Going for a cold climb
Bell tests two helicopters

Doug Ashbury
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Feb 16/00) - It was a scene reminiscent of a busy medical centre where patients are subjected to several test which are monitored by teams of doctors.

The difference in this case was the experts were not trying to find anything wrong, they were ensuring everything was right.

The "patients" in this case were Bell helicopter 427 and 430 models which checked out A-OK. The "doctors" were a group of Bell Helicopter Textron employees from Mirabel, Que., who were flying, testing and gathering data on how the helicopters performed in cold climates.

By day, the group was hunkered down at the Ptarmigan Terminal at the Yellowknife Airport for a month. But much of their time was spent waiting for the weather to co-operate. Who knew it would go up to plus 2 C in late January?

"Unfortunately, of the four weeks, we had one total week of desired temperatures," said Peter Scheidler, Textron's senior technical specialist and the project co-ordinator.

"Waiting for the (cold) weather caused us to go a bit stir crazy," he said.

But pilots were able to conduct testing in temperatures as cold as -38 C.

Scheidler said despite some unexpected above-normal temperatures, the project was successful.

"We were able to get the (Transport Canada air worthiness) certificates," he said.

Scheidler added that Bell, which could have tested their 427 and 430 models in Northern Quebec, will consider coming back for future testing. And that is good news for city businesses. While in Yk, the group probably injected about $200,000 into the local economy. In addition to spending money on hotels, food and fuel, they rented 17 cars. Bell preferred not disclose how much it budgeted for the Yk test project.

To help monitor the helicopters, Bell had a data van -- a trailer packed with electronics and weather measuring equipment -- that was driven to Yk from Quebec. As for the helicopter-related data being collected, about 1,000 parameters are involved.

Of the two helicopters, the 427 is newer. Its prototype first flew three years ago. Scheidler said it has cost about $40 million to bring the 427 from the drawing board to production.

This Bell 427 -- customers should take delivery of the first models this spring -- is something of a sports-car in the world of helicopters. Powered by a pair of computer-controlled jet engines, it's top speed is about 150 miles per hour.

"It's very powerful and has lots of spunk," 427 pilot Carl Bertrand said. Bertrand said the 427 is rated to 140 knots (about 250 kilometres per hour), but when testing, the operational envelop is stretched. The Bell test pilot said top speed achieved during testing in Yk was 154 knots (280 kilometres per hour).

But the 430 model has been certified for a couple of years. Bell has sold about 60 units to date, one of which to Australian golfer Greg Norman. The 430 is no means a slouch; it's bigger than the 427 and has a top speed of 165 miles per hour.

The price tag on the 427 is about $2.1 million while a 430 can be yours for about $4 million. Twin-engined helicopters are often favoured for work over cities and water such as medical calls, police or news gathering applications.

These sleek, high-powered helicopters have come along way since the Bell 47 model which started the commercial helicopter industry in 1946. The 47 model, noted for its bubble cockpit, played a key role in the Korean War and was discontinued in 1973.