All photos me too, copyrighted
Even though Eurocopter had ultimately emerged as the victor in the recent tender to re-equip the Croatian Police helicopter squadron – managing to dethrone Bell as the county’s de facto default helicopter supplier – I could not in all honesty complete this run of rotary themes without at least casually mentioning Bell’s losing entry 🙂 .
A brand that has been associated locally with law enforcement ever since the late 60s, Bell has sadly been autorotating steadily downwards for years now, devolving into an almost marginal manufacturer living off little more than its former glory. Indeed, even a casual look at the company’s recent production lineup was enough to reduce one to tears, being made up mostly of models my grandparents would have taken for granted 😀 . The civilian division is especially guilty, having become quite comfortable in its rut of periodic refreshes of models way past their prime. The 407GX, for example, is a warmed-over 407 from the mid 90s, itself a development of the LongRanger (still in production as well!), which was created by stretching a JetRanger II back in the 70s. The 412 doesn’t even need an introduction, its family tree sprouting all the way out of the original long-body UH-1D of 1961.
The company’s military arm lags little behind in terms of complacency, offering only the 407GT (a lightly armed 407GX), the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior (a more thoroughly militarized original 407), the UH-1Y Yankee (a shiny 412) and the AH-1Z Cobra, an upgrade of the first proper US attack helicopter.
One Bell, many whistles
When all was said and done then, up until a few years ago, the last all-new civilian helicopter to come out of the Bell works was the elegant 222 – debuting way back in 1976. The military division had fared somewhat better though, having managed to pull off the MV-22 Osprey in 1989 (despite what was a VERY difficult birth). But for the most part, Bell’s pre-2007 catalog was as refreshing and interesting as a week-old salad… *
* however, the rival Eurocopter can’t boast an all-new offering either 🙂 . The AS.350 Ecurueil is an Aerospatiale handover, like the AS.365 Dauphin and the veteran AS.332 Super Puma (their military versions included). The EC-145 had also started out in life as a late 70s design (the BK-117), as had the EC-135 (the on-off Bo-108) – while technically even the Tiger gunship predates the creation of the company (if only by a few years, having been jointly developed by Aerospatiale and Daimler Aerospace/MBB right before their merger into Eurocopter). The only “pure”, new designs on offer are the EC-120, EC-130 (and even that’s a stretch), EC-175 and the NH90, developed together with AgustaWestland. But, unlike Bell’s refreshes, virtually every Eurocopter upgrade is a significant leap forward in all aspects of the aircraft’s design – and not just a few bits of new tech shoehorned into an airframe that hasn’t changed much since its introduction.
In terms of sheer development speed though, even Eurocopter lags behind the aforementioned AgustaWestland – a company that seems to pop out a new model every lunch break, with the majority of its products developed on this side of the year 2000 🙂 (even though it, like Eurocopter, had a crop of existing Agusta and Westland helicopters to choose from at the time of its creation in 2000) .
Some – but not all – of this would change in 2007 with the first flight of the all-new 429 GlobalRanger 🙂 . Bell’s first civilian helicopter designed from the ground up since the old 222, the 429 at first glance doesn’t really suggest that the company’s engineers had fully woken up from their stupor just yet, bearing a startling visual similarity to the unloved (and commercially unsuccessful) 427 twin. The ultimate – if slightly forced – evolution of the JetRanger, the 427 is essentially a thoroughly updated version of the very rare 206LT TwinRanger, itself (as the designation suggests) a LongRanger with an extra engine. Heavy, yet underpowered, with a useless cabin configuration and severe asthma at altitude, the 427 had failed miserably in its quest to become the new standard in HEMS/utility machinery, eventually ending up making the most money (and not much at that) on the private marked (with one example even having made it to Croatia as 9A-HTI 🙂 ).
