Flying the Bell 429
A week at the Farnborough International Airshow is normally a whirlwind of crammed press conferences, sweltering media chalets, madly-written news stories and, to dull the pain a little bit, the odd glass of champagne at the end of the day.
But the highlight of the week was undoubtedly the chance to fly in the Bell 429 on one of the many demonstration flights Bell flew from Farnborough throughout the show.
The company is steadily gaining a greater footprint in Europe and has experienced a 37% growth in commercial helicopter sales since 2012.
The Bell 429 has been the poster child of this growth. While a Bell 429 configured for EMS missions was on static display alongside the 505, the 525 (both mock-ups), and the 407GX, it was a corporate-configured 429 the company chose for flight demonstrations during the show.
Senior demonstration pilot Dave Salem is clearly a man happy in his work – as he coolly took us on a 20 minute flight west of the airfield, he casually chatted through the various features of the light twin helicopter.
While many of the features are more or less obligatory for an advanced modern helicopter – the glass cockpit, modern avionics and flight controls being pretty ubiquitous nowadays – the 429 nevertheless has some interesting discriminators.
The flight felt amazingly smooth – as I was fumbling with my video camera, we entered transitional lift and were away without the usual ‘shudder’ of flying out of a hover. While the 429 can seat seven passengers and one crew, the corporate configuration of the demonstration aircraft had seating for four in the back in what must be a very work-friendly environment.
I was allowed to take the controls myself for ten minutes or so and the helicopter is also extremely responsive. While the autopilot can handle the majority of the workload, when you are hands-on flying you only need to move your fingers slightly to feel a response.
As inexperienced as I am, I managed a few banking turns, which again felt smooth and easy (although I imagine Dave’s hands didn’t stray far from the controls).
While Dave has clearly mastered the patter of an excellent salesman, he noted that since most of the people taken up in the 429 were pilots themselves, he has simply been able to give them the controls and let the aircraft sell itself.
One aspect he did want to highlight was the eyes-out nature of operating the 429. The multifunction display includes a power situational indicator, which is the only gauge you need to monitor in-flight and ‘as long as you keep everything in the green’ you know that everything is fine.
The aircraft also features a one-engine inoperable function, allowing crews to train for the loss of one engine.
When Dave switched the one engine off, there was only a slight dip in engine noise and the aircraft maintained its altitude and heading. To further the point, Dave brought the aircraft into an out of ground effect hover and held it there while he showed me how the aircraft was coping with the additional stress.
While there are clearly ample reserves of power, the pilot is still able to override the systems and over-torque the engines in the event of a life-critical situation.
As well as helping demonstration pilots like Dave to showcase these performance benefits of the 429, the OEI function also has an obvious training utility.
You can view videos of our flight at the links below but it is easy to see why the 429 is beginning to be widely embraced.
Bell announced during Farnborough the signing of a purchase agreement with the Swedish National Police for seven 429s but, perhaps even more importantly, it also announced the sale of its first 429 in France, to INAER France, which will operate the aircraft on EMS mission in the west of the country.
This week the company also announced the signing of an agreement for the first two 429s configured for HEMS operations in the Middle East.
For a land-loving journalist, the demonstration flight was an excellent experience, although I was unable to apply my new-found skills to a flight simulator later that day!