By By Lee Benson | March 1, 2013
If you ask me what opportunities I consider to be my greatest blessings, meeting my wife would be on the top of that list. I would go on to say that serving as a helicopter pilot for the U.S. Army in Vietnam and working as a pilot for Los Angeles County fire would come in second and third. I mention this because this is my second article in which I presume to tell the Army how to do its business. I do this with great respect for the institution and its members. If your purpose is to manage anything well, than listen most closely to those with whom you disagree. Tempered with the reality that the disagreement needs to be rooted in the best interest of whatever you are trying to manage.
I have recently been within earshot of serving Army officers and others, who have expressed the opinion that the Army needs to replace the Bell Jet Ranger as their primary training aircraft.
The reasons given fall within three groups of thought: All Army pilots will fly glass cockpits throughout their career so they should start on glass. All Army pilots should began their career in a twin engine helicopters because that’s what they will fly for the rest of their career. The Jet Ranger is becoming harder to support, particularly because Bell Helicopter has chosen to discontinue its production.
Let me begin my rejection of these lines of reasoning by stating a few facts. With 7,300 aircraft produced between 1965 and 2010, excluding Russia, the Bell Jet Ranger is the most prolifically produced turbine powered helicopter in the world. It is the safest single engine helicopter in the world. I personally have in excess of 5,000 hours in Jet Rangers, every hour of which, except for check rides, was doing some sort of utility work usually in the mountains. I have had several engine failures in Jet Rangers and never put a scratch on any of them. Now we transition from facts to my opinion. This is not because I was a great pilot, it’s because the Jet Ranger is the most forgiving helicopter to autorotate I have ever flown. Somebody may make a better helicopter to autorotate, but I haven’t flown it.
The Jet Ranger has a very well balanced control touch for a primary training helicopter. Not too sensitive to control inputs such as an MBB Bo-105, MD500 or AS350, or too slow such as a Hiller OH23, or uneven in response like the FH-1100, that I unfortunately have more time in then I would prefer. Nothing wrong with the above aircraft, in fact the Bo-105 is my personal favorite helicopter to just fly, but I would not choose one as a primary trainer.
The question of should a primary trainer have a glass cockpit is interesting. If the Army convinces itself that somehow this will benefit primary students, then modify the existing aircraft.
Next is the thought that all Army pilots should fly twins from primary school on. Does anyone out there think that the number of engines in the aircraft had anything to do with their first 100 hours of flight training? So following this reasoning the Army will replace its training fleet with 150 new light twin helicopters at a cost of say, probably at least 500 million dollars. This will give them a fleet of aircraft that burns at least 70 percent more fuel and requires 40 percent more hours to maintain than what they currently use.
The last reason given is the aircraft is becoming difficult to maintain, in fact I have heard the term “unsustainable” used. A Rolls-Royce executive informed me that there are at least 10,000 C20s in the marketplace and support for this engine extends into the foreseeable future. Friends of mine have been doing agricultural spraying here in Ventura County with Jet Rangers since the late 70s. I asked them the other day what they thought and the basic answer was every 5,000 hours or so, we bring in the aircraft put it in a fixture address any issues and send it back out.
Van Horn Aviation builds a new carbon fiber tail rotor blade set for the Jet Ranger. These blades are about the same acquisition cost as the standard blades with double the time before overhaul. There are several other examples of products that have been brought to market for the Jet Ranger that improve performance and direct operating cost but space prohibits the full list. Unsustainable? Not lately!