““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
The Bell 407 reminds me of a Mercedes Sprinter van. It's a vehicle with amazing versatility that can be used for virtually any mission: ambulance, cargo, law enforcement, firefighting, military scout and gunship, offshore oil support, utility and, of course, executive transport. And it does it all with legendary durability and good economy, characteristics generally not associated with things with rotor blades that fly.
You can obtain a very nice used one for less than $1.5 million (new and nicely equipped they still cost less than $3 million) and for that you get a lot: a service ceiling of 17,900 feet (fully loaded); the ability to carry the pilot and up to six passengers (five in executive configuration) 251 nautical miles; a cabin that is eight inches wider than that in a Bell 206; respectable 128-knot cruise speed; and better fuel economy than some smaller single-engine turbine helicopters offer. The 407 also can be equipped for foul-weather flight under instrument flight rules (IFR).
Bell introduced the 407 in 1996 and more than 1,100 are currently in service. Over the years, strikingly little has been changed on the helicopter yet it continues to sell well, mainly because of its durability and the manufacturer's excellent product support. Fleet operators such as air-ambulance provider Air Methods and offshore-oil-service company PHI routinely fly this helicopter hard and it just seems to keep coming back for more. Using a driving analogy, from a pilot's point of view, you can beat on this thing like a pickup truck but it still handles like a sports car.
The 700-horsepower Rolls-Royce 250-C47 turboshaft engine has plenty of reserve power for getting out of tight spots. The 407 not only climbs higher than most other turbine singles, it also bests some twins. "As operators of the 407 know, we are very conservative with [statements about] the power of our aircraft," said Bell program manager Steve Mildenstein. In 2010 Bell began offering 407 operators a "Plus Power" supplemental type certificate that allows them to carry up to 400 pounds of additional useful load to tap "the full capability of the engine." In addition, Rolls-Royce is offering a "VIP" engine upgrade kit that also boosts power output. While "Plus Power" is largely a paperwork exercise, the Rolls kit does require replacement of certain components, typically during an engine overhaul. Another modification is in the works that would allow operators to replace the Rolls engine with a far more powerful one from Honeywell.
The stock 407 takes the basic fuselage of a stretched Bell JetRanger called the 206L4, widens it, and mates it to an all-composite, four-bladed main rotor system similar to the one Bell developed for the Army's OH-58D Kiowa Warrior scout/attack helicopter. The rotor disc diameter is 35 feet. The 407 will fit into a standard small aircraft hangar–barely. The 407 also gets a carbon fiber tailboom that is lightweight and robust. The addition of two more rotor blades allows the 407 to climb higher and haul more than the two-bladed 206L4 and provide a smoother ride. They also add to the maintenance requirements and direct operating costs of the helicopter. In addition to the wider cabin, the passenger windows are more than one-third larger than on the standard five-seat 206.
The extra eight inches of cabin width in the 407 yield 54.8 inches across. Compared with the 206, that makes a big difference, providing enough room to enable the helicopter to be used for medevac operations and to accommodate larger pilots and passengers. Last year I had the opportunity to fly in a 407 after having had experience in a 206 and the space increase was welcome and noticeable. The 407's cabin still is not as wide as that on a Eurocopter AStar (65 inches), but for most applications it is good enough.
What still is not good enough on the 407 is the baggage space at a mere 16 cubic feet–basically a small cube suitable for computer, small duffel and rollaway bags.
Because so few changes have been made to factory 407s over the years, most of the used ships out there have been highly modified to accommodate owners' individual tastes and missions. For years, Mildenstein admits, Bell dropped the ball when it came to incremental product improvement from the factory. However, aftermarket completion centers were more than willing to take up the slack.
For used-helicopter buyers, the biggest upgrade item is modern, glass-panel avionics. A variety of companies provide and install these components. Jim Darr, operations manager of United Rotorcraft Solutions (URS) in Decatur, Texas, said that lately his customers are gravitating to the Garmin G500H system and related components such as traffic and terrain-avoidance systems, satellite weather and multifunction display. Darr noted that you can install a well-provisioned G500H in a 407 for around $83,000. URS also provides glass-panel retrofit solutions from Chelton, Sagem and other manufacturers.
Buyers of used 407s may be interested in other items as well, such as new paint and executive interior, pop-out emergency floats and air conditioning. Together these items will ring the register at around $140,000. A typical executive interior consists of four facing club seats with the usual cabinetry and cup-holder conveniences. Darr said some of his customers also are opting for in-flight entertainment systems. However, the 407 is essentially a two-hour helicopter and most flights are far shorter than that. Odds are, if you start a movie, you'll miss the ending.
But you will remember the flight. For multi-mission capability at a reasonable price, the 407 is hard to beat.