

BE­LOW: end of sor­tie – once you are on the ground the FADEC will man­age the tur­bine shut-down for you

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