Bell 505 Jet Ranger Xa review by Philip Greenspun, ATP-CFII; April 2017
Does it make sense to spend $1.5 million on a new Jet Ranger when an old Jet Ranger can be had for less than $500,000? Read on!
Compared to the old 206, here are the main features of the new 505:
Bell has its own airport next door, with its own control tower, and its own restricted airspace to use for test flights. It is about a 15-minute car ride to get from the Mirabel FBO to Bell.
Like most aircraft factories, Bell impresses with the seriousness and dedication of the workers. Employees have an open, straight-shooting, and no-excuses attitude. You feel as though you are getting honest answers to questions and there is no heavy pressure to adhere to a company line. One thing that mars the openness is a no-photographs policy (see these photos that I took with a digital SLR on the Robinson factory floor during a Safety Course tour in 2013). Given that the assembly line is gathering components it is unclear what secrets Bell might be trying to protect from being photographed. The composite cabin for the 505 comes up from Mexico, the engine from France, the blades and transmissions from Bell's Texas factory, and the welded frame from a contractor. Everything is then put together at this facility, which makes all of Bell's civilian helicopters (though the 525 is scheduled for eventual production in Louisiana).
One buyer learned from Bell that the plan is to build all helicopters the same as they come off the assembly line. Options, if any, are installed afterwards. Thus it should be the case that any available factory option can also be installed after purchase because that is how they'll be doing it at the factory.
Compared to Robinson, Bell is friendlier and seems much more interested in customer feedback. Bell was #1 in customer satisfaction among helicopter manufacturers in a Vertical magazine 2016 survey.
Everything on the Bell 505 is sturdier and heavier than on a Robinson R44 and the 3,680 lb. gross weight should offer more stability in turbulence than the 2,400 lb. R44 Raven I can achieve.
The Amsafe airbag seatbelts that became standard equipment starting in 2006 in most fixed wing aircraft (e.g., all Cirrus and Cessna piston singles) are not available for any helicopters, including the 505. The various research projects run by NASA and the military for under-helicopter airbags remain research projects. Thus occupants are primarily protected by the skids and seats to absorb energy in a vertical direction.
The Bell 505 is currently not available with an autopilot, which makes it less safe than the latest Robinsons in the event of an inadvertent encounter with IMC (the 505 is not IFR-certified so in theory it will never be in that situation). Bell hopes to certify an autopilot by late 2018.
The baggage compartment is spec'd at 18 cubic feet, the same as the Robinson R66 and "it's a welcome change from stuffing bags under the seats," said our Robinson R44-flying companion.
The G1000 installation includes a CG calculator in which one enters the weights of everyone sitting in the machine. It shows where the CG will end up when the fuel runs out as well. Our B206L pilot: "The forward CG was interesting. On a JetRanger or LongRanger the fuel cell is beneath the mast, so you get very small CG shift during flight. When you first took off [four fairly big guys in the cabin; 2/3rds fuel] it was already pretty nose heavy, so if we had burned off all of the fuel it would have been interesting to see what that looked like." (The good old days weren't necessarily better overall; certification standards have changed to require more separation between cabin and fuel tank and thus the new design is probably safer.)
Removing or installing the left-front-seat controls is more challenging than in a Robinson because the removable cyclic and collective have separate electrical and mechanical connectors. It isn't hard, but Robinson makes it simpler/quicker.
Continuing the tradition of aircraft doors that nobody can figure out... from our Robinson R44 pilot: "Not sure if the latches will be different in production but there's a lot of room for error closing it and the errors are not totally obvious (it was easy to engage only some of the latches). Probably still an aircraft where you would need to either close the doors yourself or carefully verify if someone else closes them."
[Irrelevant sidenote: A week after the 505 test flight, a 3-year-old said "I want to go to New Hampshire in the Cirrus." He is a very reasonable child as long as all of his demands are met. Thus did we find ourselves set up for the 10-minute flight from KBED to KASH. On the way up the SR20's pilot-side door popped open. On the way down, the pilot-side door couldn't be opened and we had to get out via the right side door. All of the door latches had been replaced a year earlier on this plane because... the doors would tend to pop open in flight.]
As with the R44, the pilot seat has only one position and the pedals can be adjusted. The "all the way extended" position on the pedals is still not very extended for pilots with longer legs. The legroom doesn't seem to be any better than in an R44 or R66.
