Replacing an icon of the rotorcraft industry was never going to be easy. Since its arrival in the mid-1960s the Bell Helicopter 206 Jet Ranger had dominated – if not invented – the market for light, single-engined turbine helicopters. And then in 2010 production of the class-leader – by then in its 206B3 iteration – was halted. Bell had nothing with which to replace its stalwart and effectively vacated the market segment. This was rapidly colonised by Torrance, California-based Robinson Helicopter which in late 2010 certificated its turbine-powered R66. Over the next four years Robinson went on to deliver roughly 500 examples of the near $850,000, Rolls-Royce RR300-powered helicopter, finding a combination of price and capability that resonated with the market.
Whatever the focus at Fort Worth, Texas-headquartered Bell and its rationale for dropping the 206, the airframer was unlikely to look at those numbers and not pay attention. After all, it is a brave manufacturer that turns its nose up at a share of a market worth over $100 million each year. So, fast forward to the Paris air show in 2013 and Bell unveiled its plans to re-enter the segment with what at the time it called the short light single. This was later rebranded as the 505 Jet Ranger X in a clear embrace of its legendary predecessor. Although you could be forgiven for assuming this to be a cynical marketing ploy on Bell’s part, the new helicopter – priced at $1.077 million – is clearly designed to appeal to the same entrepreneurial consumers as its illustrious forebear.
Bell’s challenge, however, is to deliver all that a modern owner or pilot – often one and the same person – might want from a helicopter, without making the 505 so expensive as to bring a white elephant to the market. After all, it will not have escaped the US manufacturer’s attention that Airbus Helicopters has recently struggled to shift more than 10 units per year of its $2 million H120 Colibri.
A case of being pulled in two opposing directions? Perhaps. But a quick glance at the Jet Ranger X’s specification sheet and you can see how Bell has tried to answer that conundrum. On the one hand you have a full glass cockpit based on Garmin’s G1000 flightdeck, a new engine in the form of the Turbomeca Arrius 2R, and extensive use of carbonfibre and composite material throughout the helicopter. And on the other, Bell has reused the two-bladed main rotor assembly, tail rotor, gearbox and around 80% of the driveshafts from its 206L4 Long Ranger, plus an aft fuselage structure which underneath the composite outer panels is the same welded steel truss design first seen on its iconic model 47 way back in the 1950s.
“We make a lot of fancy products,” says 505 programme director David Smith, “those that cost $5, $10, $15 million. Those don’t appeal as much to someone who is coming out of the military, for example, who has aviation experience, very good skills and can fly an aircraft.
“If you want to start a business, you can finance $1 million. That can be done. That’s a sweet spot. So that’s a big opportunity for this product.”
And clearly there is demand. So far Bell has notched up around 340 “heavily deposited” commitments for the 505, meaning it has “locked out [the] first three years of production”, says Smith.
Bell has an aggressive timescale for the programme: service entry is anticipated in under three years from its launch.
Two flight-test articles have so far been produced at Bell’s Mirabel, Canada facility. The first took to the skies on 10 November 2014 – slightly ahead of schedule – with the second example following on 26 February this year. “It was effectively the fastest time to first flight in Bell’s recent history, if not the wider industry as well,” notes Smith, proudly.
Since then, the two aircraft have accumulated a total of 180 flight hours and are now well into the certification phase of the programme, with the “vast majority” of test activity to be complete by year-end. Transport Canada approval is anticipated in early 2016, with first delivery following “as early as we possibly can”.
A third prototype was being painted in early June, ahead of its maiden sortie scheduled for “the coming weeks”. The relatively lengthy gap between the second and third flight-test aircraft is because the latter incorporates all 15 optional kits for the 505, such as folding windows on the doors, several safety upgrades to the avionics and a cargo hook. All these are integrated and tested to allow “quick delivery of aircraft with that capability”, says Smith.
Some minor changes have been incorporated since the start of flight testing, however. The most visible of these has been to the Jet Ranger X’s horizontal stabiliser, which has been reshaped to improve the stability of the helicopter in two crucial phases of flight – maintaining a true hover and the transition to forward flight, says Smith.
“It was a nice opportunity to see the team respond to experimentation. It was fun to watch,” he says of the process.
Overall, says Smith, Bell is happy with the way the helicopter handles. “We have done a lot of work on its high- and low-speed controllability so it flies as well as, or in some cases better than, our current fleet.”
The design is now “fully vetted”, he says. “We know that we have an aircraft that we will certificate and the customer can fly and be happy with its performance.”
