““[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.’” ”
It’s a capable machine that deserved to do better in the marketplace.
The race to capture the twin-engine corporate helicopter market began in earnest in the 1970s. Toward the end of the decade, Bell offered the 222 and Sikorsky introduced the S-76. Both became popular executive transports but the S-76 quickly established itself as the gold standard within the niche. It has sold more than 1,000 copies and remains in production today as the S-76D, which offers upgraded engines, avionics and rotor blades but features the same basic airframe as the original.
In the aviation game, building 30 copies a year—as Sikorsky has done with the S-76—is nothing to get particularly excited about. But Bell’s slightly smaller and less expensive 222 and its subsequent variants, including the 430, have not fared nearly that well, collectively being outsold by the Sikorsky nearly two to one.
When it came to medium twins, Bell struggled to get it right. The 222’s slick styling made it an instant hit and even the star performer in an otherwise forgettable 1980s television show, Airwolf. Once a week the unlikely duo of Jan-Michael Vincent and Ernest Borgnine would strap into their modified 222 and fly off to save the planet from some ridiculously improbable peril. The helicopter flawlessly did its job: distracting viewers from the particulars of the script.
As the saying goes, though, beware of marrying for looks. In real life, the 222 initially sold well, but production problems slowed deliveries. Once the helicopter reached customers, the news only got worse. The 222 was certified for single-pilot instrument flight, but the complex avionics that enabled it were a radio shop’s full-employment program. The LTS101 engines were problematic from both reliability and maintenance standpoints. The anti-vibration system on the two-blade main rotor disc worked well but required frequent repair. The 222 name seemed to fit: too many repairs, too much down time and too much expense. But the machine was pretty to look at.
After a decade of troubles with the 222, Bell went back to the drawing board, launching an improved variant with different engines and other tweaks called the 230. But even as the manufacturer was fielding the 230 it was making plans for a bigger, better contender, the Bell 430, which it launched in 1992 and began delivering in 1996.
The 430 is arguably the beast Bell should have bred in the first place. Compared with the 222 and the 230, it has more powerful engines; an 18-inch-longer fuselage that allows for a third passenger-seat row; a new four-blade, bearingless, hingeless composite main rotor that delivers great performance and a smooth ride; a decent factory-installed cabin soundproofing system; optional first-generation glass-panel avionics; and the choice of skids or retractable-wheel landing gear.
The twin Rolls-Royce 250-C40B turboshafts have a full-authority-digital-engine-control (Fadec) system and kick out plenty of power, producing 618 shaft horsepower each (continuous). The engines have made the 430 a top performer in hot and difficult climates, including India and the Middle East. They were one of the prime reasons why two adventurers, Ron Bower and John Williams, used an early production 430 to break the helicopter around-the-world speed record in 1996, completing the journey in 17 days, 6 hours and 14 minutes—a record that stood for more than a decade.
The rotor system’s primary structure consists of composite materials that resist corrosion and ease maintenance. Unlike traditional rotor systems that rely on hinges and lubricated bearings, the 430’s uses two composite yokes with fluid-filled dampers and shear restraints. The design makes for an almost jet-smooth ride.
The roomy passenger compartment measures more than eight feet long and five feet wide and is four feet five inches tall. Volume is 215 cubic feet—as big as some light jets. The baggage compartment, at 37 cubic feet, is somewhat lacking, and there is no way to make it larger. It is arguably the helicopter’s worst feature, although you can access it from the passenger cabin in flight. The main cabin doors are four feet three inches tall and three feet wide. They can be made even wider—up to four and a half feet—with the optional hinged “litter door” that attaches to the main door and just behind the crew compartment and can be folded out accordion style. If you have large passengers, passengers with mobility issues or outsized cargo, these doors are great and a must. Operated single-pilot, the 430 offers seating for nine passengers, or seven in plush executive configuration with all the amenities, including refreshment center, air telephone, club seats and individual passenger fresh-air gaspers.
Seat pitch is comparable to or even a few inches more than what you would find in jets, even in the relatively tighter three-row configuration: slightly less than 36 inches between each row. Six large cabin windows ensure a decent view for every passenger.
The wheeled-landing-gear variant has a significantly reduced fuel capacity compared with its skidded sibling: 187.5 gallons versus 247. (That’s because the side-mounted sponsons hold fuel and, when you also put the wheeled gear in them, they hold a lot less.) Without the optional 48-gallon auxiliary fuel tank, a wheeled 430, burning 88 gallons an hour, is essentially a two-hour helicopter. The good news is that it can carry a lot—no matter whether it’s on skids or wheels. Useful load is 3,975 pounds for skids and 3,942 pounds for the wheeled variant. The 430 can also carry sling loads of up to 3,500 pounds. Fully loaded, the helicopter weighs 9,300 pounds.
Bell produced just 129 Model 430s before production ended in 2010, by which time the price of a new one had climbed to $8.4 million. About half of all 430s were fitted with executive interiors. You can pick up a good 10-year-old one for less than $2 million and get a decent repaint and refurbishment for $200,000 to $300,000. That’s a bargain compared with the cost of a comparably used S-76 or the $6 million price for a somewhat smaller, but faster new Bell 429.
The 430 remains in service with offshore oil companies, federal governments, helicopter charter firms such as New York’s HeliFlite and Baltimore Helicopter Services, medevac operators and law-enforcement agencies such as the Michigan State Police, which flies its 430 almost 500 hours per year. The model is a capable helicopter that by all accounts should have done better in the marketplace, but being a derivative of the much-derided 222, it apparently could not shake off the sins of the father.
Mark Huber welcomes comments and suggestions at email@example.com.
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What our readers had to say
The article on the Bell 430 [“Used Helicopter Review,” October/November 2013] leads one to believe that it is a good buy. It may be, but there are several things to consider. It has significant performance issues at high altitude and in hot, humid areas. In Salt Lake the aircraft could carry only one hour of fuel to depart with three on board and in San Antonio useful load is 900 pounds in the summer. Because it is no longer in production, also, major components are not readily available, which can cause significant downtime.
On the plus side, it is a smooth-flying, fast machine. I think if Bell would upgrade the engines, modernize the avionics and improve parts availability it might be an option to consider.
R. De Leon
Nice to see a detailed, well-written article about this very capable aircraft. I have operated two of them VIP–a wheeled one and a skidded one. The skidded one has over three hours’ range with the aux tank and an average cruise of 130 knots. It is also some 400 pounds lighter than the wheeled one and thus payload is extremely good. Love flying them.