When it comes to helicopters, the benchmark for excellence is Bell Helicopter. The American company has designed and built some of the most incredible choppers of all time, and continue to be a shining light in the industry.
The aviation world changed forever when the company was founded by Lawrence Dale Bell on July 10th, 1935, as Bell Aircraft Corporation in Buffalo, New York. The company initially focused on designing and building fighter aircraft, with their move into the realm of vertical lift coming years later.
While their fighters – including the XFM-1 Airacuda, the P-39 Airacobra, and the P-63 KingCobra, were all well received, it was with helicopters that Bell truly started to lead the world. In 1941, Bell hired a talented young inventor, Arthur M. Young, to provide expertise for helicopter research and development. Bell Helicopter hoped to create a broader economic base for his company by not only growing away from solely producing fixed-wing aircraft, but also creating models that weren’t dependent on government contracts for funding.
The Bell 30 was their first full-size helicopter, and the Bell 47 became the first helicopter rated by a civil aviation authority anywhere in the world, and went on to become a civilian and military success.
The legendary Bell UH-1 Iroquois – better known as the Huey – entered service with the US Army in 1959, and has proven to be one of the most versatile and long-lasting aircraft of all time. More than 16,000 of the brutes were built, with some still in service, and many updates and variants have graced the skies. The commercial versions of the Huey have also proved to be incredibly popular, setting the platform for Bell Helicopter’s more recent successes.
Textron purchased Bell Aerospace in 1960, and the acquisition led to greater investment in new technologies.
Bell Aerospace was composed of three divisions of Bell Aircraft Corporation, including its helicopter division, which had become its only division still producing complete aircraft. The helicopter division was renamed Bell Helicopter Company and within a few years, it had established itself as the largest division of Textron. In January 1976, Textron changed the name of the company again to Bell Helicopter Textron.
In recent decades, Bell Helicopter has remained at the forefront of the helicopter industry, creating some of the most important commercial and military helos of all time. Models such as the 309 King Cobra, UH-1N Twin Huey and 429 Global Ranger are used all over the world in countless industries, and Bell are always looking for ways to improve air transport.
With forward thinking in advanced concepts, Bell Helicopter invented the concept of tiltrotor aircraft. These unique aircraft lift like a helicopter, then fly like an airplane with twice the speed, three times the payload and five times the range of traditional helicopters. They’re incredible machines and, because of Bell’s dedication to innovation, flying will never be the same again.
Headquartered these days in Fort Worth, Texas, Bell Helicopter has additional plants throughout the United States and Canada. But enough about the history of the company – let’s have a look at some of Bell’s greatest hits.
A BEAUTIFUL BEGINNING
On June 26th, 1943, Bell Helicopter shocked the world by revealing the prototype of the first ever commercial helicopter – the Bell 30. Arthur M. Young had spent years experimenting with scale models of helicopters, and in 1941 he approached the good folks at Bell Helicopter with his findings. They agreed to turn his groundbreaking plans into reality, and two years later, the 30 made its maiden voyage, and became only the third American chopper to make it into the air.
The original variant boasted an open cockpit, with an open frame tubular steel framework and four widely splayed undercarriage legs with skids at the ends. It was a world away from the birds you see whirring through the skies today but, throughout two increasingly successful revisions, it brought Young’s dreams to life.
While the 30 had its fair share of problems with stability and range, it proved that commercial helicopters were viable, and paved the way for the Bell 47, which went on to enjoy massive success.
The 47 became the first helicopter certified for civilian use on 8th March 1946, and went on to enjoy three decades of popularity.
The two-bladed, single engine, light helicopter has a maximum speed of 169 km/h and a range of 395 km, so you can see why it was so valuable in the theatre of war.
The 47 entered U.S. military service in late 1946, with a variety of versions and designations being of great use for more than 30 years. In the Korean War, it served a variety of roles including reconnaissance and scouting, search and rescue, and medevac. It has also served as the helicopter of choice for basic helicopter flight instruction in many countries.
There are more than 5600 47s out there, and every single one’s a little beauty!
MEET THE HUEYS
If there’s one family of rotary wonders that truly show why Bell helicopters are so special, it’s the Hueys. The big, burly birds have been the backbone of Bell Helicopter for well over half a century, and have also been integral components of military forces all over the world.
In 1952, the US Army decided they wanted a new helicopter to serve as medical evacuation (MEDEVAC), instrument trainer, and general utility aircraft, because current helicopters were too large, underpowered, or complex to maintain easily.
Twenty companies submitted designs in their bid for the contract, and on February 23th, 1955, the Army chose Bell Helicopter to head this exciting operation.
The result was the Bell UH-1 Iroquois, which first saw combat during the Vietnam War. More than 7,000 of the choppers – nicknamed Hueys – saw service in that war, and they’ve become an icon of the conflict, featuring prominently in films such as Platoon, Hamburger Hill, Apocalypse Now, Casualties of War, and Born on the Fourth of July.
That was just the beginning of the Huey legacy, however. A wide range of civil and military aircraft have spawned from the success of the original Huey, including the AH-1 Cobra attack chopper and the UH-1Y Venom and AH-1Z Viper. The name Huey has become synonymous with quality, with the family offering options suited to everything from firefighting to news reporting. Each variant has made its mark on the aeronautical landscape.
Oh, and where did the ‘Huey’ nickname come from? The first model was originally given the designation HU-1, and the name stuck!
A GLOBAL PHENOMENON
The 429 Global Ranger has become an integral part of many industries, but it was originally created to cater to demand from the emergency medical services industry, which was crying out for a helicopter that could meet their considerable demands.
