Bell 429 light twin nearing FAA and EASA certifications

 - June 16, 2009, 2:09 AM

Bell Helicopter Textron of Fort Worth, Texas, expects Transport Canada to issue the type certificate for the company’s twin-turbine Bell 429 light helicopter by the end of this month. Approval from U.S. and European authorities should follow just a few weeks after that.

According to company officials, all component and flight testing are complete, with only approval of software yet required for Canadian certification. European Aviation Safety Agency pilots will be doing their own flight testing prior to the European agency granting approval.

The flight test program has accumulated more than 1,800 hours using two prototypes and three preproduction aircraft. When Bell announced the 429 in February 2005, the company estimated certification in the first quarter of 2007 and first deliveries later that year.

The delayed certification of the 429 “has been a talking point for the last year or so,” acknowledged Neil Marshall, Bell Helicopter program director for the Model 429 and MAPL. “We wanted to hit the mark with this aircraft–to under-promise and over-deliver–and I think the only area we missed was the schedule. It has taken a bit longer than expected.”

Bell Helicopter is showing a 429 here at the Paris Air Show, where it is flying in the daily flight display and providing demonstration flights from the Bell section of the Le Bourget heliport. This “mostly production aircraft” will eventually be sold to a customer.

By the end of this year, Bell expects to deliver eight to 10 Model 429s and have three or four in customer service. The first aircraft will be going to U.S. air-med operator Air Methods, which will fly the helicopter for an undisclosed hospital. Ramping up to a full production rate of 96 in 2012, Bell is planning some 40 deliveries in 2010 and 70 to 80 in 2011, Marshall said.

Bell currently holds 301 letters of intent (LOIs) for the multi-mission rotorcraft, which the company will begin converting to purchase agreements as soon as the type certificate is issued. While the LOIs are backed by $125,000 refundable deposits, their conversion to firm orders will require customers add another $125,000 deposit, with the subsequent $250,000 total deposit becoming nonrefundable.

At the same time, Bell plans to announce a revised price for the aircraft, now quoted at $4.865 million (2007 $). Last year, Bell was reporting more than 350 LOIs for the Model 429; as late as February this year, it reported 330.

One hundred seventeen of the current 301 LOIs (about 40 percent) are from customers in North America, 76 (25 percent) from Europe/Africa/Middle East, 59 (20 percent) from Asia/Pacific and the remainder from Latin America. With expected deliveries stretching through 2013, Marshall said many customers have not yet indicated a specific mission for their aircraft. So far, 71 Bell 429s are tagged for air medical operations, 49 for utility/offshore and 17 for law enforcement. Bell has grouped the other 164 LOIs as corporate, other or unspecified.

While the Model 429’s resemblance to its Bell 206 JetRanger heritage is unmistakable, Bell officials insist “the 429 is essentially brand new.” Conceptual work on the 429 began in 2003 after Bell accepted that its twin-engine, dual-pilot IFR Bell 427, certified in 1999, did not meet the needs of air medical operators who wanted single-pilot IFR-capability, better performance and a flat-floored open cabin with room for two patients on stretchers and two attendants. Company executives looked to the MAPL (Modular Affordable Product Line) research team for a solution, found the modular cabin well into development and decided to scrap plans for the Model 427i, which would have brought some of these improvements to the 427 design.
(Production of the 427 will end later this year as 429 deliveries increase.)
Though the Bell 429 is being certified as a light helicopter under FAR Part 27 (which limits max takeoff weight to 7,000 pounds), Bell contends that its interior is closer to that of an 8,000- to 9,000-pound intermediate-size helicopter, which would be certified under Part 29. “We see the 429 as comparable in cabin size to the [Eurocopter] EC 145 and about 30 percent larger than the EC 135 and [Agusta] A109 cabins,” Marshall said. While various factors make precise comparisons of these helicopters’ cabin volumes difficult, there’s no doubt the 429’s 204-cu-ft cabin is a huge improvement over the Bell 427’s 102-cu-ft cabin.

 Useful load of the 429 when certified will be 2,590 pounds, though Bell expects to increase this to 2,640 pounds. Eurocopter reports the useful loads for the EC 135 and 145 as 3,208 pounds and 3,953 pounds, respectively. Marshall explained that the 429’s useful load includes the weight of equipment for single-pilot IFR, two pilot seats, six passenger seats and a standard interior, while the Eurocopter numbers do not.

“We have established that the EC 135 has about 120 pounds more useful load today than the 429, when compared apples-to-apples,” Marshall said. “But the 429 has greater speed, hover performance, fuel capacity and range.” He also said the 429 already meets most Part 29 requirements, so that certification of future, heavier derivatives would be easier. Currently, the aircraft seats a maximum of six in the cabin and two in the cockpit. It is powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney Canada PW207D1/D2 fadec-controlled turboshaft engines rated for takeoff at 620 shp.