The FAA type certification of the Bell 505 JRX signaled Bell Helicopter’s return to the short light single market, a full seven years since ceasing production on the tried and tested Bell 206 line in 2010.
The Bell 206 started life as a project that almost wasn’t. The original design dubbed the Bell YOH-4 was unsuccessful in securing the Army design contract it was created to fill. Bell was not discouraged, however, and resubmitted the design as the D-250 in 1961 for the United States Navy design competition. In 1962, the Bell design was awarded a further development contract after the prototype was selected out of a field of twelve other manufacturers to continue to test phase. The original design of the 206 was referred to by military aviators at the time as the “ugly duckling,” the helicopters appearance, one of the factors that saw it eliminated from selection after the flight testing phase in favor of the Hughes OH-6. The initial military version was only capable of seating three crew, had limited cargo space; in addition to the early appearance of what was to become the Bell 206 being a far cry from the modern shape still seen today.
Bell’s success with the redesigned more sleek and appealing 206A model was one that would become a feat that is currently unequaled in the helicopter industry and an ongoing legacy that will be hard to beat for any current competitor. The 206 airframe would go on to have great success in military markets as the OH-58 and produce over eight thousand airframes sold to almost every country in the world performing a wide variety of missions over the nearly fifty years that Bell produced variations of the 206 airframes.
With the formal announcement and prototype unveiling of the Bell 505 JRX at Heli-Expo in 2014 in Anaheim California, Bell knew the potential existed to develop a helicopter that could again eclipse the market in the short light single market. Initial customer interest was at a level not seen in many years as potential buyers lined up to take their first look at the mock-ups on the floor of the show and put down their deposits for a spot in the delivery line.
Fast forward to December 22nd, 2017 and the long-awaited initial certification of the 505 was granted by Transport Canada after extensive testing, evaluations, resulting in hundreds of minor adjustments and tweaks. Bell’s three test vehicles completed hundreds of hours of testing during development that would eventually lead to the aircraft’s successful certification.
Canadian certification opened up the doors for Bell to begin to train clients that would soon be able to start accepting delivery of their new helicopters. Training commenced at Bell Helicopter headquarters in Hurst, Texas at the company’s Training Center shortly after certification. Beginning with the training of factory pilots that would start training for new pilots flying the airframe. Company pilots were instructed by Bell’s Mirabel-based test pilots, progressing to a handful of customers just weeks before this year’s Heli-Expo in Dallas. The timing, also opening up opportunities for Bell to conduct demo flights during Heli-Expo to further showcase the results of years of development and an unconventional approach to developing this airframe, involving input from a select group of industry professionals and customers. This approach to development, starting years before the 2014 Heli-Expo unveiling.
Bell’s unique approach would shape the development of the helicopter in a way that would see it not only have the features that many customers wanted – but bring the helicopter to market many years sooner than traditional helicopters developed from the ground up. This thanks to the use of legacy parts that included the main rotor blades, rotor head, tail rotor blades, drive train and transmission from the already certified 206 L4 airframe. Shaving years of development, testing and certification delays common with airframes built from the ground up. With the legacy approach, costs dropped significantly from that of a newly designed helicopter, making the 505 not only fast but cost-effective.
The FAA certification for the Bell 505 JRX which was expected to be a mere formality did not arrive in short order behind the Canadian certification as expected for Bell. The significant delay in certification that upon further investigation, led to unconfirmed reports of further testing requested by the FAA to be carried out by Bell to prove the airworthiness and safe performance of an inlet barrier filter system that was already in use on various other aircraft without issue. Nonetheless, the FAA required Bell to complete that testing again along with some other small items that had also already been verified through Canadian testing to satisfy the requirements of the certification process.
THE FINAL STEP
Certification of the 505 was granted by Australia’s CASA in late April of 2017, with the FAA finally following suit on June 8th, 2017 granting final approval for U.S. certification. The last move by the FAA, although longer than expected, opened the floodgates for Bell to finally begin ramping up the production line at their Mirabel, Canada manufacturing facility. Bell wasted no time in announcing the delivery of three more Bell 505’s to a Canadian customer on June 15th of this year.