Bell makes it easy to climb up the side of the ship and look at the rotor head; you won't need an external ladder. The exterior preflight checklist is roughly the same length at Robinson's. The interior preflight checklist is longer, with a lot more button-pushing. If this is a clean-sheet design, why can't the aircraft tell you "All of the switches are in their correct positions and all of the systems have been tested and the helicoper is ready to be started."? Embraer does some of this in their Phenom series, e.g., for takeoff configuration.
Entry into the cabin is facilitated by steps welded into the skids, "a nice touch," said our Bell expert.
The lithium-polymer battery keeps itself warm when it is cold outside, so starting the engine should be easy (but does that mean the battery will gradually go flat if the helicopter is idle for a couple of weeks?). Unlike the Robinson R66 technique of "let's see if we can blow up the engine during the start", the 505 start procedure is "turn knob to start position." Unlike with a Robinson, there is no interlock between rotor brake and starter. However, the rotor brake handle comes down in front of the pilot and there is a warning light, so you'd have to be pretty dumb even by pilot standards to start the engine with the rotor brake on and then leave it on. Still, I stand ready to buy drinks for the first pilot who does this!
The ground-handling wheels are huge, heavy, and optional ($2,500). If
you were to take a long trip and wanted to have the wheels with you,
e.g., to move the helicopter into an overnight hangar, they would
basically fill the entire luggage compartment.
We sat in the leather seats, an $11,100 option that consumes nearly 32 lbs. of useful load. We didn't get to try the "utility seats," but folks at Bell say that they are just as comfortable and, importantly, the back seat bottoms flip up to accommodate cargo. The front seats have a slightly angled back. The back seats appear to be just bolt upright. We weren't uncomfortable on our short test flight, but it seems as though the Robinson seats have the edge in comfort.
Frank Robinson was, well, not likely to have been tapped to join the LA Lakers. The back seats of the R44 and R66 consequently offer ample legroom for anyone slightly over 5' tall. The mock-up 505 cabin demonstrated at trade shows was vastly better. In my 2014 HAI show report I wrote "decent rear seat leg room (if you don't mind passengers resting their feet on the collective pitch control)". It seems that Bell and the regulators figured this out. There are now rigid plastic floor storage bins placed just behind the collectives to block rear-seat passengers from encroaching on this space. The result is that the rear-seaters can no longer stretch out. Our rear-seat R44 expert: "The seats themselves felt fine to me and the seating position was comfortable for our short flight. It would have been nice to have a little more foot room in the back. There was plenty of knee room but the geometry of the front seats kept my knees bent pretty much at 90 degrees." He's about 6' tall.
Unlike the Robinson's three-point automotive-style seatbelts with inertia reel, Bell locks you in with a 4-point harness. It is adjustable, but there is no inertia reel.
The fresh air vent is much quieter than on a Robinson, adding only 1 dBA of interior noise at cruise speeds.
Interior noise levels in the test vehicle (did not have the optional $1,800 carpet, for example) were slightly higher than in one of our flight school's 4400-hour Robinson R44s. We used a $200 Extech meter:
[Bell 206L pilots say that the 505 is quieter than the 206L and that the high-pitched whine of the 206L is difficult for noise-canceling headsets to filter out. A high-time Bell pilot who was visiting the factory said that the Bell 407 is the queen of the fleet in terms of interior noise: "passengers don't wear headsets."]
You'll need to ensure that every passenger has a noise-canceling headset (Lightspeed Zulu is our favorite). Bell charges $4,600 to wire the LEMO connectors. Without that option, the rear passengers don't have any headset jacks at all. LEMO connectors for all five seats should be standard in my opinion. There is no way for occupants to communicate without an intercom.