Still sore from this debacle, Bell’s engineering teams had finally put their heads together and decided to go all out, no-holds-barred with the new GlobalRanger – agreeing also to future-proof it as much as possible along the way in order to avoid any hassles when they (inevitably) decide to recycle it later on 😀 . To this end, the 429 was conceived around a modular construction concept – called the Multiple Affordable Product Line, or MAPL – in which the design would essentially be made up of three sections (front, fuselage and tail) that could then later be scaled up or down to quickly and cheaply produce new helicopters of different sizes and roles.
However, therein lay the 429’s first stumbling block – a block that continues to haunt it to this day. Being the module that holds the whole helicopter together, the fuselage section would naturally be subjected to the greatest loads in flight, requiring it to be made the toughest and strongest. Now, this wouldn’t be much of an issue if the design would later only be scaled down; the fuselage section could then be designed to fit the 429, with any smaller helicopter – with a lighter nose and tail – benefiting from additional robustness and crash protection.
The original intent though was that the design could also be scaled up, which required the fuselage to be capable of withstanding the greater loads imposed by the new machine’s increased weight. Consequently, the GlobalRanger had ended up with a thoroughly over-engineered fuselage for its size, a fuselage that had added considerably to its (already not insignificant) empty weight.
From a purely engineering standpoint however, this was still not the end of the world – you could simply bolt on more powerful engines and off you went 🙂 . Yes, the resulting machine would burn more fuel and be more expensive to operate, but the added structural strength would (as in the case of a scaled-down machine) make it considerably safer and more durable* – traits particularly useful in the world of HEMS, often noted for its appalling safety record and the need to operate at high loads in almost any weather.
* the fixed-wing world provides ample proof to back this up, especially in the form of the superlative DC-9 🙂 . A singularly tough old bird, the Diesel-9’s longevity needs no special mention, with numerous examples still flying scheduled commercial services all over the world. The legendary Dakota – as well as Bell’s own untearable Huey – also leave little room for doubt.
But, while all of this sounds perfectly reasonable here, in the real world it’s not nearly as straightforward – especially when aviation regulators become involved 😀 . As designed, the GlobalRanger was intended to be certified to FAR Part 27 standards, which specify a maximum take-off mass of 3180 kg/7110 lbs. But, the extra bulk of the one-size-fits-all fuselage had kicked the 429’s empty mass up to 2012 kg/4455 lbs, leaving just 1159 kg/2555 lbs left over for the fuel, crew and whatever/whoever would be crammed into the back. While this too doesn’t sound like a show-stopper, this payload is a whopping 640 kg/1411 lbs (or roughly 45%) lower than that of the design’s main rival – the EC-145 – which was from the outset certified against the much more demanding FAR Part 29, allowing it a higher maximum take-off mass (all the while being 228 kg/503 lbs lighter while empty).
However, the very FAR that taketh had also offered Bell some hope of reprieve 🙂 . Among its myriad stipulations is a paragraph that gives individual Civil Aviation Agencies free hand in approving a 227 kg/502 lbs increase in MTOM within their jurisdictions, bringing the 429’s payload deficit down to a more agreeable 413 kg/911 lbs. Creating thus the 429IGW (Increased Gross Weight), this approval was duly granted by the CAAs of Canada, Brazil and China – but, surprisingly, not by the FAA, denying Bell a competitive place on its traditionally most important market…
While it can then be conclusively stated that MAPL had backfired straight into Bell’s face (leading to its swift abandonment even though it was now forever integrated into the GlobalRanger), other innovations intended to give the design the edge had met with more success 🙂 . One of these is what could best be described as a “brand-neutral” cockpit (officially called the BasiX Pro), in which Bell – and not the manufacturer of the actual equipment – is responsible for systems integration. In simple terms, in a “traditional” cockpit, the aircraft maker selects one avionics manufacturer and then commissions it to put together the entire avionics fit AND then get it to work seamlessly on the actual aircraft. This was always a laborious and time-consuming job – since the avionics maker has to tailor its setup to the specifics of the aircraft and its systems – whose sheer costs and complexities generally perclude it from being repeated with a second avionics brand.
