Entry-Level Turbine Helicopters: Where We’ve Been and Where We Are

By Ernie Stephens | November 1, 2014
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Enstrom Departs ALEA 2014

Powered by a single Rolls-Royce 250-C20W turbine engine, the Enstrom 480B can be an entry-level turbine, or outfitted for higher-level duties. Photo by Ernie Stephens

Turbine helicopters have come a long way since 1958 when Charles Kaman had his engineers remove the piston engine from his HH-43 Huskie and replaced it with a T53-L-1B powerplant, making it the world’s first turbine helicopter to go into full production. (Bell’s UH-1A Iroquois was fitted with a T53-L-1A before the Huskie, but did not go into regular production until the following year.)

Kaman’s HH-43B may have been the first, but by 1970 nearly every war copter in a standing army was turbine powered. In the U.S., only the military’s primary rotorcraft trainers were still fitted with reciprocating engines.


In the 1960s and well into the 1970s, the civilian world was still flying a lot of piston aircraft because they were less expensive to acquire and operate than turbines. If they did have a turbine in their fleet, it was often a retired, single-engine UH-1, OH-58 or OH-6 from the Army or the Marine Corps, though occasionally a twin could be found in the hands of a heavy-lift company or air taxi outfit. If there was money for a new turbine, the recently-certified, five-place Bell 206 JetRanger was the aircraft of choice. In 1979, if a company wanted size, speed and luxury, it could buy Sikorsky’s new 12-passenger S-76 Spirit, the first helicopter built to target the executive VIP market.


“Entry level” is in the eyes of the customer. Therefore, a sophisticated ship, such as this single-engine Airbus EC120B, could be someone’s choice for their first turbine. Photo courtesy Airbus Helicopters

Today, the turbine market looks a lot different. Virtually every helicopter in the U.S. military – from initial trainers to the most sophisticated attack aircraft – are turbine powered. In the private sector, most every helicopter flown commercially has a turbine engine. The only sectors that remain solidly rooted in the piston world are helicopter flight instruction and personal use, both of which are dominated by the two-seat Robinson R22, the two-place Sikorsky (formerly Hughes) 300, and in growing numbers the four-seat Robinson R44.

Bill Richards owns Atlantic Rotors, a Maryland-based helicopter operation that provides helicopter charter, leasing and flight instruction services. He doesn’t see initial training in the civilian world switching out of piston aircraft anytime soon.

“I don’t know very many people who can train in turbine aircraft and pay for it out of their own pockets,” Richards said, referring to the $255 per hour that many schools charge to train in an R22, versus $900 per hour to train in a Bell 206B. “And helicopters are already three or four times the cost of fixed-wing aircraft.”

Some flight schools offer a transition course that will give the student five hours in a turbine. But even then, it may not be enough, since most companies that operate turbine helicopters want an applicant to have at least several hundred hours in them. And, like Richards said, few people have that kind of money.

So, with all of the military and most of the commercial operators (other than flight schools) utilizing turbine-powered aircraft, is there a middle ground between those and small reciprocating helicopters? The answer is yes, and it’s referred to as an entry-level turbine helicopter, or ELTH, for the purposes of this examination. But how does one define an ELTH?

R66 engine

The five-seat Robinson R66, which was certified in 2010, is powered by the Rolls-Royce RR300 engine. It was immediately marketed as an entry-level turbine helicopter. Photo courtesy of Robinson Helicopter

In its own definition of “entry level,” The Cambridge Aerospace Dictionary starts out by admitting that the term is not precisely defined. It then reads, “...the most common meaning is to describe small business jets, first to be bought by a customer, who may later change to a more costly replacement.” Out in the hangars, however, the more accepted definition is an aircraft with the mere basics of what’s needed to accomplish a given mission, which tends to make it the aircraft with the lowest acquisition and direct operating cost (DOC) in that mission category. And if the mission category is basic (i.e., flying one pilot and at least one passenger from point A to point B) an ELTH will most likely be the size of one of today’s piston helicopters but with a turbine.

