Hang around beautiful machines long enough and one maxim will get burned into your brain: the better it looks, the more time it will spend in pieces. When I was a teenager, some of my classmates’ fathers had serious car fetishes and could recount comical breakdown stories, chapter and verse, for hours. Likewise, my favorite flying eye candies are all maintenance nightmares. I suspect the late novelist James M. Cain must have moonlighted as an aircraft mechanic and worked on one of them. How else could he have mined the depths of depravity to spin the phrase, “She looked so good it made me want to hit her with a hammer”?
Which brings us to perhaps the best-looking civil helicopter ever made: the Bell 222. When the airframer first displayed the mock-up of this clean-sheet light twin in 1974, it wowed the rotorcraft community with its slick, shark-like silhouette. This was an aerodynamic design that could have easily been conceived by Enzo Ferrari. It was going to be the coolest corporate helicopter of all time—with room for two pilots and five or six passengers in the back in executive configuration. It didn’t take much for viewers of the 1980s television series Airwolf to suspend everything they learned in high school physics and buy into the proposition that a 222 could be modified to fly at twice the speed of sound, as opposed to its true 130 knots. (That was actually the most believable part of the show’s wildly improbable scripts. But I digress.)
Aside from the sexy styling, on paper the 222 looked like a winner. The two-bladed main rotor system borrowed extensively from Bell’s popular Vietnam-era Cobra gunship and featured lubrication-free bearings mated to the Noda Matic vibration-reduction system that Bell had developed for its stretched Huey, the 214ST, designed in the main to service offshore oil platforms. The 222 featured landing gear that retracted into aerodynamic sponsons, dual hydraulic and electrical systems, and single-pilot IFR capabilities.
Deliveries of the 222 began in 1980, and it wasn’t long before the model number began to seem like shorthand for too many repairs, too much downtime, and too much expense. The LTS101 engines were problematic from both reliability and maintenance standpoints; pilots needed to exercise inordinate care during the start sequence, and few made it to their recommended overhaul interval—which was only 1,800 hours on the early 222s. The anti-vibration equipment on the main rotor system required frequent repair and didn’t quite deliver as promised; and the complex avionics were a radio shop’s full-employment program. The fuel/passenger/range tradeoff was poor, moreover. (The running joke with the 222 is that it can carry passengers and fuel, but not both.) And the hourly operating costs were simply ridiculous.
The 222 also became notorious for accidents: 26 percent of the fleet logged mishaps, and 23 percent of them were fatal, killing a total of 27, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The mechanical causes were in the main all related to various flavors of engine and rotor-system failures, many involving design issues. In 1982, the NTSB found that the first 79 aircraft made were produced with defective drive-link assemblies that could fracture in flight, causing loss of control. Seven years later, it noted that engine turbine blades had failed 87 times on 222s. In both cases, corrective measures were taken, but they didn’t do much to enhance the 222’s reputation.
All of this notwithstanding, the 222 was such a good instrument platform that it was the first helicopter to be certified for single-pilot IFR operations without an autopilot. Consequently, many pilots—provided they weren’t also the individuals underwriting the maintenance—have loved the 222. That is, when it has been flying.
Bell began addressing the 222’s shortcomings almost immediately, with model variations that never seemed to get it quite right, a sad preview of coming attractions that would characterize the company’s attempt to penetrate the light-twin space for decades—until the Bell 429 was certified in 2009. Bell built 82 of the original 222As, which featured Lycoming 618 shp (shaft horsepower) LTS 101 650C-3 engines and a 40-foot-diameter main rotor disc.
These engines had a lot of problems. Fuel capacity was 188 gallons in the main fuselage tank with an additional 48 gallons in the sponsons, which made the 222A about a two-and-a-half-hour ship without reserves, burning about 74 gallons an hour at 130 knots. This still gave the helicopter respectable full-fuel payload running with a bare-bones utility interior—akin to the kind used to transport offshore oil workers. But install a heavier executive interior and it becomes a different story.
