Bell 206 - The Great Helicopter of America

Written By: Jack Buscombe

As the third most produced helicopter of all time, the Bell 206 needs no introduction. Originally designed for military purposes, the Bell 206 has seen extensive use in both commercial and private markets. The American made utility chopper produced more than 8,400 Bell Jetrangers during its 44 year production period. This article tells the story of the helicopter's origins, and some details on costs for owners in the modern market.

History of the Bell 206 JetRanger & LongRanger

The timeline of the Bell 206 started in 1960 when the US Army opened the Light Observation Helicopter (LOH) program; a regime to replace the outdated OH-13 Sioux. The program was an open request for design proposals for a 4-seat, turbine-powered, light observation helicopter.

By the start of 1961 the program had received 19 design submissions, including the original Bell YOH-4. The Bell design was initially rejected, in favour of the Hiller's YOH-5 and Hughes' YOH-6. Despite the initial failure, the early design set the stage for what would become the company's most successful helicopter.

The OH-58 Kiowa

After being knocked back by the US Army, the Bell Helicopter company redesigned the airframe and re-marketed the successive aircraft: the Bell 206A JetRanger. The rebuild was a 5-seat commercial chopper which took its first flight in January of 1966.

When the US Army reopened the LOH program for a second round in 1967, the newer Jetranger design won the draft and was enlisted by the US Army as the OH-58 Kiowa in 1968.

OH-58 Kiowa at Base

The Bell 206 LongRanger

Shortly after the success of the 206A, designs for a variant were being created to extend the seating capacity in the fuselage. After almost a decade, the company introduced the Bell 206L LongRanger in 1977. The LongRanger was a 7 seat helicopter which went on to produce more than 1,700 units across its many variants.

The extended body opened up opportunities for utility in a greater ranger of industries. For example, the LongRanger became a popular helicopter of choice in medical rescues and transfers.

Medical Rescue Demonstration in a LongRanger
Just waiting for a mate

After 40 years and multiple variants, Bell Textron closed production of the LongRanger in June 2017. These days, the Bell company is still producing its 4-blade relative, the Bell 407.

TwinRanger - Double Trouble

In the mid 1980's Bell Helicopter developed a twin engine version of the LongRanger. It was aptly titled the Bell 400 TwinRanger and the prototype took its first flight on the 4th of April 1984.

Twin Engine Gemini ST

The TwinRanger never went on to full production, however Tridair Helicopters began developing a twin-engine conversion of the LongRanger in 1989. Under the name of Gemini ST, the twin-engine chopper saw commercial success, which eventually led to Bell Helicopter company producing the Bell 206LT TwinRanger, and then the more modern Bell 427.

The Bell 407 - Out with the old, in with the new

In 1995, production began on the JetRanger's successor - the Bell 407. Instead of the standard 2-blade rotor system featured on the JetRangers, the 407 featured 4 blades. The Bell 407 features a 522kW Rolls-Royce 250-C47B turboshaft engine - significantly more powerful than the 206 variants.

Bell 407 Utility Helicopter

In 2017, production reached 1,700 helicopters and remains one of the major players in the Bell Textron fleet.

Competition for the Bell 206

With the introduction of the Robinson R44 in 1993, the helicopter charter market has seen a shift over the last 20 years. Charter companies started replacing their 206 choppers for the more lightweight and cheaper-to-run R44s.

Close Call with a Bell 206 & Robinson R44

The trade-off for lower running costs however meant that passenger capacity would reduce. The R44's could only seat 3 passengers, instead of the 5-7 passenger capacity of the Bell 206.

The overwhelming presence of R44's in the modern commercial aviation market proves that the trade-off has been a worthwhile one. The large majority of charter groups and scenic flights run for 2-3 passengers, making the Bell 206 value proposition mainly for larger groups. And this is where the Bell 206 does most of it's work in the private and commercial space nowdays.

Bell 505 Jet Ranger X - The R66 Killer?

As the popularity of the modern-day Robinson helicopters pushed the Bell 206 choppers out of the charter market, Bell Textron Inc. got to work on their response to the Robinson R66 in 2015. To regain their place in the charter market and enter the light-utility space, Bell Textron announced the 505 Jetranger X to replace the five-seat 206 models.

