Some helicopters are more memorable than others. For instance, the Hughes 500 has an acute feeling of claustrophobia in its cosy cockpit, while a Squirrel almost always has a way of humbling even an experienced pilot with a wiggle of its skids on landing.
THIS MONTH’S ARTICLE is about a member of the Bell family and how this helicopter (with all its quirks) makes its way into my heart every time we fly together: the Bell LongRanger.
The Long in LongRanger has nothing to do with its range. Weird, I know. In fact, the very first versions of the Bell 206L family had a marked reduction in range over the standard 206 JetRanger.
From the beginning, Bell Helicopters ran with the Ranger name – from the Bell 47G Ranger in the 1950s to the 206 JetRanger, then on to the lengthened 206L LongRanger and ending with the ultimate rendition of the Ranger, the 4-bladed main rotor Bell 407, originally designated the PowerRanger. Yes, it sounds like a toy figure from the 1990s and is now known simply as the 407.
These helicopters all form part of the Bell 206 family for certification conformity, basically allowing newer versions to be type-certified with the Federal Aviation Administration in the USA more easily.
What’s so great about the LongRanger?
Well, basically, it’s to helicopters what the Toyota Hilux is to road vehicles. It can do absolutely anything you put it to. The LongRanger is “el-manwel” everything – from the basic modulated start, meaning you need to introduce the fuel yourself with the throttle during start, to the simple and easy-to-learn systems. In short, the 206L is a charm. The most amazing thing about the LongRanger is the exceptionally smooth ride in the cruise afforded by the Nodal Beam that supports the main rotor gearbox assembly, effectively snuffing out any unwanted vibes.
In fact, it’s so smooth that the Bell factory had to leave it slightly de-tuned to allow pilots to have a real feel on the controls. It actually feels nothing like the teetering, 2-blade helicopter it is, and more like the 4-blade Bell 407.
‘In short, the 206L is a charm’
I recently took a long trip early one morning from Ultimate Heliport in Midrand to Kimberley. It was an unscheduled, ad hoc flight necessitated by a client’s last-minute request to get there fast, with the only available ship a Bell 206L4 LongRanger. I wasn’t complaining.
The L4 was the last version produced on the Bell 206 line in Mirabel, Quebec, boasting a more powerful Allison C250-C30P engine mated to a stronger main rotor gearbox. The one I flew to the Northern Cape was built in 1996, clocking up a 27,000hr log history having worked, as so many L4s did, off the Gulf of Mexico ferrying oil riggers between platform and shore. The LongRanger was the favourite ship of the North American oil and gas industry for years, being a low-cost workhorse. With its modifications, the L4 was particularly popular.
When this machine arrived at her new home in Johannesburg, we noticed out of the crate that the starter button had been relocated from its normal position on the collective onto the cyclic control. This peculiar modification allowed
the pilot to attempt starting the helicopter in 30kt-plus winds while “stirring the pot”, preventing the main rotor from contacting the rotor mast. Normal for Gulf operations.
‘I swung the 45kg battery’
The journey I had planned in haste necessitated a technical stop in Klerksdorp for fuel, as I wasn’t entirely convinced we would make the 250NM journey with a 30-minute reserve. I chose to start the LongRanger with a Red Box auxiliary power battery as she hadn’t flown in some time. I also chose to take the auxiliary battery along for the trip. And I’m glad I did. It turns out the helicopter’s battery wasn’t up to the task, forcing me to start with auxiliary power every time. This took some doing, as it meant plugging in the Red Box lead into the nose aux plug, jumping into the chopper to start it, and then leaving it running while I jumped out, unplugged the aux battery and stowed it in the boot.
The fourth time was an unwelcome charm, as I unplugged the 45kg battery and swung it into the boot, jamming my thumb between battery and boot, taking a good layer of skin off in the process. Fortunately, there wasn’t anyone around to witness the torrent of cursing. Ouch. Oh well, it was a great trip anyway.
We managed to see the beautiful landscapes of the Free State flowing into the arid peace of the Northern Cape and got the best bird’s-eye view of the Big Hole, all in a day’s trip, in one of my favourite helicopters.