It appears of late that there are some in the industry who have already discredited the 505 without having the chance to fly the 505 Jetranger X or even seeing the helicopter in person. Some pilots, commenting on social media appearing intent to discredit the helicopter based on its appearance alone. Ranging from one end of the spectrum to the other, commentary that likened the design of the 505 to that of an anteater to those who state their distaste emphatically for the 505’s modern appearance, skid shape, height, and other cosmetic references. Looking for minor issues to express their dislike in scenes reminiscent of almost every newly designed helicopter released in the last decade featuring any drastic appearance change. Many have focused attention on Bell’s use of legacy L4 parts, labeling the new short light single as a “206 with a new skin.”
Having spent just under five hours at the controls of the new Bell 505 JRX during a cross-country flight from Texas to Arizona recently, I would disagree with much of the negative commentary based on my personal experience having now flown it for more than just a thirty-minute test flight as those who may have been fortunate enough to fly one of the demo ships at Heli Expo. Pylon Aviation CEO Scott Urschel, who owns the first Bell 505 sold by Bell Helicopter and I recently flew the 505 from Texas to Arizona, where it will be based in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler, Arizona. In my limited experience at the controls of the new short light single, the commentary frequently witnessed on social media referring to the 505 as “new skin, old aircraft” would not be the way I would describe the Bell 505 Jetranger X after having flown it.
I am by no means a highly experienced pilot and usually leave these types of reports to my more experienced contributors with thousands of hours in the cockpit. However, flying the Bell 505 JRX and being given the opportunity to become the first person in the world to receive non-factory training and instruction in the Bell 505 was an opportunity I could not pass up. Having been there for many firsts of the 505, from filming the initial curtain drop on the public unveiling in 2014 all the way through the certification process, the 505 had become something I wanted to fly for a long time.
For a layman like myself, the 505 with its dual Garmin G1000 units and synthetic vision was intimidating at first, but once you settle into flying the helicopter, the workload or lack thereof makes flying the helicopter a pleasurable experience. With much less cockpit management required in flight than the company’s previous flagship – the 206, along with the absurdly easy and fast start-up, this helicopter shows that customers had a say in many of the design elements of the 505.
The feedback given to Bell during development eliminated many pilot annoyances and pet peeves that existed in older models. Starting the helicopter requires just the flick of a switch on the collective to engage the dual FADEC which then automatically manages the rest of the start process of the Turbomecca Arius 2R engine. A far cry from the two handed start-ups required in the 206 variants. A hot start now becoming a practical thing of the past with the new dual FADEC system when compared to the relative ease in which you could hot start the conventional Rolls Royce engine of its predecessor with an accidental button push or time miscalculation. Starting the dual FADEC start process of the helicopter has you ready to fly in under five minutes from the time you buckle your seatbelt with far less initial concern as had in the 206 variant.
When Bell touted some very impressive numbers on range performance, climb rate and speed in the lead up to its final certification, I, like many, was initially skeptical of the claim. Although I had heard feedback throughout the testing process that the claims made by Bell were on point from Scott – he also noted that several things that the industry would soon see when deliveries started, was that Bell in some cases had understated the performance capability of the 505 when compared to its listed performance numbers, so I was eager to see how the helicopter performed as the new kid on the block in the short light single market.
We planned to depart Love Field in Dallas at around 9:30 bound for Stellar Airpark just outside of Phoenix, Arizona as inclement weather was closing in fast to the Dallas metropolitan area. After clearing the class B airspace around the Dallas Metro area, our tailwinds as we made past Grand Prairie were gusting to 25 knots. The ride, however, had me checking that AWOS notifications were correct, as the ride in the 505 did not feel like we were battling the kind of winds that in a similarly sized turbine would have you feeling a little beat up after landing on your first fuel stop.
As we transitioned into quieter airspace headed towards New Mexico, I noted the yaw stability of the 505 far exceeds that of similar helicopters in the class. As the wind shifted direction several times while we skirted a storm front on our way through Texas, we were hit with several high wind gusts. The 505 only once showing any perceptible reaction, moving a few degrees off center from a wild gust, then returning with minimal input. Maximum Cruise Power (MCP) was attained comfortably making it a breeze to hold a steady speed between 110 to 120 knots as desired thanks to the dual FADEC system, which at MCP, remained in the green at 104% NR and never deviated with the exception of the two times it was intentionally pushed past the transient limits to show other performance gains. Controlling the speed of the helicopter was also a breeze – collective friction was rock solid with no slippage or need twist down hard to ensure it held or keep downward pressure on the collective. When needing to take full control of the collective, there was no need to adjust friction more than slightly from your in-flight setting to allow free movement without battling to find a sweet spot as I have found in numerous other helicopters over the years.
