““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Bell 206 JetRanger III
Every day, a fleet of more than 600 helicopters transports 10,000 passengers to and from thousands of oil and natural gas rigs and platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. For the better part of the last four decades, one helicopter model has dominated that fleet: the five-seat Bell JetRanger.
The turbine single-engine Model 206 JetRanger's popularity in the Gulf testifies to its durable, rugged, no-frills design, which delivers respectable and reliable performance at a reasonable price. Such attributes financially resonate with helicopter companies servicing the "boom and bust" offshore world, even in today's environment of rocketing energy prices.
Helicopters in the Gulf fly long, hard hours and offshore operations consistently post some of the highest rotorcraft accident rates. The average single-engine turbine ship there logs 662 hours per year while the typical civilian single-turbine helicopter flies less than 200 hours. With offshore flights averaging only 18 minutes, that's a whole lot of up-and-down, which stresses both critical components and pilots. The JetRanger has excelled in this environment, and its reputation for doing so keeps existing owners loyal and attracts new ones. Eric Brunner is one example. He bought a used JetRanger for his Red Rock air tour business in arid Sedona, Ariz. His reason? "The JetRanger has proven itself in the Gulf for 40 years," he said.
The JetRanger is, in fact, the most ubiquitous turbine single-engine helicopter in the world. By the beginning of 2007, more than 4,800 Model 206B JetRangers and 1,700 of its larger engine, stretched seven-seat variant, the 206L LongRanger, had been delivered and the fleet had amassed more than 55 million operating hours. Two years ago, Bell reported that the highest time JetRanger had accumulated an astonishing 38,000 flight hours. JetRangers have set numerous distance records, including several around-the-world flights.
Simple design is key to the model's endurance. Morgan Kozloski, a pilot and the operations manager for Hillsboro Aviation in Oregon, has flown JetRangers for seven years on diverse missions, including power-line patrol, fish-and-game surveys and passenger tours of the Mount St. Helens volcano. He called the helicopter "bulletproof" and added, "They just don't break. They are just really simple machines."
While more efficient and complex three-, four- and even five-bladed main rotor designs have emerged over the last 40 years, the JetRanger's time-tested two-blade system remains one of the least burdensome to maintain. And because the blades can be turned parallel to the fuselage, "Two-bladed systems are easier to hangar," said Sgt. Jeff Thuelen of the Omaha, Neb. police. His department recently ordered two new JetRangers after years of flying surplus OH-58s, a militarized version of the model.
Over the years, Bell has made numerous improvements to the helicopter. The biggest came in 1977 with the advent of the JetRanger III, or Model 206B-3, which addressed a long-standing knock that the ship was underpowered. The new Rolls-Royce 250-20J engine boosted shaft horsepower by almost 25 percent. Recently, Bell began offering upgraded "glass panel" avionics.
You can load up a JetRanger with lots of options but it is always good to be mindful of weight, advised Morgan Kozloski, who suggested installing "the bare minimum to get the job done" to preserve the helicopter's power and payload capabilities. With full fuel, the 3,200-pound (maximum loaded) 206B-3 can carry 888 pounds at moderate temperatures, cruise at 115 knots and climb at 1,280 feet per minute. The Rolls engine burns about 26 gallons an hour from the 91-gallon fuel tank and that translates into 4.5 hours of endurance when the helicopter is slowed to 50 knots. Realistically, it means three hours at normal cruising speeds with a prudent reserve or about 60 minutes longer than the MD 500E equipped with standard tanks.
One thing Bell hasn't been able to do much about is the JetRanger's cabin size, which belies the ship's military heritage. Translation: It's really tight. I'm six feet tall and if I were buying solely on cabin comfort-either in the front or the back-I might pass on the basic 206B-3. The cabin is a cramped 46.8 inches wide and, aft of the bulkhead behind the pilots, it is only 40 inches long. That includes the rear bench seat.
Unlike the 500E, the JetRanger has a separate aft luggage compartment, but it's fairly small at 16 cubic feet.
Cabin size has cost Bell some sales over the years, which the company tacitly admitted when it came out with stretched (and pricier) JetRanger variants, the LongRanger and 407 models. The extra cabin space in competitors' helicopters comes with an even steeper price tag, however. For example, the Eurocopter AS 350B-2 AStar's cabin is 65 inches wide and 79 inches long, but the model burns twice the fuel, costs twice as much to buy and is more expensive to maintain than a JetRanger.
While the used helicopter market is very tight now, you can acquire a good 10-year-old JetRanger with a mid-life engine for a little more than $500,000 (see chart below left), about half the price of a new ship. Helicopter flights are relatively short, so those economics may argue in favor of putting up with occasional discomfort.
There are two more things to consider. The JetRanger has the lowest overall accident rate of any major single-engine turbine helicopter (see chart on this page) and Bell consistently ranks tops among helicopter manufacturers in the customer service and support survey in our sister publication, Aviation International News. Tight cabin aside, that makes the Bell JetRanger an endearing, and an enduring, value.