Vibration levels seemed to be at least as high as on our flight school R44s, but the Bell folks say that production ships are at least slightly smoother. Vibration levels became dramatically worse over 110 knots, consistent with this Vertical magazine review: "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." The 206L has a "nodal beam" suspension for the transmission that reduces vibration. The 505 didn't have space for this and a 407-style isolation mount was adopted instead. If you must have a smooth-riding helicopter, look into a used 407 rather than a 505. One of our pilot friends reports that the 407 is noticeably smoother than the AStar, for example. A pilot who has flown all of the single-engine Bell products in the New York City area, plus the AStar, said "that two-blade Bell rotor system is never smooth above 105-110 knots, whether on the 206 or the Long Ranger. The 407 is smooth right up to 135 knots." He described a lot of ship-to-ship variation: "I've flown 15,000hr Jet Rangers that are super smooth and brand new Long Rangers that have a very noticeable and unfixable hop at cruise. All four of the news Long Rangers I fly have a different frequency of hops and even the guys at [highly regarded regional service center] can't completely smooth them out. Go figure."
[The Bell 206L pilot who came up with us reminded us that "I doubt
you'll be cruising around at 125 knots anyway, regardless of vibration
levels because you'll burn too much fuel." Bell advertises a maximum
of only 294 miles of range with zero reserve, presumably at some
moderate-speed cruise. So you'll be stopping for fuel more frequently
than will a Robinson R44 pilot!]
The machine is easily controlled with hydraulics off. Unfortunately Bell did not copy Robinson and put the hydraulics switch on the cyclic (maybe because they would have needed two switches due to the fact that the ship can be flown from either side). So if a servo did get stuck the pilot has to take a hand off at least one control to reach a switch on the panel.
A hovering autorotation was uneventful.
Instead of the random scattering of warning lights that you would find in a Robinson R22 or R44, or the 1990-style cluster in the R66, the 505 has a jet-style CAS system with a master caution and textual messages appearing on the MFD. In an IFR airplane, it is tough to argue with a workhorse like the G1000, but for a clean-sheet design VFR helicopter, the implementation is a little disappointing. It doesn't seem as though Garmin and Bell thought carefully about "What would a pilot need to see?"
Suppose that you're flying a helicopter VFR. What matters? How about the following:
The standard way to stop a turbine engine is to run it out of fuel. Here's where the G1000 software and presentation falls most dramatically short. There is plenty of room in the middle of the power arc to show minutes of fuel remaining at the current burn rate. However, this space is simply left unused. The fuel gauge and current burn rate are in a bottom corner of the MFD. Two of us test-flew the aircraft. One of us had to ask the Bell expert "Where is the fuel gauge?" The other never noticed that the helicopter even had one. The Bell test pilot pointed out that the G1000 can show a range ring on the moving map, but, especially for sightseeing operations or training, minutes to empty in a big font would oftentimes be a lot more useful.
The compass is not as useful for situational awareness as the vertical card compass supplied by Robinson (as a zero-cost option) in nearly all of its aircraft. On the other hand, the G1000 has an HSI that serves the same function.
A single COM radio is standard; a second COM adds 5.4 lbs. and $12,200.
Students of the absurd will appreciate that "electronic standby instruments" are a "mandatory option" at $18,600. This is a VFR-only helicopter. The primary instrument is looking out the window. The ship has a bomb-proof G1000 system with full reversionary capabilities as a backup to the natural horizon in case one should inadvertently enter the clouds. Then buyers have to pay another $18,600, about 10X what an experimental aircraft owner would pay for a complete set of digital flight instruments, for a backup to the backup? [Note that this is probably more about the certification authorities than Bell; G1000 installations in IFR-certified airplanes always must have a backup.]
One question is whether or not Bell will tweak the system to accommodate the G1000 NXi. Bell announced the 505's certification with the 14-year-old G1000 on nearly the same day as Garmin announced the G1000 NXi, which upgrades the displays and processors with reasonably modern components. Note that a helicopter version, e.g., G1000H NXi, has not been officially announced by Garmin.
As with a friend's $600,000 Bonanza G36, the ADS-B implementation is only half-complete. ADS-B Out is standard and Bell says that "the current transponder also provides TIS" (scheduled to be decommissioned), but ADS-B In traffic and weather cannot be displayed on the G1000. Bell offers to add weight, cost, and an annual subscription fee to your factory-new helicopter in the form of an XM satellite receiver. Suppose that, to prevent drone/human-occupied aircraft collisions, the FAA decides that drones should be ADS-B-compliant. A $15,000 Cessna 150 built in 1957 with an aftermarket $5000 L3 Lynx transponder would then have far more advanced collision-avoidance capabilities than a brand-new fully optioned $1.5 million Bell 505.