The concept for the 429 grew from the popular 427, but during development it was decided to cherry pick the best bits of the earlier chopper, and bolt them onto exciting new technology developed especially for the new machine.
The 429 employs an all-new modular airframe concept and an advanced rotor blade system for unbelievable performance. The Bell 429 has a four-blade rotor system with soft-in-plane flex beams. The rotor blades are composite and have swept tips for reduced noise. The tail rotor is made by stacking dual two-blade rotors set at uneven intervals – to form an X – for reduced noise. Bell Helicopter brought in the considerable expertise of Korea Aerospace Industries and Mitsui Bussan Aerospace of Japan to aid in the helicopter’s development.
The first completed 429 flew on February 27th, 2007, and the results were simply phenomenal. The 429 has a glass cockpit with three-axis autopilot and flight director standard, so it’s brilliant to control. Even better, it’s capable of operating with one engine inoperative – not that there’s much chance of that happening.
The stats for the Global Ranger are unbelievable. It can hit 287km/h, travel 722km/h on a single tank, and reach a ceiling of 20,000 feet. Yes, it really is everything you could ever ask for in a chopper.
That’s why it’s become an invaluable member of police departments and rescue services around the world, and takes pride of place in the Australian Navy. The Global Ranger really does demonstrate just how good a helicopter can be.
AN ACT OF VALOR
Bell Helicopter is always pushing boundaries and looking for ways to change aviation, and their next breakthrough is the incredible V-280 Valor. It’s a third-generation tilt-rotor concept being developed in conjunction with Lockheed Martin for the United States Army’s Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program, and it truly is a sight to behold.
Looking like something out of a science fiction film, the Valor will be able to handle a range of missions that are simply impossible for current aircraft.
It has a number of intriguing design choices that should push it in front of the competition. Launching like a regular aircraft but flying like a plane, it really is something else. The engines will remain in place while the rotors and drive shafts tilt, allowing for the radical transformation. A driveshaft will run through the straight wing, allowing both prop rotors to be driven by a single engine in the event of engine loss. The V-280 will have retractable landing gear, a triple-redundant fly-by-wire control system, and a V-tail configuration. The wings will be made of a single section of carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer composite, reducing weight and production costs. It’s all very impressive.
The V-280 is reported to be designed for a cruising speed of 520 km/h, or 280 knots – hence the name V-280. It’ll have a top speed of 560km/h, and a range of 3900km. Most importantly, it will be able to be manoeuvred into tight spots that current aircraft simply can’t reach.
The first flight of this gob-smacking machine is scheduled for 2017, and when it does take to the air, things are going to change forever.
A BRIGHT FUTURE
While the Valor is definitely aimed at the military market, the commercial side of Bell Helicopter has been busy working on two impressive new choppers – the 505 Jet Ranger X and Bell 525 Relentless.
The Jet Ranger X is the smaller and lighter of the two, but it’s jam-packed with brilliant features that are sure to make it a must-have chopper when it goes on sale later this year.
The Jet Ranger X is a gorgeous machine that will employ a ‘clean sheet’ design, but will use some dynamic components, such as the rotor system of the well-received Bell 206L-4. The airframe will be constructed of metal and composites, for maximum performance.
They’ll be built in a brand-new $26.3 million hangar facility at Lafayette Regional Airport, Louisiana, which just goes to show how rapidly Bell are expanding their operations.
The Relentless doesn’t just have a cool name, it’s a chopper designed to tackle anything thrown at it. It’s being designed to be the best medium-lift helicopter on the planet, and will be powered by a pair of GE CT7-2F1 turboshaft engines, with a new composite five-blade main rotor system. That’s some serious grunt!
The helo’s main and unique selling point is that it’s the first ever commercial helicopter to be fly-by-wire – yet another industry leading innovation. Suited ideally to support offshore oil and gas operations, the Relentless took its first flight last year, and should be carrying really heavy things around in 2018. We’re counting down the days!
HERE AND NOW
The 505 Jet Ranger X is due for certification later this year and it really looks as though it’s going to shake up the rotary industry. It’s a short light single helo constructed from both metal and composite materials and will be groundbreaking in that it’s the first light single helo to include the fully integrated glass cockpit in the form of the mighty Garmin 1000H. Another first is the powerplant – a new Turbomecca Arrius 2R engine is also being developed for the 505. It derives from a fine pedigree – more than 3,000 Arrius engines have already been sold, clocking up more than 6.6 million flight hours. The Arrius 2R is aiming at 504 horsepower at take-off and a rather spectacular 3,000 hour TBO.
The light single-engine class is an incredibly lucrative category and should see Bell Helicopter increase its dominance in the market. You can even grab a sneak preview as the 505 is scheduled to appear at Rotortech in May this year.
Back here at home, it’s the twin-engine, mid-size 429 that attracts the most interest through its Australian distributors, Hawker Pacific. Its mission flexibility is one major selling point, being perfectly suited to corporate charter, medevac, offshore oil and gas transport and, as previously mentioned, the 429 is finding firm friends in the Australian Defence Forces.
Above all, it’s most likely that the financial and performance stats are what make the 429 such a big seller Downunder. The maximum service ceiling is 11,000 feet which is a whopping 2,400 feet higher than the average in its class. Its top speed comes in at 155 knots – 7% faster than the average mid-sized helo with a 400nm range on one tank of fuel. But perhaps, it’s down to the size of buyers’ wallets. The base price of the 429 is an astonishing 27% less than the class average. Now that’s a somewhat compelling case!
And there you have it. Bell Helicopters have been an icon in the industry for several decades. However, there is a litany of iconic manufacturers in aviation who have since fallen by the wayside, whereas Bell has managed to combine avant-garde innovation with durability, making them the dominant force in the rotary world.