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Boy, how time flies. It seems like just yesterday that Bell Helicopter announced it was discontinuing production of the ubiquitous 206B JetRanger — but that was eight years ago. By late 2010, the last 206B-3 rolled off of the line, ending a run of more than 50 years that saw over 8,000 aircraft delivered in numerous variations.
At the time, Robinson was engaged in certification flight testing of its new R66 Turbine, and during press conferences and personal conversations, Bell representatives seemed resigned to the fact that Robinson would cover that segment of the light single-engine market. But less than three years after that last 206B left the factory, Bell announced it would be returning to the short light single engine helicopter market with a reimagined version of the 206B — the 505 Jet Ranger X. With Canadian certification now in hand, and Federal Aviation Administration certification expected by the time you are reading this, Bell offered Vertical the opportunity to evaluate its latest product offering.
By calling it the 505 Jet Ranger X, the manufacturer appears to be both embracing the aircraft’s legacy while giving a sense of its evolution. The influence of the 206L-4 is keenly felt, from the top of the rotor system, down through the transmission, to the drive train and the tail rotor. Not only was this a smart move to keep design costs low, but it also means the 505 retains the legendary Bell two-bladed autorotational characteristics.
Approaching the 505, the rotor system may look familiar, but that’s pretty much where the visible similarities to the 206 stop. This is especially true when examining the new cabin. The cabin frame (built by Aernnova, along with the tail boom) is mostly aluminum, with two large keel beams in the floor supporting the structure. The roof and sides of the cabin are composite and honeycomb, while the forward canted bulkhead where the nose attaches is carbon fiber. Behind the passenger section is mostly aluminum, along with a composite belly section to support the fuel bladder. And speaking of fuel and baggage, the fuel capacity is 84.85 US gallons (336 liters), while the baggage compartment, accessed form the pilot side, provides 22 cubic feet (0.6 cubic meters) of storage space.
The fuselage reveals some significant differences from the 206 series, with the nose reaching out a full foot further from the front of the skids. Contrary to the 206 (B or L), where the pilot sits right in line with the front of the skids, the 505’s pilot seat is positioned ahead of the front of the skids. Not only that, but the total skid length is about six inches shorter than the 206B’s, and over two feet shorter than the 206L-4’s. Yet, from the tip of the nose to the back of the tail, the 505 is two feet longer than the 206L-4. Keep in mind that since the 505 employs the L-4 drive train, its tail boom is longer than the 206B. This added length means more tail rotor leverage and the authority of the L-4, rather than the sometimes marginal tail rotor power of the 206B.
A slotted horizontal stabilizer is mounted on the underside of the boom roughly midway down. It’s simple, appears stout, and as I would find out later, does a nice job of keeping the cabin level in cruise. The vertical fin at the aft end of the tail boom is typical Bell 206 in appearance, though it’s much thinner.
Opening the access door to the aft end of the fuselage reveals a framework of structural tubes reminiscent of the old Bell 47 crane cage days. And sitting on top of all that support is the 530-horsepower Safran HE Arrius 2R engine, derated to 492 hp. In the 505, the engine is rated for a maximum of 475 hp for takeoff and 428 hp for maximum continuous operation. A dry inlet barrier filter is standard.
The aircraft has dual channel full authority digital engine control (FADEC), but only one channel is operating at a time. The two channels alternate on each engine start as to which one is “in charge.” The system also includes a hydro mechanical unit (HMU) which is essentially slaved to the FADEC computers for metering fuel. Should the HMU fail — as in a stepper motor failure — then there is an auxiliary control unit (ACU) as a back-up for the HMU.
Whereas the aft fuselage section resembles the 206, the forward cabin is another story. Open the cabin doors — especially on the left side with the 55-inch total opening clamshell door — and you see the completely flat floor of the wide-open cabin. Yes, the legacy 206 “broom closet” is gone. Also gone is that cramped feeling you’d get from being in the back of the legacy JetRanger — especially if you were a center-seat passenger. The 505’s cabin is 10 inches wider than the 206, and your forward view is clear — straight out the windshield.
But if it’s cargo you want to place in the back, you can flip up the three standard rear seat pans (the optional premium leather seats do not fold) to provide for extra space. Or — better yet — the three rear seats can be quickly disconnected from the aft cabin bulkhead. This makes 61 cubic feet (1.7 cubic meters) of flat floor cargo space available with tie-down anchors to hold the load in place.
