EMS Bell 429 operator reports ‘rock solid’ performance

 - May 25, 2010, 11:15 AM

The first operator of an EMS-configured Bell 429 light twin reports it is “more than happy” with the helicopter and its performance after flying 65 missions in less than a month. Des Moines-based Mercy Medical Center’s Mercy One placed its 429 into operation on April 10. Through early May it had flown the helicopter on a variety of missions, including scene work, hospital transfers, neonatal intensive care transport (NICU), dual-patient transport and IFR. Mercy One executives praised the 429’s speed, spacious and versatile cabin, and overall reliability.

“We’ve had this helicopter for 26 days and it has been rock solid,” said Dan Keough, Mercy One’s director of emergency transport services. So far the only real problem Mercy One has had with the helicopter were some door hinges that broke during the first few days of operation, but he said Bell fixed them in short order. “Neil Marshall [429 program director] and the crew from Bell were here almost instantly,” Keogh said.

Plenty of Room for Patients

Mercy One crews appreciate the 429’s speed. “The aircraft’s speed and power have well exceeded our expectations,’ Keough said. “Missions that used to take 45 to 50 minutes to fly [in Mercy One’s Eurocopter EC135] we can now do in 37. The 135 was a good workhorse, but with the 429 we can still make 130 knots across the ground into a 30-knot headwind. It’s a Corvette. This thing is fast.”

Mercy One pilots are reporting consistent fuel burns of 520 pph at speeds of 150 to 155 knots. Dennis Cochran, Mercy One program director, said power from the 429’s twin P&WC PW207D1s (1,100 shp each) makes it a natural for difficult scene work.
“There’s no problem lifting straight up at maximum takeoff weight. It dead lifts straight up like there was very little fuel on board and no one in the back,” he said.

While Bell is still working on taking weight out of the 429, Keough said weight has not been a factor for Mercy One. “It is not a concern for us because our missions are typically less than 125 miles each way. I can sit on the pad with 900 pounds [payload] and full fuel all day. We have not altered our mission profile at all. Anything we could do in the 135 we can do in the 429,” he said.

In fact, he said, Mercy One can do more, largely because of the 429’s larger cabin and cabin design. “Until we got the 429, we had to pre-qualify [patients] before they could ride in back. We had stopped [heart] balloon pump transfers and ride-alongs altogether and we had reduced the medical crew on NICU transfers from three to two. We had stopped taking OB patients [pregnant women] because we couldn’t turn them around inside the helicopter. The 135 had only a 15- to 16-inch clearance under the shelf through the rear-loading clamshell doors. So if we had a patient who was five-foot-two and 280 pounds, she wasn’t going to fit. With the 429 we have no worries about the patient’s girth,” Keough said, and Mercy One is again flying balloon-pump transfer patients. Keough also praised the ease with which two patients can be loaded aboard the 429. “We can get the second patient in there on a long board [stretcher] in two minutes,” he said.

Mercy One’s 429 is equipped with TAWS and will add NVGs in the near future once its pilots are trained on them. Although less than 10 percent of its missions are flown IFR, it is developing five point-in-space Waas approaches with Bell and Hickok & Associates–four at area hospitals and one at a rendezvous scene point in rural Stuart, Iowa, 45 miles southwest of Des Moines. The approaches will be approved down to ceilings of 300 to 500 feet and half-mile visibility. Last year weather forced Mercy One to turn down 126 flights and Keough thinks that with the Waas approaches and the 429, it could have recaptured as many as 50 of them.
“People keep asking us if we are happy with our decision to get the 429,” Keough said. “At the end of the day, we are more than happy.”