Operating the Bell 429
One on One with Global Operators of the Bell 429
When the Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) industry, fraught with an unacceptable accident rate, pushed helicopter manufacturers to craft a solution, Bell Helicopter answered the call with the creation of its Bell 429. THOMAS HUMANN investigates how this modern light twin has captured the imagination of helicopter operators well outside its original target market.
In the mid-2000s, HEMS operators had a target on their backs. The industry was averaging one crash per month in the US, with an equal number of fatalities. The FAA and NTSB made air ambulance safety their top helicopter priority. While the causal factors were numerous, one focal point became aircraft fitness. Recommendations swirled about twin engines, single-pilot IFR, night vision capability. The time for change was now, presenting helicopter manufacturers a golden opportunity—gold that would go to whoever could provide the optimal solution.
Eager to capitalize, Bell Helicopter surveyed its flight line for answers. The closest machine they had at the time to filling the bill was the light twin Bell 427. The company scrambled to achieve single-pilot IFR certification with the addition of upgraded avionics, to include a glass cockpit. But the industry demanded a larger cabin for improved patient loading and accommodation. It became obvious to Bell engineers that if they wanted to achieve a true foothold in the future of the market, a more drastic overhaul was required. In short, the 427 wasn’t worth fixing.
By late 2007, after two years of development with direct input from pilots in the field, Bell transformed their mockup into the first flight demonstration of the Bell 429. It was immediately clear this machine was a break from the past. Traditional metal blades were replaced with swept tip composites. The old two-bladed tail now had four, offset just enough to reduce noise signature. Glass multifunction displays dominated the extensive console. A three-axis autopilot (with an option for four-axis) gave the 429, easy to use single-pilot IFR capability. With 204 cubic feet of cabin space and convenient loading access, the 429 outpaced its competitors. One of the few holdovers from the 427 was the drivetrain: twin Pratt & Whitney PW207Ds cranked out 1,250 continuous horsepower, fully maximizing the main transmission. Already equipped with FADEC, there was no reason to fiddle with the state-of-the-art engines and transmission.
Despite the worldwide economic crash of 2008, eagerness about the forthcoming 429 abounded. By the time of FAA-certification in early 2009, Bell had received more than 300 new orders. Unsurprisingly, medevac behemoth Air Methods led the way and accepted delivery later that year. What was an intriguing hint at things to come was interest from other public agencies.
Filling modern needs in a dangerous world
Bolstered by lucrative government contracts and a booming technology industry, Virginia’s Fairfax County rode the economic wave of the 2000s, becoming the second wealthiest in the US. Its first responders had joined the high profile ranks of New York City during the terrorist attacks of 9/11. While their response was inspiring, the aftermath led to questions of updating assets into the twenty-first century. Fairfax County Police Department (FCPD) was still flying the same Bell 407s that had replaced their Bell 206s many years earlier. As the department began the process of replacing them with something comparable but newer, politics interceded.
One of Fairfax County’s executives was a former Marine Corps helicopter pilot whose UH-1 had been shot down in Vietnam. Recalling how his aircraft was unable to continue flight after losing its only engine, he worried about what would happen if one of FCPD’s 407s lost its single engine over his rapidly growing community. He called upon FCPD’s chief pilot, Paul Schaaf. The former Army Guard helicopter pilot followed orders like a diligent soldier, researching affordable multi-engine options.
The soft-spoken Schaaf said, “I was involved in the Bell 429 Customer Advisory Committee and watched its development during visits to Mirabel, Quebec and Fort Worth, TX. I saw that the 429 could perform our mission without significant twin-engine penalty [the second engine adds weight]. So I put together a competitive bid process and held an open evaluation that included fly-offs of the EC135P2+, MD902, and Bell 429. We evaluated the aircraft on about a dozen criteria: start and run-up times, handling qualities in a 40-knot left hand orbit, one engine inoperative performance, cruise speed, cockpit and cabin versatility and visibility, CG limits, and payload. The 429 dominated all areas except cockpit visibility and payload.”
