Pilot Report: Bell 407GXi

Aug 16, 2018 - 10:45 AM

Standing on the right-hand side of a Bell 407GXi, I leaned in to see what—upon first glance—looked strikingly similar to Garmin's G1000H flight deck. The screens, powered off, had barely a streak on their glass, and this was my first reminder that I was indeed looking at something new. As soon as the screens came to life, it became apparent that these were more powerful Garmin displays. The new G1000H NXi integrated avionics system immediately indicated its upgraded status from its predecessors with a bright and crisp display that initialized within a few seconds.

At Bell's Fort Worth facility, Tim Otteson, a Bell demo pilot, walked me through the features of the Bell 407GXi and the G1000H NXi. The Garmin upgrade, along with a Rolls-Royce 250-C47E/4 Fadec turboshaft engine, sets the 407GXi apart from the previous 407GXP.

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“This is still brand new,” Otteson explained during the pre-briefing session. ”This is the first production GXi that isn’t an STC’d helicopter. The Canadian test pilots have one that is a GXP that has been changed to a GXi. This is the first serial number and it has only about 35 hours on it.”

The Bell 407GXi was certified by Transport Canada at the beginning of 2018 and is considered to be a light-single helicopter. At gross weight, the 407GXi can reach a maximum cruise speed of 133 knots and has a cargo hook capacity of 3,100 pounds. This helicopter is equipped for ADS-B Out as well as ADS-B In ahead of the 2020 FAA ADS-B Out mandate deadline. A Garmin GTX 335R ES transponder is standard and provides the ADS-B Out capability. The optional Garmin GTX 345R ES installed on this helicopter is available for ADS-B Out and In.

The upgraded Rolls-Royce engine gives the 407GXi more power in hot and high conditions, allowing greater external payload at altitude or an increased hover ceiling for the same gross weight. The engine control system is a dual-channel Fadec with full automatic relight. With more power under the hood for both the engine and avionics, the 407GXi can support multi-mission profiles and offers the next generation of precision navigation, engine control, and connectivity for pilots.

The Bell 407GXi has been designed to support corporate, aero-medical, energy, and parapublic operations. The corporate configuration has a cabin volume of 85 cubic feet and accommodates up to five passengers. The 407GXi’s ability to operate in extreme environments, ease of patient loading and unloading, and added safety features support the helicopter’s role in aero-medical operations. The helicopter’s 862-shp Fadec-equipped engine and all-composite four-blade rotor system provide performance, speed, and a comfortable ride.

Preflighting with G1000H NXi

Flying and familiarizing myself with the G1000H NXi was the primary focus of my 407GXi flight to better understand its new capabilities. Garmin transitioned from a single-core processor to dual-core processors in the NXi, which significantly increased the system’s speed and power. Zooming, panning, and redrawing happens at a noticeably faster rate, which makes the system’s map updating and graphics rendering much more impressive. “It is so much faster,” said Otteson.

The main components of the integrated avionics systems include two 10.4-inch GDU 1050H high-definition displays and two GIA 64H integrated avionics units. The system additionally features a GEA 71HB engine and airframe unit, a GSU 75 air data and attitude heading reference system and GMU 44 magnetometer, a GMA 350Hc audio system, and a GTX 345R ES mode-S transponder. The standard configuration of the Bell 407GXi’s flight deck includes synthetic vision and initial installation of the HTAWS and navigation database. New features of the NXi include ADS-B enabled TargetTrend and TerminalTraffic, wireless cockpit connectivity, HSI mapping on the primary flight display, and other capabilities. Two card slots are available for data exchange tasks such as flight planning, database uploading, and flight data downloads.

The optional Flight Stream 510 wireless gateway, which comes in the form of an MMC card and installs in one of the slots, had not yet been added to the GXi that I would be flying that day. Flight Stream 510 allows the NXi system to stream real-time information between avionics and compatible mobile devices running ForeFlight or Garmin Pilot. This can include two-way flight plan transfer, traffic sharing, weather, GPS, and backup attitude information. The option also enables Garmin's Database Concierge to wirelessly transfer aviation databases from the Garmin Pilot app to the G1000H NXi system, which is a much simpler way of updating information such as Jeppesen NavData or Garmin's nav, obstacle, and terrain databases and SafeTaxi, FliteCharts, and Basemap information, and the AOPA Airport Directory.

Pilots can prepare a flight plan on Garmin Pilot on an iPad or Android device or ForeFlight (iOS only) and then wirelessly load the plan into the aircraft’s avionics. The pilot can also check for any database updates and then download them to the mobile device. Preflight time can be reduced as the Database Concierge can upload the database updates and sync transfers directly with all of the installed displays.

Otteson demonstrated the interchangeability of the primary flight display and multifunction display; either one can do the other's tasks. The displays accept video signals from external sources including the GXi’s tail rotor camera. Optional imaging devices include multi-sensor camera thermal imaging systems used for parapublic missions. Otteson navigated to the weight-and-balance multifunction display page and showed me how to enter crew, passenger, and baggage weights and the fuel load. The system can synchronize with the fuel-quantity indicator instead of relying upon pilot manual entry. On the same page, the left side of the screen calculates and displays longitudinal and lateral aircraft CG.

