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Bell 407 GXi: Stepping it up Again

Bell’s pitch for the U.S. Navy trainer replacement has been significantly upgraded from its predecessor.

Like many newly minted helicopter pilots, the Bell 206 JetRanger was the first turbine-powered rotorcraft I cut my teeth on. Despite the various models I’ve flown since, it’s always held a special place. So, you can bet I was happy when I was asked to fly Bell’s 407GXi, the latest evolution of the 407 line.

First certified in 1996, the 407 was bred from the B206’s bigger brother, the LongRanger. Its fuselage and tail feathers were born of the familiar Bell 206L shape, but a few inches wider and with composite tailboom. Instead of the simplistic teetering two-bladed rotor, the 407 borrowed the four-bladed soft-in-plane composite rotor system found on the U.S. Army’s OH-58D Kiowa Warrior. Pairing up the airframe with a Rolls-Royce Allison 250-C47 turboshaft engine gave Bell another winning incarnation of its light single-engine helicopter line.

As digital cockpits made their way around the industry, Bell saw an opportunity to become the first manufacturer to certify a Garmin G1000 for use in a helicopter. In fact, it comfortably fit two of the multi-function displays (MFDs) in the panel side by side, and a game-changing avionics suite became available in the model 407GX, sporting a pair of the newly-certified G1000Hs.

The next digital upgrade came in the form of a full-authority digital engine control (FADEC). While the 250-C47 engine already allowed the 407 to outperform the JetRanger by a healthy margin, the 862 shp of the Rolls-Royce 250-C47B/8 married to a FADEC gave the 407 a sizeable improvement in hot-and-high performance over the GX, in an upgrade dubbed the 407GXP.

Fast forward to present day. Not content with leaving well enough alone, Bell has found yet another way to improve upon its 407 line, and I was about to fly it.

It was a misty, overcast day in Fort Worth, Texas, as I was introduced to Will Williamson, my Bell demo pilot. We briefed the flight with the crew of the Bell 429 chase aircraft that would be shooting aerial photos and video of the 407GXi in action. As an added treat, I got to talk shop with legendary aviation photographer Jay Miller and Bell videographer Dana Bayne. These are the guys who know how to get the shots that give unique personality to every aircraft. Both would be wielding cameras out of the side of the 429 as they flew in formation with us.

Walking up to the GXi, I had no indication that it was different than any other 407 model. Upon entering the cockpit, a few “old-school” features let me know I was definitely strapping on a Bell helicopter. The overhead panel and rotor brake looked very reminiscent of the B206 line — as was the case with the foot knob-adjustable tail rotor pedals, and the signature cork-wrapped collective. But when I directed my gaze forward, I was greeted by two big 10.4-inch displays comprising the Garmin G1000H NXi Flight Deck Integrated Avionics System, leaving no doubt that I was definitely not in Kansas anymore.

The GXi comfortably fits two of the multi-function displays (MFDs) in the panel side by side.Photo by Frank Lombardi

Turning on the master switch, the displays ran their built-in test and quickly came alive. The NXi avionics system is run by new dual-core processors, one of the primary upgrades to the G1000H. With double the computing power, the NXi can boot up faster; pan, zoom and refresh more quickly; and display information with razor-sharp clarity beyond that of the original model.

The two large MFDs provide more than enough screen real estate to display all the pertinent information an aviator might want. Amongst the many mapping, navigation and performance monitoring pages available, Williamson selected the weight and balance page on the left MFD and input our loading info. Our center of gravity location was automatically calculated, and a graphical display showed us how it would change as we burned fuel.

Williamson then held up a mobile tablet and explained that a new feature of the G1000H NXi is its wireless capability through Garmin’s Flight Stream 510 memory card that has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity.

“You can do your flight planning in the office on your mobile device running apps like Garmin Pilot or ForeFlight mobile, and then sync it with the NXi for seamless, easy transfer of all your work when you get in the aircraft,” Williamson said.