Our Bell 206L pilot was a fan of the G1000 installation: "The First Limit indicator was really nice and large, so I felt like I could see it out of the corner of my eye very easily. Also, the response was much faster, so while I might take several seconds to change the power setting in the LongRanger, so as to not exceed a limit, the first limit indicator reacted really quickly and I felt it was more like a manifold pressure gauge on a piston helicopter - I could do pretty rapid increases without worrying too much about overshooting."
Our experienced Bell pilot who did not go with us was not a fan: "To me the G1000 is overkill in a VFR helicopter. The G500 I found to be perfect and not have all the distracting nonsense displayed up on the G1000 or require all the extra button pushing to change even the radio freqs and transponder code. The fact the 505 doesn't come standard with ADS-B IN or weather on the G1000 is a joke." (His G1000 experience comes from the 407.)
There is no throttle, just a "fly/idle" switch on each collective. Nothing for a motorcycle-rider to twist in the wrong direction! If two pilots are flying, both have to flip to "idle" to roll back the engine. If the engine loses contact with the airframe it will keep running at the target rotor RPM. There is a fuel shutoff to kill it in that event.
Roughly 10 percent extra power can be drawn for about 5 minutes. When the pilot pulls into this yellow area the G1000 helpfully starts a timer.
TBO is 3000 hours.
All of the exterior lights, including the landing/taxi lights, seem to be LEDs.
Don't befriend anyone over 150 lbs.!
The doors come off, but, unlike with Robinsons, require wrenches to remove. Once the left side doors (both must come off) are removed, a photographer sitting on the left side of the aircraft would have a lot of flexibility. There is no "back door" on the right side, which prevents one useful configuration for aerial photography. In the R44 it is possible to put the photographer directly behind the pilot and remove the right rear door. This enables the mission to be flown with a two-pilot crew and keeps the open door on the non-tail-rotor side of the aircraft. That way if anything comes out of the helicopter it doesn't hit the tail. With the photographer and pilot on the same side of the aircraft it is easier to coordinate the helicopter's location.
If you're doing aerial photography with just one pilot, one option offered by the 505 that is not available on the R44 is to remove the controls on the right side, fly the helicopter from the left seat, remove the door on the right side, and position the photographer in what is conventionally the pilot's seat.
The standard gear isn't tall enough to accommodate a standard TV-station or cinematography gimbal. Bell is working on "high skid" gear that will raise up the helicopter sufficiently for these missions. There is some space in the nose intended for a smaller camera, e.g., for police work.
Photo: from our Boston Aerial Photography page
One of our local 505 buyers has been quoted roughly $30,000 per year for an insurance policy that covers him for his single-pilot 135 operations, pleasure/business, and has a $5 million liability limit (his hull value is low due to the machine being one of the earliest delivered and not having too many options).
We talked to David Hampson at planeinsurance.com. He is the broker for most of the aircraft based at Hanscom Field, including our flight school's two R44s, about 40 flight school airplanes, various turboprops and jets, and the entire fleet of a major fractional turboprop and jet operator. We asked for a ballpark quote given a pilot with 4500 hours of total time, 2000 hours of helicopter time mostly in Robinsons, Bell school that comes with the helicopter, and substantial turbine-powered airplane time. Here's what he wrote us:
For the Bell 505:Note that with a Starr-insured R44 (Starr seems to be the most competitive company for piston helicopters), a pilot can do all of his or her training locally and take an annual checkride with a Starr-designated examiner.
Approximately $33-$36K annual premium with $1 million combined single limit liability and $1.5 million hull value. Hull deductibles of $1,000 Not In Motion/5% In Motion.
For the EC120:
Approximately $18-$20K annual premium with a $1 million combined single limit liability and $600,000 hull value. Hull deductibles of $1,000 Not In Motion/5% In Motion.
Training requirements would entail initial factory training with a sign off followed by annual ground and flight training at an underwriter approved training facility.
Why the discrepancy in the real number above and the ballpark quote? Hampson:
For "ballparks" I tend to err on the conservative side (and underwriters do as well) so someone doesn't buy an aircraft only to find out they have to pay more than expected. When underwriters know there is a deal to be made, I can also use that to leverage my negotiations with them and get the most favorable terms possible. Most of the premium is in the hull, and a $150k hull difference would result in about a $3,000 premium reduction, putting the lower end of my premium range right at $30k. Part 135 and sight seeing use wouldn't add much to the premium if pilot has a good amount of turbine rotorcraft time. There is also not a big premium difference to go from $1 million to $5 million liability on turbine aircraft.