A hover performance page shows the pilot the real-time or preflight planning power needed to hover out of ground effect (OGE) or in ground effect (IGE) when outside air temperature (OAT) and altitude are in the certified envelope. The page includes a hover power indicator and hover performance display section. The hover power indicator depicts power required at the current weight, OAT, pressure altitude, and wind condition to hover OGE or IGE. The power situation indicator displays predicted power required for hovering at the pilot’s entered destination aircraft weight, OAT, pressure altitude, and wind condition.

An aural alert tone sounds when any of the helicopter’s engine parameters are operating in a time-limited range and the alert occurs before encountering an engine exceedance. This is especially beneficial for missions where it is common for the pilot to be operating at high-power settings while looking outside.

The typical user-selected formats for the multifunction display include system status, checklists, flight planning, maintenance and engine pages, power assurance screen, moving map, traffic information system, fuel status, and calculated range. A weather-radio datalink, datalink management unit, an Iridium voice/data transceiver, and the Garmin GTS 800 traffic advisory system are among the optional features.

Flying the 407GXi

After discussing the features of the new Garmin avionics and Rolls-Royce engine upgrades on the ground, I stepped into the right seat and immediately adjusted the pedals to a closer setting to my feet. This adjustment could be completed somewhat unbeknownst to others by using my feet to rotate the adjustment wheel. With the pedals in place and Otteson in the left seat, we picked up to go flying. The flight would last about an hour in the near vicinity, including downtown Fort Worth and Bell’s newly constructed and upgraded training area.

Otteson pointed out that the local airport frequency was automatically entered and identified on the primary flight display. Upon climbout, I began to adjust my visual scan accordingly to incorporate and recognize the new features of the NXi system. The map overlay inside the HSI helped to focus my scan. Garmin's helicopter synthetic vision technology provides an animated view of the landscape and includes a flight path vector showing the aircraft’s flight path.

Garmin’s TerminalTraffic display has been designed to keep “nuisance” alerts to a minimum, and this was a noticeable advantage during the flight. The system minimizes and abbreviates alerts about nearby fixed-wing aircraft when the helicopter is hovering or performing maneuvers. Below 40 knots and 400 feet agl, the alert is coupled with an aural “traffic” message.

The G1000H NXi’s upgraded performance became even more noticeable in flight as map panning and redrawing was remarkably fast. I did not detect any identifiable lag in the graphics rendering and the entire display was well defined and bright. This made hazard identification easy, and Garmin’s WireAware powerline overlays were clearly depicted. Additionally, the georeferenced SafeTaxi diagrams were especially helpful for me as I was flying in an unfamiliar area and I could easily see the airport layout in excellent detail.

Otteson demonstrated and then turned over the controls so I could perform various maneuvers in the 407GXi. The helicopter handles smoothly and precisely and is enjoyable to fly; the engine provides plenty of useful power and the avionics features increased my situational awareness and decreased my workload. As the flight went on, I felt increasingly comfortable with my visual scan, and it’s clear to me that pilots who fly with the G1000H will easily be able to transition to the G1000H NXi.

An optional equipment enhancement for the GXi is the Bell 407GXi autopilot. The two-axis autopilot kit is integrated with the Garmin G1000H NXi and can display autopilot modes, hold references, audio alerts, and autopilot CAS messages. The kit enhances lateral and longitudinal stability when in low-speed flight. A cyclic force trim release switch, beep reference switch, pitch/roll hands-on stability augmentation, and pilot-initiated automatic recovery are also included.

Otteson explained the functionality of the autopilot and enabled it toward the end of the flight. We tried different modes such as attitude- and heading-hold. Coupled autopilot pitch-axis modes include altitude hold and preselect, airspeed hold, and glideslope capture and track. Coupled autopilot roll axis modes feature heading select, FMS flight plan following, and VOR and localizer capture and track. A recovery mode allows the helicopter to safely exit inadvertent IMC conditions or other situations where a pilot loses visual reference. A “go around” mode can be activated via the collective or mode panel switch and will level the pitch and roll attitude. After the pitch and roll stabilize, the pilot can apply power with the collective and continue the emergency or go-around procedure.

Return to the Ramp

As we came in to land, the G1000H presented an easy-to-understand picture of our vertical and horizontal flight situation. The vertical situation display on the multifunction display helps to illustrate the descent into surrounding features on the ground. A useful new NXi feature is the visual approach, which generates a three-degree vertical flight path to pilot-selected minimums. Upon shutdown, the NXi stores critical flight and engine parameters, and the data are stored on an SD card for easy downloading and sharing. The data logging system captures 60 standard aircraft and engine parameters along with 40 customer-selectable parameters. The data can then be used to identify and analyze trend information for proactive maintenance.

The 407GXi is an incredibly fun machine to fly and it quickly became obvious to me why the 407 platforms have maintained a popular following. The upgraded engine coupled with the new avionics system demonstrated their immense value throughout our flight and the enhancement they would provide to multi-mission profiles. I stepped out of the helicopter with a new understanding of and appreciation for both the new Bell helicopter and its Garmin avionics.