CHASING THE BALL
Although the 505’s anti-torque pedals are not hydraulically assisted as in some helicopters, the 505’s pedals were impressively responsive with just the right amount of pushback when holding the helicopter in trim during cruise flight. There is little need to “dance” on the pedals at any point due to the incredibly well balanced and reliable tail rotor system from what I could tell during our flight. The pedal sensitivity not only making it easy to fly but easy to maneuver in any stage of flight.
I recall flying several piston powered helicopters and always “chasing the ball” to maintain a decent trim on more than one occasion. Although Scott made it a point to laugh at me several times as my focus on checking the many bells and whistles of the helicopter saw the 505 slowly drift out of trim, once I returned my attention to the task – getting back into trim was effortless. Even with some of the high tail winds we experienced, it was a breeze even for this relatively inexperienced guy.
After getting acquainted with the systems and functionality of the G1000 and the synthetic vision of the 505, we flew on to our first fuel stop in Midland, Texas, as the inclement weather gave way to blue skies, sun, and the stifling heat of the Texas summer. Our fuel stop is where is where the rest of our flight became a lot less comfortable.
Urschel’s 505 JRX was the first delivery, which was made prior to the certification of the air conditioning for the 505, which has since been approved. For convenience, Urschel decided that he would have the air conditioning and rotor brake (another item that has since been approved) installed in Phoenix by Bell subsidiary Able Engineering.
Urschel’s solution for our cross country flight in the hot summer sun, was his custom modified RCTIC cooler that is specifically manufactured for use in aircraft that lack air conditioning. The cooler filled with ice is equipped with two large fans that push cold air out through several plastic pipes. The system is simple and ingenious…when it works of course.
Our rudimentary system, that drew its power from the 505 JRX’s 28-volt power outlet, decided that within minutes of the scorching Texas sun showing up in full force, that it would go on strike. After thirty minutes of checking everything that we had access to in the cooler and checking the outlet had power, it was time to set off again on the rest of our journey, albeit slightly less comfortable as we sweltered in the raging heat of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.
TO CLIMB….AND CLIMB
One of the comments during the development that I recalled Scott speaking about with excitement was the climb rate of the 505 JRX. With that in mind, I was eager to test the climb rate characteristics of the new helicopter to see what kind of performance it would give in the 100+ degree temps we were experiencing as we landed for our next fuel stop.
Doing a max performance takeoff in many smaller helicopters, before you progress to the extra power offered by the second engine of a twin, requires paying close attention to the gauges as you climb out to ensure you keep your RPM’s out of the red. After getting light on the skids in the 505 and pulling enough collective to start climbing, it was evident that the 505 was designed for this kind of performance. Pushing through 500 feet per minute (FPM) climb rate then up to 1000 FPM was effortless, the screen still showing 104% NR with power settings remaining in the green while climbing towards 2000 FPM. Scott then demonstrated the agility of the FADEC system – performing an aggressive collective movement to demonstrate no matter what the flight conditions, turbulence, torque, or temperature difference throughout our flight, the NR and power remained rock steady.
The 505s predecessor I suspect would have struggled through a similar maneuver loaded with full fuel, 360 pounds of human cargo and probably another hundred pounds of weight not including the aircraft when counting the non-functional ice chest and my camera equipment in the back of the helicopter.
Our last stop before leaving Texas saw us arrive in El Paso, Texas, by the U.S./Mexico border to pick up a passenger. Our passenger was about to become the youngest person in the world to fly the new Bell 505 JRX. Caden Urschel, Scott Urschel’s fourteen-year-old son, had flown into El Paso to meet us and get some experience flying his dad’s newest acquisition after hearing so much about the new helicopter during his father’s trips to Canada to provide flight testing feedback during development.
At 14 years of age, Caden has enough hours logged flying helicopters like the AS350 and MD500 under the expert instruction of his Dad, that, when added to his fixed wing time – that includes flying a Cessna Citation under Scott’s instruction, equates to one of the most well-rounded young aviators that I have seen to date.