Because of his personal involvement in the development committee, Schaaf recused himself from the selection process. An independent panel of six pilots, mechanics and crew from FCPD and two other law enforcement aviation programs evaluated and awarded the contract to Bell. The process proved transparent and honest enough to withstand a Eurocopter protest. In 2011, FCPD became the first agency to operate the 429 in a multi-role capacity, using it for all manner of law enforcement and medevac missions.
It did not take long for word to spread beyond the county and the country. Police agencies in New York, Delaware, Sweden, and Turkey came calling, consulting FCPD and drafting their own contracts to purchase the 429. Having logged sufficient hours in numerous 429s, Schaaf was able to provide constructive feedback. He remarked how pleased he was with the relatively low time aircraft. “There’s something I’ve learned about the 429 from flying a few dozen of them now. Unlike many other models where each serial number has some idiosyncrasies, the 429 seems to be highly consistent regardless of the configuration.”
Bell was thrilled that its 429 had gained traction in the HEMS industry and drew ever-increasing interest amongst public agencies. The company could take satisfaction knowing that it would have a prominent role in a post-9/11, security driven world. It would soon be pleased to garner the attention of more private corners of the light twin market.
Smooth moves and sex appeal
The addition of the Bell 429 to NYPD’s helicopter fleet not only fulfilled its mission of protecting and serving Manhattanites. It turned heads amongst
the Big Apple’s wealthiest aviation enthusiasts. When one such Part 91 owner and operator asked his lead pilot Tom McCormick how the Bell 429 compared
to other prospects, the competition was underway. McCormick said, “My owner is sensitive to vibration, wanted something smooth. He insisted on the
safety of a twin-engine machine. While he wasn’t against something larger and costlier like the Sikorsky S-76 or the Eurocopter AS365, he wanted the
intimacy of conversing directly with his passengers—not to be cut off from them like they’re in a cocoon.”
Despite having seventeen years of Coast Guard experience in the Sikorsky H-3 and Eurocopter H-65, McCormick’s search led to the 429. The owner wanted to
limit the scope of his operation to one airframe, so the selection had to fill as many needs as possible. Confident that the 429 was the answer, he
signed ink on a purchase contract. For the past two years, the congested airspace over metropolitan New York has featured the midnight blue and black
429 known as N42NY. It may be a light twin, but it is no lightweight when it comes to competing with fellow corporate helicopters. N42NY’s optional
retractable gear, slender nose, and gentle bulges give it a sleek muscularity normally reserved for upscale medium-sized ships.
On any given day, the eye-catching N42NY can be seen on the ramp at Teterboro Airport, awaiting its VIPs’ arrival via Gulfstream G650. Tom McCormick and
his copilot (the owner whenever he’s available) watch from the FBO as the jet slows to a stop next to the 429. They greet arriving passengers before
asking FBO ground crew to stow baggage in the cargo compartment, concealed in the rear of the cabin underneath the tailboom. With everyone briefed
and buckled into leather bucket seats, McCormick starts engines and calls for takeoff. If weather allows, he climbs to 900 feet and proceeds eastbound
across the Hudson River, joining one of New York’s well-traveled VFR helicopter routes. With heads on a swivel and a few concise radio calls, the pilots
shoot their approach to one of three primary heliports along the river’s edge. With the 429’s smooth acceleration, the entire flight takes less than
five minutes—almost too short, given the comfortable ride and legendary sites.
Because New York weather is unpredictable, McCormick must be ready for a more complicated IFR departure once the drop-off is complete. He plugs the flight plan information into the 429’s Garmin 750 and contacts La Guardia Airport’s tower once airborne. Following the crystal clear displays on three large console screens, he lifts into the low clouds, staying clear of nearby skyscrapers. These short flights to airports outfitted with instrument approaches provide the only real challenge to the 429. According to McCormick, “The four-axis autopilot is not robust or accurate enough for my liking. It tends to wander on airspeed and altitude.” Since their operation is insurance-mandated to operate with two pilots any time they carry passengers, this shortcoming is overcome with the backup of an able copilot.