Startup was straightforward and simple. With fuel-boost pumps on and twist grip set, hitting the starter left us nothing to do but monitor the large power situation indicator (PSI) on the MFD’s engine page, as the FADEC took complete control of the engine start. At this time, Williamson highlighted another of the GXi’s significant upgrades. The FADEC of the new Rolls-Royce M250-C47E/4 engine is now dual-channel. In the event of a FADEC failure, instead of reverting to manual mode where the pilot would be required to manipulate the throttle, this system will switch to the second primary FADEC channel, adding a nice bit of redundancy.

An additional subtle but important change made to this FADEC is new logic built into the fuel control. If the pilot happens to start the engine with the twist grip in the “fly” position, the FADEC will recognize this, and at the end of the normal engine start, it will smoothly roll the throttle up to full, rather than with an abrupt and potentially dangerous rapid acceleration.

With a call for clearance and a quick health check of all our engine instruments, we lifted off of the flight line. Let me say that this aircraft was smooth. Despite all the eye-catching electronic wizardry on the panel before me, the soft-in-plane composite rotor was dialed in so nicely that I really took notice of the ride.

As we headed toward the skyline of Fort Worth through the mist, I was happy to have the large primary flight display (PFD) of the NXi with synthetic vision to look at. I easily scanned airspeed, altitude and heading, as well as power settings on the inset PSI. Behind them on the same display, I had crisp full-screen 3-D “virtual reality” graphics depicting my attitude, the landscape, obstacles and even wires that I was seeing appear out of the mist.

The helicopter terrain awareness and warning system (HTAWS) got a workout, as we circled the city. Between color-changing terrain, obstacle symbols that grew in size to really grab our attention and aural warnings as the possibility of collision increased, there was plenty of cueing to help maintain situational awareness and keep us out of harm’s way. Other features such as Sirius XM weather and even satellite radio are available through an optional subscription.

The GXi is powered by a FADEC dual-channel Rolls-Royce M250-C47E/4.Photo courtesy of Bell

The two G1000H NXis are quite literally the heart of the avionics system. Internal to them are integrated GPS/WAAS receivers, VHF COM transceivers, VHF NAV and Glideslope receivers, air data and attitude heading reference system, engine/systems signal processors, audio tone generators and Mode S transponder with both ADS-B Out and In. The dual reconfigurable PFD/MFDs provide peace of mind that all the tech packed inside has redundancy and reliability.

After a few laps around the city, we headed back toward the Bell facility. At one point, I thought my demo pilot was speaking to me, but he was actually demonstrating the voice-command feature of changing radio frequencies. It may be useful to some — and eerie to others — but it’s another way to keep the pilot’s hands on the controls and reduce workload. To demonstrate a workload reduction with hands off the controls, we briefly engaged the optional two-axis autopilot’s heading and altitude hold.

When we disengaged the autopilot, the real fun began. After dropping down a bit to follow a lazy river, Williamson demonstrated the ability of the new FADEC to manage changes in power demand as we banked from side to side, carving out the river’s shape below us. I watched as the needle showing rotor RPM barely moved in response to the increased requirements while loaded up in a tight turn. The new M250-C47E/4 is also said to offer about a 4% improvement in range and fuel consumption.

The flight terminated with a pass by Bell’s new training facility that was still under construction and then a landing back at its current flight line at headquarters, just as the sun began to break out.

With the U.S. Navy looking to replace its aging TH-57 training helicopters on the horizon, Bell is pitching the 407GXi as its successor. Both Airbus and Leonardo also will be in the running. However, Bell is the manufacturer of the TH-57 line, making the transition between products potentially easier. The full bid spec has yet to be announced, but it will most likely require an instrument flight rules certification.

To be honest, virtually all of the upgrades that make up the $3.1 million 407GXi can be considered “under the hood.” Despite this, add a level of performance, redundancy, safety and enhanced operability worthy of a new model. It would seem that Bell’s 407GXi is yet another winner and worth a look by all single-engine operators, no matter the mission. RWI