The standard equipped useful load for the 505 is 1,500 pounds (680 kilograms). Adding some popular options such as dual controls, second comm radio, emergency locating transmitter (ELT), helicopter terrain awareness and warning system (HTAWS), synthetic vision imaging system, traffic advisory system, premium leather seats, and a rotor brake will knock that useful load down by around 75 lbs. (34 kg). And if you want air conditioning, that’s almost another 75 lbs. The external load gross weight is 4,475 lbs. (2,030 kg) with a cargo hook limit of 1,500 lbs.
Rear seat passenger loading is possible from either side, but easier from the left side with the aft clamshell door opened. The pilot seats can slide to any position for ease of boarding passengers or pilots, but must be locked into the full forward position for flight. As typical with most helicopters, the right front seat is the standard pilot station. However, the 505 is approved for solo pilot operations from either front seat.
Taking to the Air
My guide for the flight was Bell pilot Will Williamson, and we were joined by a Bell communications representative. Sitting in the pilot’s seat, I had plenty of leg room. The pedals are taller than the 206’s, and have ample fore and aft settings to suit most pilot heights.
The main panel is very clean — essentially just the Garmin G1000H and the glass standby attitude module (SAM) positioned above it. The G1000H is equipped with one Garmin Integrated Avionics (GIA) 63H unit that includes GPS/WAAS receiver, VHF COM transceiver, VHF NAV and Glideslope receivers, and a remote GTX 33H Mode S transponder with extended squitter for ADS-B out. A Garmin 350H audio panel is also standard. You can add a second GIA 63H for complete dual NAV/COM capabilities if desired.
The center pedestal just below the main panel is also incredibly clean and simple. It begins with a few environmental controls, then the audio panel, some lighting controls, and then one switch each for the battery, generator, engine, and hydraulics. And in the test ship, it finished with a second optional VHF COM only radio. That’s it.
One thing that was a bit odd for me was the collective, which had a cork-wrapped area that looked like a throttle — but wasn’t. In fact, there is no mechanical “twist grip” throttle. On the right side of the module at the top of the collective is a two-position toggle switch that selects either “Idle” or “Fly.” That’s all you get.
“With two computers, two sets of sensors, and the ACU backing up the HMU, the engineers felt there was enough redundancy to deem the manual throttle as unnecessary,” Ralph Gannarelli, Bell senior flight instructor specialist and lead instructor for the 505 training program, later told me.
Back to the flight at hand, Williamson flipped on the battery switch, bringing the G1000H to life. He quickly entered the occupant weights, which, combined with the fuel on board, showed we were about 200 lbs. below the maximum internal gross weight of 3,680 lbs. (1,670 kg).
Williamson kept the systems page up on the multifunction display (MFD) screen to make it easy for me to see the various operational parameters, but the primary power situation indicator (PSI) is always present on the lower left quadrant of the primary flight display (PFD) screen for power indications and limitations.
So with our respective collective throttle switches set to “Idle,” Williamson turned the engine switch on the pedestal to the “Start/Run” position. Then we just watched the FADEC do it all. It doesn’t get any easier.
Picking up to a stabilized hover was pure 206. Anybody who flies a 206 will have no problem going straight into the 505. Truthfully, even if you don’t have any 206 experience, it will still be an easy transition. The hover was smooth, stable, and level. But with that longer nose and the glass that reaches down to the pilot’s feet, the sight picture is certainly different from the 206. Not bad, mind you — just different — and the visibility was excellent. The pedals seemed stiffer than the 206, with more feedback, and the cyclic seemed a little heavier, too. But considering that the last Bell I had flown was a 407 — which you control through telepathy — anything would seem heavier.
With an outside temperature of 60 F (16 C), the 505 needed about 58 percent torque to hold a five-foot hover. There was no mistaking the 206 rotor system passing through effective translational lift heading for climb and cruise.
At 2,000 feet (610 meters) mean sea level and 65 percent torque, the indicated airspeed (IAS) was 110 knots. I kept pulling in some torque until I reached 75 percent, where the IAS stabilized at 120 knots. I had another 15 percent torque available for maximum continuous cruise if I wanted. I suspect most 505 operators will settle in on the 110- to 115-knot range, consuming 30 to 32 gallons per hour of Jet-A in the process.
