“Let me be straight with you. What I'd rather have is an airplane. We just had a third kid. I don't like flying commercial. I like to take my family to Hawaii. When I go east, I'd like to have pilots I know. ”
Bell Helicopter's Bell 429
You need good reasons to travel by helicopter. Compared with an airplane of similar size, a helicopter costs more to buy, lease, rent, charter and operate. So why bother with one?
Quite simply, if you need to depart from or land in an area where you can't operate an airplane or you need to hover someplace in between, you need a helicopter. Time adds another reason. In large metropolitan areas, for example, travelers can take a helicopter from the burbs to a center-city heliport and save hours that would otherwise be lost on congested roadways.
Nonetheless, most helicopters fly utility missions. The manufacturers know this, of course, so most helicopter models, unlike business aircraft, are designed with non-corporate roles as their primary functions. This isn't necessarily a bad thing since utility operators tend to put more wear-and-tear and flight time on their aircraft than executive and charter operators do, and the manufacturers build to accommodate this higher and tougher usage.
So it is with the twin-turbine Bell 429, which the Bell Helicopter Company has targeted primarily for emergency medical services (EMS) and offshore-oil and law-enforcement operations. But Bell has designed its new light twin in ways that make it particularly well suited for executive use, too.
Compared with other Bell helicopters, the 429's most noticeable features are its large, open cabin and flat floor-two attributes that EMS operators demanded and VIPs will appreciate. All other Bells have partitions and structures separating the cockpit from the cabin or obstructing the cabin. Not so in the 429. Along with six fuselage doors-one hinged and one integrated sliding door on each side of the cabin (providing openings almost five feet wide) and one for each pilot-the cabin configuration offers flexibility and spaciousness that is unmatched in other Bells and that rivals what you'll find in similarly sized competing helicopters.
The 204-cubic-foot cabin (including the 74-cubic-foot baggage area) has room for six passengers in seats that are 15.5 inches wide. With slightly wider 18.5-inch seats and even wider 21.5-inch VIP seats with armrests and a console between them, the cabin can carry four. Seats in the front row may face forward or rearward (to create a club-seating arrangement). A removable partition behind the back row isolates the baggage compartment, which can be accessed externally through a small door on the right side. An optional 40-gallon fuel tank can be mounted in the baggage area, adding to the 368-nautical-mile range (no reserve) that the 429's standard 215 gallons provides.
As for the quality of the ride, live-mount vibration dampers on the helicopter's main gearbox do an efficient job of reducing vibration so that flying at 140 knots is almost as smooth as riding in a jet. Even at 150 knots, which is the 429's maximum cruising speed (Vne, the never-exceed speed, is 155 knots), the ride is acceptable, although in this writer's estimation the slightly stronger vibrations at this speed may become fatiguing after an hour or so. (While one can fly some knots faster in a few other helicopters, 150 knots is about the upper limit for a comfortable ride in any of them.) The noise level in the 429's cabin, while requiring headsets, is noticeably less than the level in the cockpit. The field-of-view from the cabin windows is superb.
"The 429 is heavily kitted," said Neil Marshal, the Bell 429 program director, explaining that it is delivered with single-pilot, IFR approval and 15 popular kits already installed. Standard on the 429 are dual hydraulics; three-axis autopilot; Rogerson Kratos flat-panel flight displays; two Garmin GNS 430 GPS navigators; two Pratt & Whitney Canada PW207D1/D2 fadec-controlled, turboshaft engines rated for takeoff at 598 shp; new main gearbox with run-dry capability; a new four-blade, rigid, composite main rotor; upgraded Bell 407/427-style composite main rotor hub; four-blade, composite tail rotor; graphite tail boom; and tail rotor drive shaft.
The long list of kits for the 429 allows for additional seating options; air conditioning; floats; wheeled landing gear; rear fuselage "clamshell" doors; dual controls; four-axis autopilot; a third Rogerson Kratos display; GNS 530; weather radar; and the auxiliary fuel tank mentioned previously.
While the Bell 429 inherited many parts and systems from earlier Bells, as well as a distinct resemblance to the Bell 206 Jet Ranger, the 429 is different enough to require a new type certificate (TC), as opposed to being grandfathered onto a predecessor's certificate. Since Bell's civil helicopters are designed, assembled and flight-tested at its Montreal, Quebec facility, Transport Canada issued the TC, which other aviation authorities then must validate. Transport Canada and the FAA both issued their respective approvals for the 429 in July last year and European Aviation Safety Authority (EASA) issued its validation in September.
At the time of certification, Bell reported letters of intent (LOIs) for 301 Model 429s. Of these, 71 were tagged for air-medical operations, 49 for utility/offshore and 17 for law enforcement. Bell grouped the other 164 LOIs as corporate, other or unspecified.
Bell started converting the LOIs to purchase agreements after the 429 obtained certification and has not yet announced total firm orders. While $125,000 refundable deposits back up the LOIs, their conversion to firm orders requires customers to add another $125,000 deposit, with the subsequent $250,000 total deposit becoming nonrefundable. The current list price of the Model 429 is $4.865 million (2007 dollars). Following certification, Bell announced a revised price to customers, but the company will not reveal this price publicly until the LOI conversion process is complete.
Under its Mapl initiative, Bell is continuing research into Model 429 derivatives. Two test aircraft are flying, Marshall said, hinting at a single-engine model and a larger one. "We need to determine the capabilities of the aircraft and the business case," he explained, adding that the research is split between Mirabel and Fort Worth, Texas, with one model flying at each location.
At A Glance
Price (basic*): $4.865 million
Direct operating costs (fuel $3/gal, labor $75/hour): $664 per hr
Passengers (VIP/max): 4/6
Range (mtow, SL, ISA, no reserve): 368 nm
Endurance with IFR reserve (mtow, SL, ISA): 2.26 hr
Max/long-range cruise speed (mtow, SL, ISA): 150 kt/130 kt
Fuel capacity (standard/w. aux tank): 215 gal/255 gal
Max gross weight: 7,000 lb
Cabin Width: 5.0 ft
Cabin Height: 4.1 ft
Cabin Length: 9.8 ft
Cabin Volume (includes 74-cu-ft baggage area): 204 cu ft