With what is effectively a frozen design, Bell and its suppliers are beginning to manufacture long-lead components for the first customer helicopter. For example, the first production engine is currently undergoing testing at manufacturer Turbomeca’s Bordes facility in southwest France.
However, work on serial production aircraft does not really get under way until the opening of Bell’s new purpose-built final assembly line for the 505 in Lafayette, Louisiana later this year. The airframer is performing final checks on the plant before taking possession in the coming months, and then in “late summer or early fall” components like the fuselage, cockpit, structural truss and transmission “will start arriving together”.
Those components are drawn from far and wide. Smith is keen to stress the global nature of the supply chain, which aside from subcontractors in North America and Mexico, also includes companies in France, Italy and the UK, making the European contribution greater than on other Bell programmes.
“We have integrated components from all around the world to make this aircraft to schedule,” says Smith.
Bell has also taken a decision to deepen its relationship with key suppliers in order to hand them responsibility for certain systems. For example, Bell has contracted a UK-based firm, previously a supplier of fuel cells to the manufacturer on other platforms, to undertake integration of the entire fuel system.
“It has given us a closer relationship with one supplier rather than a more complex one with 10 suppliers,” says Smith.
That effort has not been solely confined to the aerospace industry; for instance, to source the 505’s oil heat exchangers technology from adjacent markets was evaluated.
The welded steel truss utilised in the aft fuselage structure has also helped Bell achieve its aims around cost and simplicity of construction. Although the design harks back to the early days of helicopter design, that does not necessarily make it bad or outdated. In fact, Smith says, as much of the Jet Ranger X fleet will “be roughing it for much of their lives”, what operators need is “something rugged and difficult to damage”.
Using welded steel also has a second benefit in that “it greatly improves” Bell’s ability to produce – or for that matter repair, given its relative simplicity – the structure “anywhere around the world”. Aside from an ability to localise production as required, it also provides a larger potential supplier base with which to deal with volume fluctuations. “It’s a very flexible process,” says Smith. “We are going to sell so many of these that we will need to scale quickly to build enough.”
However, that is not to say that more advanced materials have not also been employed. The vast majority of the 505’s outer surface is carbonfibre. However, the programme has taken advantage of research carried out elsewhere in Bell on composite production that has helped make the process more cost-effective and risk-free.
The appropriation of the 206L4’s 11.3m-diamter rotor and other dynamic components such as the two-blade tail rotor has also helped to de-risk the programme using “proven, mature technology”, which “gave us great confidence that we wouldn’t encounter any flight-test surprises”, says Smith.
“It takes risk out of the equation that otherwise an engineer will accommodate for with weight or cost.”
While the attempt to broaden the supplier base is perhaps less of a challenge given the global nature of the aerospace industry, one interesting aspect is that, for the very first time, Bell and French engine firm Turbomeca are working together.
Smith describes the 504shp (376kW) Arrius 2R’s performance as “problem-free” during flight testing. The only issue that has been thrown up is as a result of the control laws in the powerplant’s dual-channel FADEC system. These have required minor modification to allow Bell to perform simulated engine outs for autorotation tuition, making the 505 “more similar to what our current fleet does with manually controlled engines”.
The decision to integrate a dual-channel FADEC system on the 505 suggests that Bell’s price-sensitive philosophy on the light helicopter market does not rule out adding the most advanced technologies if they add value – in this case making the aircraft safer and easier to operate.
That also applies to the cockpit, where Bell is integrating Garmin’s G1000 avionics suite – a departure for the light helicopter segment, where the baseline offering is usually an analogue-based flightdeck. While digital conversion can be performed on the aftermarket, in Bell’s view, retrofitted systems are often poorly integrated solutions.
Aside from the integration benefits, the 505 will also feature the standard G1000 functionality offered on Bell’s more expensive products, including an automatic speech recognition system that allows pilots to change radio channels. Options include a semi-synthetic vision display and safety features such as HTAWS and TCAS.
Other additions to the baseline aircraft since the programme was launched include an engine inlet barrier filter, high visibility rotor blades and heated pitot tubes.
Testing activities this year will ramp up as the latest flying prototype comes on stream. Areas still to be covered include engine failure tests, hot and high evaluations – which will start in Colorado in the coming weeks – and handling trials, which will be conducted using the third test vehicle later in 2015.
There is clearly still a lot to be done, but the rate of progress so far gives Bell confidence that it will deliver on its promises and early in 2016 the first customer 505 will be adding a new chapter to the Jet Ranger’s story.
“The rest of the year is going to be very interesting,” says Smith.