To generate a set of "alternative facts," we looked at what Bell charges for their parts-by-the-hour program and what Safran charges for their power-by-the-power program. These numbers, which seem a lot more achievable, result in a total cost, with fuel at 38 gallons per hour, of $553 per hour.
For comparison, Bell says that it will cost $495 per hour, including fuel, to run a 206L4 (i.e., only about 10 percent more), and $579 per hour, including fuel at 46 gallons per hour, to run a 407GX.
Robinson puts out its own fantasy operating cost numbers for the R66. They budget $164 per hour for the engine and airframe overhaul reserve, plus $28 per hour for inspections and maintenance. At 22 gallons per hour in fuel burn and $4.50 per gallon, the R66 could be run for as little as $291 per hour (my R66-owning friends would surely love to see that!).
[What about life in the piston ghetto? We estimate roughly $210 per hour in direct operating costs for the R44 Raven I used in training, with fuel at $4.40 per gallon. This compares to Robinson's estimate of $179 per hour (using their assumptions with our fuel price).]
What about prices? The base prices should not be used for comparison because Robinson includes a higher level of standard equipment and options are more expensive from Bell.
By the time you're all done, the R66 is a $1 million helicopter and the 505 is a $1.4 million helicopter.
Item Robinson Bell Wheels included $2,500 Rotor brake included $13,300 A/C $23,500 $46,700 Radar altimeter $16,700 $29,000 non-white paint $1,500 $5,100
A rich R66 owner at our local airport said that, on an EC120 demo flight with three adult males on board and full fuel, the EC120's engine monitor was bumped right up against some limits doing a max performance takeoff at our sea level airport. After that demonstration flight he decided to order a Bell 505 instead. "I would probably have bought the EC120 if it had 100 more horsepower," he said, "because of the smoother rotor system and because it is something like 10 dB quieter outside, which makes landing off airport a lot friendlier."
Specs published by Eurocopter/Airbus suggest that it will struggle compared to the 505, even at the same weight. Want to hover in ground effect at 14,900'? Skip the Twinkies if you're in an EC120 because you need to be below 3,200 lbs even in a standard (i.e., colder than summer!) atmosphere. The 505 can do close to this at its 3,680 lb. gross weight.
If you don't need to fill the cabin with heavy people, the EC120's larger fuel tank will take the machine 100 nautical miles farther. Vne is higher (150 knots) than on the 505, but cruise speeds are about 5 knots slower.
The EC120 has a 28 cubic foot baggage compartment (compare to 18 on the R66 and 505), but it isn't a simple open cube. Airbus advertises 75.6 cu. ft. of cabin volume. Flying Magazine reported 61 cu. ft. of cabin volume for the Bell 505. It is unclear if these numbers are directly comparable. At a minimum, both seem to exclude the area occupied by the pilot.
The EC120 has the 505 beat for aerial photography. Instead of paying $8,100 for tiny sliding windows cut into the front doors or wrenching two doors off and then freezing in flight en route to the photo site, the EC120 comes standard with a sliding rear left door. The photographer can sit in back, slide the door open to take photos, and slide it closed when the photo project is complete and it is time to zip back to the airport. Supposedly the 3-blade rotor system is smoother than the 2-blade 505 or Robinson systems. I remember a smooth ride in an EC120 but more recently I was in an EC130 and it didn't seem any smoother than our R44s.
There is no factory autopilot for the EC120, but Genesys seems to be seeking an STC for their 15 lb. HeliSAS system and other third parties have put autopilots into EC120s. If you demand a glass cockpit for your VFR aircraft, there is an STC to install a Garmin G500H in the EC120. Bizarrely, as noted above, it is far easier to install the latest avionics capabilities into an older aircraft than into one with an integrated glass panel. A G1000 system locks you into the technology of 2003 plus whatever Garmin plus each manufacturer have gotten approved as far as software updates. With a non-integrated aircraft, such as the EC120, you can slam in an inexpensive HTAWS and synthetic terrain instrument or a Garmin 750 that will do everything and talk to everything. Certainly after two weeks in the avionics shop and your EC120 will come out fully compliant with ADS-B In and Out.