Arguably the first ELTH arrived on the market in April of 1975 when Soloy of Olympia, Wash., received a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) from the FAA to replace the reciprocating engine in a Hiller Model 360, and later for a Bell 47. Both aircraft were well-received, but it was still just a modification.

Today, the ELTHs sold by the major manufacturers may be substantially different from one another based upon that company’s idea of what the market wants. For some, that will mean a three-seat helicopter with limited high-end options and configurations, while others might field a ship that can be outfitted as anything from a stripped down trainer to an executive transport with the latest technology.

The following is a short list of the original equipment manufacturers that build ELTHs, at least as defined above. But it is important to remember that the definition of “entry-level” is in the eyes of the beholder. Just ask the wealthy individuals who purchase “starter homes” for $2 million: It’s a starter home for those who feel that a mansion is the norm, and a mansion to someone who feels that $1,200 per month for a rented apartment is the norm.

Leading off the list is the Sikorsky S-333. Formerly a Schweizer 330, beginning in 1992 it was intended to compete for the job as the Army’s new light, single-engine turbine trainer. The aircraft’s 5.6-ft. wide cabin and unique seating arrangement – three abreast with the middle seat set slightly back from the others – would allow a flight instructor to observe two students on the controls, or let one student sit back and watch a fellow student manipulating the controls alongside of the instructor. The simplistic design made it economical while preparing military students for careers flying turbine aircraft. But when the Bell 206B Jet Ranger, designated the TH-67 Creek, won the bid for the U.S. Army’s new trainer, Schweizer immediately began marketing the aircraft as a four-seat ELTH to the civilian sector, and a trainer to foreign militaries.

The 330 received lukewarm acceptance from most sectors, in part because there were piston aircraft that performed nearly as well for less. The helicopter was given a makeover after Sikorsky acquired the company in 2004, dropped in a more powerful Rolls-Royce 250-C20W turbine engine, and rebranded it the S-333.

The S-333 managed to get a foothold as a turbine trainer in military and public safety circles, but got its biggest boost when engineers, in association with Northrop Grumman, created a variant dubbed the MQ-8B Fire Scout, an unmanned aircraft specializing in situational awareness and target acquisition.

Sikorsky is currently developing the S-434, which will sport a slightly redesigned hull and upgraded components.


In 1958, Charles Kaman replaced the piston engine in the HH-43B Huskie with a T53-L-1B powerplant, making it the first production helicopter in the world with a turbine engine. Photo by Ernie Stephens

In Menominee, Mich., Enstrom Helicopters builds its own version of the ELTH called the 480B. Based in large part on the company’s trademark “shark” hull design used for its piston designs, the Enstrom 480 became the first helicopter in the company’s history to be powered by a turbine engine.

Sales of Enstrom’s 480 began after it received FAA certification in November of 1993 and developed a loyal following with the private, civil and foreign military operators who had flown the piston-powered Enstrom 280. The 480B, which was certified in 2001, is powered by a Rolls Royce 250-C20W turbine that delivers 305 shp, and is finding a new market in Asia under the wing of its new owner, Chongqing Investment Company.

Orders are way up for the 480, an apparent testimonial to customers’ desire to own a 1+4 and 2+1 pilot/passenger aircraft as an ELTH, as well as a line of aircraft for law enforcement, power line patrol, military operations, and countless other missions.

MD Helicopters of Mesa, Ariz., also builds what many consider to be an ELTH, though the aircraft in other forms is anything but basic.

The MD500 traces its roots back to the 1960s when the Hughes Tool Company developed a small, single-engine turbine purchased by the U.S. Army to serve as a scout, a light utility platform, and even a gunship. Named the OH-6 Cayuse, the four-seat helicopter was one of the most basic turbines above the battlefield.