What the BasiX Pro did was leave all that integration to Bell – meaning Bell’s own engineers would now have to do the hard work of connecting the electronic dots 🙂 . The upshot is that each buyer can now request an avionics setup from a different manufacturer, as opposed to just deciding between predefined options from only one maker. For example, one buyer might want a system built entirely out of Garmin blocks, while another might be more partial to Bendix-King; previously one of them would have to choose, but now both can have their cake and eat it 🙂 . The downside though is that this had ended up consuming FAR more time and resources (financial included) than Bell had anticipated, adding yet another item to the list of things the company will not attempt again in the near future 😀 .
But, by far the most successful (and painless!) innovation of them all was the implementation of the advanced MSG-3 maintenance standard, itself short for Maintenance Steering Group 3 and a first for any helicopter to ever go into series production 🙂 . In a traditional maintenance system, the useful life of an aircraft component is defined by a fixed time period known as the Time Between Overhauls – TBO – expressed either in terms of flight hours flown (more common) or “regular” months and years (for components that wear out regardless of the actual “airtime”). The default measure that has been used for ages, TBOs are however often quite conservative and rigid (in the interests of safety) and may not be at all representative of the actual state of the component. For example, a bearing that has a 1000-hour TBO might break in half after just 700 flight hours – but it may also continue to work all the way till 1500 with no issues whatsoever*.
* a real-world example is the engine on the Skyhawk I currently fly. It’s nominal TBO is 2000 flight hours, a pretty standard figure for that type of engine – and a figure that has been shown though experience to usually be on the money 🙂 . However, as 2000 had ticked over on the totalizer, the engine was still as tight as a nut, with all of its parameters showing near-perfect scores. Clearly it could keep going well beyond its TBO with no ill effects – a fact that had enabled us to get a one-time 200 hour extension to the servicing interval, bringing it up to 2200 🙂 . And, 76 and a bit hours into that extension, the engine is still happily droning away.
MSG-3 gets around this issue by introducing specific monitoring procedures for each major component, giving the user unparalleled ability to see and track the ACTUAL state of the aircraft – and not just rely on a predetermined number. The advantage is that if the user notices a component has the potential for weakening before its TBO, he/she can replace it in due time before it starts making trouble. Another benefit is that if the user determines a component is holding its own better than the manufacturer said it would – like the engine in “my” Skyhawk – he/she can retain it in use beyond its normal TBO, reducing expensive replacements and loss of productivity due to aircraft down time (for reference, the overhaul of the O-320 on the N model Skyhawk takes up to two months and drains EUR 20,000 out of your pocket – almost HALF the value of the entire aircraft). Naturally, if the component can be kept going beyond what the papers say, MSG-3 specifies frequent checks and performance tracking more rigorous than a nun in a convent 😀 *.
* actually, the greater, overarching point of MSG-3 is the creation of a revised global maintenance standard, a standard rooted not in theoretical approximations or lab tests, but in actual data collected from real-world operations in real-world conditions.
Having finally shook itself out of its sedentary lifestyle, Bell was naturally quite keen to show the 429 off to potential customers from around the globe 🙂 . Somewhere on what would later turn out to be quite a long list was the Croatian Police, at the time still shopping around for something to use once the EU hands it the baton of protecting its borders.
The first of what would be the GlobalRanger’s two visits to Croatia would come in December of 2011, when N10984 – the type’s third prototype – stopped briefly in Zagreb on a promotional tour of the region…
Once N10984 had moved on – with photo evidence placing it at Nagoya, Japan barely two weeks later – we would have to wait a further 11 months for the type to return to the field, this time in the shape of the earlier second prototype. In town specifically to be presented to the Police and Mountain Rescue Service in great detail, C-FTNB had arrived fitted out with a full HEMS interior, including an appropriate – but hardly exciting – white-blue scheme 🙂 .