Depending where it is in its inspection cycles, a 10-15-year-old EC120 will cost $450,000 to $700,000. A 12-year inspection on an EC120 is $50,000 to $85,000. An annual can cost $30,000 to $50,000 if there are ADs, SBs, or anything wrong in general. The EC120 has been rebranded the "Airbus H120" and, as of April 2017, Airbus Helicopters media relations staff confirmed that it is still in production.
If you're ever going to fly Bells or Robinsons again, one knock against the EC120, in my opinion, is the fact that the rotor spins in the opposite direction and therefore pedal inputs in an emergency are the opposite of what they should be in an R44, Bell, or Sikorsky.
Finally, if one goal of moving up from an R44 into the turbine world is better safety, would you rather have a machine that is fresh from the factory or one that has been subject to 15 years of corrosion and vibration, regardless of how much confidence you have in the maintenance that has been done. "New is new," says our flight school's director of maintenance (he also says "don't get anything less than serial number 200"!).
Our analysis: for low-hours-per-year private operators, the front-seat G1000 TV show and FADEC by themselves may not justify spending 3X what a used EC120 costs for the same engine and the same seats. The Bell 505 with a factory autopilot, however, would be a stronger competitor. A local wife and mother said that she wouldn't let her husband upgrade from a Robinson R44 unless it was into a helicopter with an autopilot so that she would have some time to manage the aircraft in the event he became incapacitated.
We thought that the real category-killer product would be the Bell 505 with a factory autopilot and single-pilot IFR certification. There are older B206Ls that came with factory IFR certification, but in the market right now the only helicopters legal to operate under IFR are huge and expensive.
The market's verdict: If a 15-year-old EC120 were a no-brainer purchase, Robinson wouldn't have been able to sell hundreds of R66s.
Note that, if Airbus Helicopters cared about this end of the market, they could update the H120 to be more competitive, at least for sea level customers. Since Airbus and Bell are using the same engine, nothing stops Airbus from adopting the same FADEC, supplied by the engine manufacturer, for an "H120T2". Glass avionics are available from a lot of different companies. Nothing stops Airbus from developing a more modern panel to go with the FADEC engine. Similarly Airbus could take an STC'd autopilot for the H120 and make it a factory option. The 505 does not render the EC120 airframe per se obsolete.
Interestingly, no brokers said "This is just dumb; buy an EC120".
From our New York charter pilot:
Good luck to Bell trying to sell their own brand of the EC120(quieter, smoother) which hasn't sold especially well. I could be wrong but I don't see too many companies trading in the reliable workhorse that is the Jet Ranger ($500k gets you a nice one) for a little more useful load and rear seat visibility. Bell might find a niche in tours but it seems like operators still prefer the inexpensive R44 or are busy enough to fill an EC130 with 3 couples. I've also found that people who often charter helicopters don't really mind the restricted forward visibility in the older model Bells.
For the 135 charter operator or rich family that wants to travel in comfort, the 505 is tougher to justify. The essentially mandatory options kick the price up pretty close to what it costs to get a good used Bell 407. The 407 will be smoother, quieter inside, and has roughly 1,300 lbs. of payload (plus two more seats!). The 407 can cruise slightly faster at 133 knots. The pilots and the passengers are essentially in separate compartments, though, and hangaring a 407 won't be cheap (though you can get a blade fold kit).
How about the lower-time rich pilot that just wants the latest and greatest? Does she want a $1.5 million modern-design helicopter with no autopilot? Bell says that they are working to certify an autopilot on the 505. At that point (late 2018?), we think that the 505 will be easier to justify over the already-equipped-with-autopilot R66.
Our Robinson R44 pilot: "My overall impression is that to the extent there is a market for owner-flown factory-new $1.5 million helicopters this is the clear choice and should do well. [Compared to being in an R44] Passengers will be less inclined to wonder aloud if they will survive and will love the view."
My personal conclusion: I love the airframe. I love the engine and FADEC. I wish that Bell would set their engineers loose with "Here are the interior dBA and vibration measurements for an R66. Beat these numbers, even if you have to stick a mini-407-style rotor system on top."