If the experienced McCormick could change anything else about the 429, it would be to add an auxiliary fuel tank and reduce the number of pesky aural alerts when flying low level over the city. “Overall, the 429 is very user friendly. And I must say that Bell’s customer service has been topnotch.”
Meanwhile, 200 miles south in Washington, DC, Paul Schaaf is preparing for his own Part 91 VIP flight. Having retired from the FCPD in 2013, he now manages a flight operation for three local businessmen. They already owned a Eurocopter EC130, but ordered a customized 429 after Schaaf advised them they could improve their passenger carrying performance. They took delivery of the forest green and tan 429 in September 2016—it has quickly become the crowned jewel of their four-aircraft fleet. Schaaf and his copilot board passengers into the soundproofed cabin. The four two-tone seats are accented by wood grain and glowing LED lights; they’re complimented with touchscreen inflight entertainment screens. This is the first ever 429 furnished with the luxury MAGnificent VVIP interior by Italian designer Mecaer. The installation took place at Bell Helicopter’s facility in Prague, the Czech Republic, where Bell and Mecaer collaborate on state-of-the-art schemes inspired by customer desires.
Ready for takeoff, Schaaf departs DC for the hour-long flight to New York City. With a cruise endurance of four and a half hours, he has more than enough fuel, regardless of weather conditions. On clear days, he shoots an approach into Linden, New Jersey, south of the city, and proceeds visually to one of Manhattan’s heliports. If clouds preclude VFR, he continues along prescribed routing to Teterboro, where an instrument approach allows the 429 to duck beneath the cloud deck en route to its destination.
Like McCormick, Schaaf is satisfied with the 429’s flight capabilities. Yet every pilot wishes he could have more, which is what drives manufacturers toward future enhancements. “If I could add anything, it would be synthetic vision, a Garmin 1000, and a quiet-cruise mode. If I could change any airframe features, I’d lower the skid gear for passenger access. But the most significant thing I’d want would be for the FAA to allow us to lift more weight—the 429 can do it.”
On top of the world
When Bell sought certification for the 429, they did so under the rules of FAA Part 27, which limited the maximum gross weight to 7,000 pounds. Had they spent the extra time and money to meet Part 29 rules for transport category aircraft, the 429 would be allowed to operate up to 7,500 pounds. Bell had hoped to get the aircraft certified expeditiously, and thereafter seek an exemption once they proved to the FAA that the 429 exceeded required performance and safety features. So far, it’s a gamble they’ve lost—but not everywhere.
Transport Canada granted Bell approval to increase the 429’s gross weight to 7,500 pounds, provided operators equip with a cockpit voice recorder/flight data recorder, a terrain awareness system, radar altimeter and pulse light. Other nations throughout Europe and beyond have followed suit. This has allowed operators to add the dynamic 429 to their fleet. One such company is Heli-Alps, based at Sion Airport in southern Switzerland.
Entrepreneurial pilot Jean-Daniel Berthod and his business partners have provided myriad helicopter services since 2005, teaching students, touring the Swiss Alps, and flying utility missions from external lift to filming. Over the past decade, they’ve filled their ramp with Robinsons (R22 and R44) and Eurocopters (AS350, EC120, and EC130). But to lure the most discerning clientele, they yearned for something with a bit more panache. The 429 had the styling and features Berthod needed. But to succeed in the thin air above the 14,000-foot Matterhorn required every pound of lift. Being afforded the use of the 429’s 3,000-pound of useful load solved their conundrum.
In 2014, Heli-Alps purchased a stunning navy blue 429; its white waves of accent paint evoke images of the drifting snow it now flies above. While Berthod still instructs in Robinsons and ferries heli-skiers with capable Eurocopters, he and his fellow pilots reserve their 429 for VIPs—whether its executive flights between Swiss cities or dream getaways. Any sacrifice in passenger visibility is compensated for with a silky ride, cabin comfort, and speed.
When Bell developed the 429 as an answer to the trials and tribulations of the HEMS industry, any aspirations for a broader market were just that. In the decade since, their commitment to performance and artistry has piqued the interest of the broader helicopter world. If they’re able to break through the regulatory ceiling with the FAA and achieve transport category status, the sky is the limit.