Without hesitation, after a short briefing on the systems and differences in flight characteristics to an A-Star, the helicopter Caden has most frequently flown, Urschel junior picked up the 505 and began taxing us out for departure like a pro. Having first flown with his dad at age 8, Caden Urschel strikes you more like a seasoned aviator with his matter of fact approach to flying. His initial impressions after flying the helicopter for about 30 minutes were similar to my first impressions on the ease of flying the new 505.
It was during the next leg of the flight into New Mexico that I moved into the back seat; giving me the ability to pay more close attention to smaller details as Caden was given the controls under Scott’s close supervision. Watching the augmented reality system in the Garmin G1000 replicate the terrain seen in front of us was impressive. The terrain mapping synthetic vision projecting the trajectory of the helicopter as the angle, climb rate and speed of the aircraft changed in flight was seamless, providing needed on screen warnings when angles changed, but quickly recalculating the approach angles to ensure the helicopter would clear the mountainous terrain ahead.
Caden, having had extensive experience using the G1000 terrain mapping and trajectory pointed the helicopter towards the blue space above peaks we were crossed and adjusted his power like a seasoned pro, seemingly unimpressed as we continued flying towards Arizona.
After several crossings at many different elevations, Scott demonstrated the 505 JRX’s ability to climb with only slight adjustments to the existing flight profile. A task that according to him after over 8000 flight hours in just about every modern helicopter model there is, that “if this were a 206B3 we would be having a hard time making it through these mountains while we are so hot, high and heavy. The 505 does it effortlessly, that is one of the things I love about it.”
While it is easy to jump on the bandwagon of public opinion based purely on the new appearance of the 505 without having any first hand experience, it really was hard to find anything that I could say was bad about flying the 505, in all honesty, it was the easiest helicopter to fly that I have ever taken to the controls of.
The new Turbomecca Dual FADEC Arrius 2R engine, coupled with the proven legacy parts of the 206L4 in a new lighter shell, give the Bell 505 a performance level that will be hard to beat for those in the same category without a doubt. The max range listed on the Bell website of 306 miles did not equate to what I saw during our flight, but in saying that, I have to qualify that Bell’s numbers were gauged from testing completed at optimal cruise, and we had a timeline to stick to, which meant we were flying at MCP the entire day, which is why our flight range likely dropped from the published numbers slightly.
The maximum range of the 505 JRX is listed by Bell to be 306 miles, but with our frequent altitude changes, terrain variances, and the fact that we were somewhat “hauling” to make some specific time sensitive targets, it was still very close to Bell’s numbers. Of the portion of the flight I flew; I was maintaining a cruise speed of between 110-120 KIAS the whole flight.
So our effective range based on asking more of the helicopter than a leisurely cruise to enjoy the scenery was more in the vicinity of the 265-275 maximum range. Not a deal breaker by any means, and something that will be interesting to follow as more 505’s hit the market and begin working to see collectively what the range variations are for helicopters that will be doing many different types of missions eventually.
IS IT ALL ITS CRACKED UP TO BE?
The short answer to that is yes. Again, in my opinion only. The 505 is still in the very early stages of first deliveries, and like any other A model helicopter design, it will be preceded by several new variants as technology improves and wider customer feedback is taken into consideration. As the 505 JRX evolves, and companies begin to develop more products that will augment and enhance various missions that will be undertaken by operators, it will be interesting to see the direction the helicopter takes and which sector in the industry it begins to become most prevalent in as the 206 decades prior in the charter and ENG markets. It is still an unknown if the 505 JRX will see the same levels of success that the Bell 206 enjoyed over almost 50 years of production, but all the hallmarks are there to say it will have great success, although as the industry and military have evolved since the 206 airframe, it remains to be seen if the 505 can live up to the large number of 206 Jetrangers that were produced.
With a line of 300 orders that await delivery, if feedback from early adopters of the platform continues to be positive, the 505 will begin life as a highly sought after aircraft by operators around the world. Deliveries from Bell’s Mirabel production facility continue to roll off the production line as fast as Bell can make them – but the real test for the 505 remains in seeing its continued sales potential once the backlog of orders is cleared and the regular purchase and delivery period outside of pre-orders and deliveries begin.
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