So in 1982, Bell debuted the 222B, which it aimed more specifically at the corporate market. This variant featured a two-foot-longer main rotor and more powerful—and thirstier—680 shaft horsepower dash 750 engines, which Honeywell has done a good job of debugging in recent years with service bulletins and modifications that also make them more efficient. The extra power came with a price—fuel consumption increased to between 84 and 88 gallons an hour—but it gave the “B” better performance than its predecessor: speed rose to 135 knots; rate of climb improved from 1,580 to 1,730 feet per minute; range jumped from 324 to 378 nautical miles; and 402 pounds were added to maximum takeoff weight.
In 1983, Bell rolled out the 222UT, a version that replaced the retractable wheeled landing gear with skids. This chopped empty weight by 40 pounds but more importantly freed up room in the sponsons for additional fuel. Capacity on the 222UT increased by 74 gallons to 310, giving the model an unrefueled range of 486 nautical miles. This proved popular with offshore and medevac operators in particular.
However, engine problems continued to dog all flavors of the 222, and it developed a reputation as a hangar queen, an Airwoof. Some frustrated customers had already turned to a third-party provider to retrofit Allison (Rolls-Royce) engines into their 222s as early as 1988. (Those helicopters are now known as 222SPs.)
Bell finally reached its limit and, in 1992, introduced the Model 230, which attempted to salvage its foray into Light Twin Land. The ship jettisoned the LTS 101 engines in favor of the Allisons that had proven so popular and reliable on Bell’s own JetRanger singles; introduced a new main rotor anti-vibration system; and fitted the craft with better fuel and electrical systems. But the damage to the brand had already been done; light-twin buyers turned to manufacturers from France, Italy, and Germany and that’s largely where they remain today. Altogether Bell sold just 189 Model 222s and 38 Model 230s before it was back to the drawing board yet again. Only 85 remain in operation and just 30 of those are in the U.S. At press time, seven had sold in 2017 and the majority of those were for parts.
Should you buy a 222? It will look amazing in your hangar or on your lawn and induce ramp envy wherever you go. And the 222s on the market today are relatively low time for their age and inexpensively priced: you can find one in good condition for around $500,000 and sometimes less—as low as $200,000, according to the price-tracking service HeliValue$. “They are not moving,” says HeliValue$’s Jason Kmiecik. “There are a few guys flying them just for joy-riding purposes,” he notes. “But it’s a lot of aircraft for the price.”
Parts ships are common; in fact, if you want to buy a 222, the most cost-effective option might be to pick up two—a flying ship and a parts ship. If you need just a “once in a while” helicopter and can live with unscheduled, expensive maintenance that occurs with a tad too much regularity, strap in for the adventure. But if the words “dispatch reliability” are important to you, stay away. Or you’ll be reaching for that hammer.
Visit our searchable Aircraft Guide for detailed performance, specifications, and expense data for this and all other popular business aircraft.
Bell 222B compared with other aircraft
Model: Bell 222B
First year produced: 1982
Variable cost/hour: $1,672
Seats (exec/max): 5/9
Range (nm): 313
Normal cruise (kt): 142
Max takeoff weight (lb): 8,250
Model: Leonardo A109C
First year produced: 1989
Variable cost/hour: $1,145
Seats (exec/max): 5/7
Range (nm): 146
Normal cruise (kt): 147
Max takeoff weight (lb): 5,997
Model: Airbus AS365N2z
First year produced: 1990
Variable cost/hour: $1,619
Seats (exec/max): 6/12
Range (nm): 420
Normal cruise (kt): 151
Max takeoff weight (lb): 9,369
Assumptions: Bell is 1987 model; other aircraft are 1999 models. Jet fuel: $4.17/gal. Variable cost: fuel plus maintenance reserves. Four passengers (200 lb each includes baggage). Two pilots. Maximum cabin altitude: 8,000 ft. VFR reserves.
Sources: Conklin & de Decker Aircraft Performance Comparator and Aircraft Performance Comparator