Earlier this year, Bell Helicopter celebrated the 40th anniversary of its popular single-turbine light helicopter, the JetRanger. The Bell JetRanger is the most ubiquitous turbine single-engine civilian helicopter in the world. By the beginning of this year, Bell had delivered more than 4,800 Model 206B JetRangers and 1,700 copies of its more powerful, stretched seven-seat variant, the 206L LongRanger, and the fleet had amassed more than 55 million operating hours. Two years ago, Bell reported that the highest-time JetRanger had accumulated 38,000 flight hours. JetRangers have set numerous distance records, including several around-the-world flights.
Bell began working on what would become the JetRanger in 1960, when it was competing for an Army contract to provide 4,000 light scout/attack helicopters for the Vietnam War. In 1965, Bell lost that contract to the slightly faster and lighter Hughes OH-6 Cayuse or Model 369, the civilian variant of which would later be known as the Hughes 500. (An updated version of this helicopter, the 500E, is manufactured by MD Helicopters.)
In 1966, Bell set out to recapture its investment by fashioning its losing entry into a civilian ship that it branded the Jet-Ranger and priced at $89,000. Customer deliveries began in 1967 and the model was an immediate hit, especially with the offshore oil and gas market in the Gulf of Mexico. For the better part of the last four decades, the five-seat JetRanger has comprised the majority of the nearly 600 aircraft serving this market.
Today, the average JetRanger there flies more than 662 hours during 2,200 flights per year. Flight operators there and elsewhere credit the helicopter’s simple two-blade, high-inertia main rotor system design, docile autorotation characteristics, low operating costs and reliable performance as the keys to its enduring popularity.
Over the years, Bell has made numerous improvements to the helicopter. The biggest came in 1977 with the advent of the Jet-Ranger III, or Model 206B3, which featured higher rated engine power. The addition of the Rolls-Royce 250-20J engine boosted maximum takeoff shaft horsepower by almost 25 percent, to 420 shp.
Recently, Bell began offering upgraded Chelton EFIS glass panel avionics and Garmin GNS 530 GPS/navcom radios in the 206B3. A Bell spokesman said the helicopter sold for $905,000 last year; he declined to disclose the 2007 price of the helicopter.
After Bell lost the initial contract to supply the U.S. Army, a military variant of the JetRanger became even more popular than civilian ships for military applications. Bell began delivering the OH-58 Kiowa in 1968, and the model remains in service today for the U.S. and other militaries in diverse roles that include reconnaissance and flight training. By June 2007, a total of 12,091 Model 206s and OH-58s had been delivered by Bell and its overseas licensees.
Both helicopters are still available today. An upgraded version, the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, can be outfitted with long-range sensors, Hellfire and Stinger missiles, Hydra rockets and a .50 caliber machine gun. The OH-58D first flew combat patrol missions in the Persian Gulf in 1998 and the type has been part of subsequent U.S. military actions in the Middle East, including those in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Despite 10 times the normal usage and harsh conditions, OH-58Ds posted to the region are achieving a readiness rate of more than 80 percent, and the U.S. Army reports that the model is the most reliable helicopter in its inventory.