The 505 maintains a very level and comfortable cruise attitude, no doubt thanks to that horizontal stabilizer. What I also noticed was as the speed increased from 110 to 120 knots, so did a two-per-revolution vibration. Knowing how smooth the 206L-4 rotor system could be, I was somewhat surprised. Williamson did say that Bell will be incorporating a FRAM dampener in between the seats to smooth out the ride. In my subsequent discussion with Gannarelli, he reminded me that the smooth ride qualities of the L-4 were the result of the nodal beam suspension system that, although effective, was also quite heavy. The 505 on the other hand, incorporates the LIVE (liquid inertia vibration eliminator) system which is lighter, and optimized to give its best ride at around 115 knots.
Impressive Power Management
Shooting normal and steep approaches, the biggest differences I noticed versus the 206B or L were the excellent sight picture and the superb FADEC handling of the power management. I even performed an exaggerated quick stop from 55 knots, and in spite of abruptly honking the tail back, the FADEC kept the rotor RPM and torque beautifully in check through the entire flare and recovery. In the 206s, you’d be watching the needles moving all over the dial.
Hover work was also quite satisfying. The wind was pretty steady at seven knots. The limit for sideward and rear flight is 25 knots. I performed both left and right sideward flights into the wind until the groundspeed reached 18 knots to give me 25 knots through the air. The 505 was solid and smooth.
The same goes for 360-degree pedal turns — even when passing through that direct tail wind position when things can get twitchy. Just like the 206, touching down from the hover is a non-event — level and soft.
I tried a couple of maximum performance takeoffs, but rather than transitioning forward after achieving a normal obstacle height, I just kept the 505 going straight up. At 97 percent torque, I saw 1,650 (500 meters) feet per minute on the VSI. I’m sure there was a little of the “spring board” effect from the launch, but I was reading that value passing through 300 feet (90 meters) above ground level.
This was a good time for an out of ground effect hover test. We had burned off a little fuel by then, so the power required was from a low of 55 percent torque to a high spike of 65 percent when coming out of the catch of the tail wind. Clearly, these weren’t the most adverse of conditions — but there was certainly a lot of margin left before reaching the 90 percent maximum continuous torque allowance.
The 505 is much easier to fly in hydraulics-off mode than any 206, even though it employs the same hydraulic servos as the L-4. Of note, there is a “helper spring” on the collective, which made that control feel “softer.”
I’m sure it will come as no surprise that autorotations were pure high-inertia, Bell 206L rotor system-style events. The only difference is, of course, one repositions the collective throttle toggle switch from the “Fly” to the “Idle” position to initiate the maneuver, instead of rolling off a mechanical throttle. We did a hovering auto first just to try it out. The power dropped off smoothly and the resultant soft touch-down with leftover rotor RPM was just like the 206.
But this throttle switch did make me curious about something: how does it respond if one were doing autos with power recoveries? So we did a couple to find out. Even with the different sight picture from the 206, finding the attitude for our targeted 65 knots was no trouble. I also played with different speeds during the glide. Minimum rate of descent comes at 50 knots whereas maximum glide distance comes at 70 knots. Sixty knots is optimum for increasing flare efficiency.
Williamson said I should bring in the power higher than one would normally expect for the power recoveries. This was to show me the spool-up time for the engine, with plenty of time to watch and still flare to level and hover. On my second attempt, Williamson told me to take it low, initiate the flare and switch to “Fly” as I leveled and pulled in collective. After the flare, I pulled in pitch, waited for the power to come up, and the low rotor light and horn activated just as if it was a full-down auto.
I momentarily hesitated on the collective pull, and Williamson instructed me to “keep pulling just like for a touch-down auto.” So I did. And what I experienced was a very smooth increase in power that nicely brought up the rotor RPM without any spikes in power or danger of going over torque. The FADEC nicely managed everything within normal limits. Plus, the exact amount of left pedal needed on power up was much easier to anticipate.
What still remains to be seen is exactly how Bell will train for certain tail rotor emergencies — especially the stuck left pedal under high power situations and no twist grip throttle. “We’re not sure yet how we are going to train for a really bad stuck left pedal in a high-power situation — I’m still working that out,” said Gannarelli. “For a stuck right pedal, we’ll do a steep approach to a hover, then just turn the switch off.”
The autorotations wrapped up the session and it was time to head back.
Bell hasn’t really reinvented the wheel here. What it has done is reenter a market it dominated for many decades. However, that market now has many more players, who all recognize that controlling cost is king.
Clearly, Bell has stuck with what it knows in bringing the 505 to market. The aircraft has a proven legacy rotor system from the 206, but it also has a much more user-friendly cabin, a fully integrated avionics system, and a more powerful engine. Die-hard Bell fans should be very happy, along with those “newbies” who now have another OEM to turn to when choosing a new light single engine helicopter.