Nicknamed “the Loach” because of its official designation as an LOH (light observation helicopter), the nimble OH-6 was marketed in the civilian world as the Hughes 369, and was the big brother of the two-seat trainer the Hughes 269, which later became the Schweizer 300. But the name game for the Cayuse doesn’t stop in the 1960s.

Over the following four decades, the aircraft would be acquired by McDonnell Douglas, then Boeing, then Dutch-based RDM Holdings trading as MD Helicopters, then Patriarch Partners, the current owner that kept the MD Helicopter name. But a rose by any other name, including its modern designation MD500 and variants, is still a popular aircraft with police departments, utility companies, some business aviation departments and a growing number of foreign militaries in its variants. And even though Boeing purchased the rights to build the AH-6 gunship model for U.S. Army Special Forces, the basic airframe has not changed very much.

Although MD Helicopters does not push the MD500 as an ELTH, it can be found on the list of available aircraft at flight schools for students who wish to transition into turbine machines, and has often been the first choice of operations wishing to move from reciprocating engines in to turbines. Its modest cost and simple design seem to drive that.

Rounding out the list of popular ELTH is the newcomer to the arena, the Robinson R66.

In the 1970s, Frank Robinson, an engineer with Bell Helicopter at the time, thought the world was ready for a helicopter that an individual or small operation could afford to buy, rent or lease. So, he struck out on his own and spent years trying to make a safe but affordable helicopter for the average person, much the way Henry Ford wanted to build cars that almost anyone could own.

By the late 1970s, Robinson had gotten his two-place, piston-driven R22 certified and was marketing it against the popular Hughes 269/300 and remaining Bell 47s that were still flying. But acceptance by the flying public was not 100 percent enthusiastic. There were some fatal accidents. The low-inertia main rotor system required a lot more attention than the heads on other helicopters, plus seasoned pilots said Robinson’s T-handle cyclic gave the aircraft the feel of a toy. But after years of proving that his 900-lb. helicopter was sound, sales went through the roof, leading to several improved models that would make the R22 the world’s most popular helicopter trainer.

In 1990, Robinson achieved certification of his four-seat R44, but there were no hearts to win over this time. The R44 was readily accepted by the majority of the helicopter community, and were snapped up by R22 operators who wanted more seating and greater power. By the mid-2000s, sales of the R44 had surpassed those of the R22, and made it the aircraft of choice for many newsgathering agencies, tour operators and flight schools. In fact, flight school owners reported cases of former military pilots coming in for piston transition training. After all, new Army pilots only had turbine experience, and in order to get post-military jobs with civilian flight schools, they had to become proficient in the operation of reciprocating aircraft!

Robinson’s next step was to make a turbine helicopter that could be purchased for under $1 million, which would make it the easiest non-recip to transition into and operate for profit. The five-seat ship would be the R66, which was certified on Oct. 25, 2010.

The R66 is powered by a specially-designed Rolls Royce RR300 turbine engine that produces 224 (continuous) shp and can take the aircraft’s 2,700-lb. maximum gross takeoff weight to its 15,000-ft service ceiling. And sales have been very brisk.

There are other choices for an ELTH out there. RotorWay International of Chandler, Ariz. even offers a kit-built turbine helicopter. But the point is there are choices.

In Development:

Bell 505 Jet Ranger X Heli Expo 2014

Bell 505 Jet Ranger X

Bell 505 Jet Ranger X

Announced at Heli-Expo 2014 in prototype form, the Jet Ranger X is being designed from the ground up with input from pilots, maintenance personnel, operators and engineers alike in an effort to produce the perfect light, single-engine ELTH.

Marenco SKYe SH09

Photo courtesy of Marenco

Marenco Swiss Helicopter SKYe SH09

Having completed its first flight in September of 2014, the SH09 has moved one step closer to reaching the market as a very light, single-engine turbine. Its rear clamshell doors and unique see-through cockpit floor should make it an excellent utility platform, while its expected low operating costs might make it attractive for first-time turbine buyers.

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