Bell 505 Helicopter

The design took a complete makeover of the original 206 models, however it lended some of the old compnents from the LongRanger, such as the rotor system.

With production commencing in 2016, development is still fresh for the 505. With around 150 orders per year, less than 500 of the Jet Ranger X's have been delivered, however the company has stated demand for light-weight chopper is increasing.

Specifications

Bell 206B JetRangerBell 206L LongRanger
Engine TypeSingle Rolls-Royce Allison 250-C20B turboshaft engine (313 kW)Single Rolls-Royce Allison 250-C30P turboshaft engine (415kW)
Capacity5 (1 pilot, 4 passengers)7 (1 pilot, 6 passengers)
Range693kms (374 nautical miles)628kms (339 nautical miles)
Cruising Speed219 km/h (118 knots)229km/h (124 knots)
Max Service Altitude20,000ft (6,096 metres)13,500 ft (4,115 metres)
Weight730kgs (1,609lbs)844kgs (1,861lbs)
Max Takeoff Weight1,451kgs (3,200lbs)1,814kgs (4,000lbs)
Length11.96 metres (39ft 3 inches)12.88 metres (42ft 3 inches)
Height2.91 metres (9 ft 7 inches)3.14 metres (10ft 4 inches)
Specifiactions of the Bell 206 JetRanger & LongRanger

Operating Costs of the Bell 206 JetRanger

The Bell 206B Jetranger costs approximately $500USD to operate per flight hour. This approximation accounts for direct fuel and oil costs, maintenance labour/parts, insurance expense, allocated housing costs and landing fees.

For its size, the 206 is considered to be relatively affordable to run and maintain - similar to an Airbus EC-120B. Operation costs will vary significantly depending on a number of factors across each of the following cost categories. The breakdown of these costs is shown below.

Variable Costs - Fuel & Oil

The direct variable costs of operating the JetRanger mainly comprise of fuel and oil. For the purpose of our analysis, landing/airport fees are excluded. Assume the current average cost of Avgas = $5USD per gallon.

  • Burn Rate = 30 gallons per flight hour
  • Hourly Fuel Cost = 30*$5 = $150USD per flight hour
  • Oil Costs = $10 per flight hour
  • Total Variable Direct Costs = $160 per flight hour

The price of these costs will vary significantly depending on a number of factors including climate conditions, pilot approach, helicopter age, total clocked flight hours and maintenance schedule.

Maintenance Costs

Bell 206 in Maintenance

Maintenance costs are typically split between engine maintenance reserve and rotor maintenance reserve. An expense for every flight hour should be allocated to maintenance based on past experience with the helicopter.

The number of maintenance hours required for a Bell 206 will vary significantly depending on age, flight frequency/utility and standard of ongoing care. There is no way to predict the expect maintenance reserve costs, however the best estimate we can collect is through owner surveys.

Data from the Aircraft Cost Calculator suggests that maintenance costs can sit between $50,000-$150,000USD per year, assuming maintenance labour costs at $30USD per hour.

On page 6 (page 40 in the PDF) of the Bell 206 Maintenance Manual (Vol 1), it suggests that inspections be performed every 300 flight hours, or each 6 months (whichever is less).

Fixed Costs - Housing & Insurance

A survey conducted by the Aircraft Cost Calculator suggests that based on 450 annual flight hours (8.5 hours per week), total annual fixed costs average at $155,000USD. This incorporates hangar and insurance costs.

Insurances

Accident in a Bell Helicopter
At least it landed upright...

Insurance premiums are often significant cost of owning a helicopter, or any high-value asset for that matter.

Hull coverage for post-1990 Bell 206s start around $400,000USD. Insurance costs will often sit above $10,000 per year. However, given the impressive safety rating of the Bell 206, insurances are far more affordable than many helicopters of similar nature.

For a modern Bell 206B3 with $400,000US in hull cover and $1,000,000USD liability insurance, popular US Insurers have quoted:

  • Around $12,000USD annual premiums for qualified pilots, and
  • Around $19,500USD annual premiums for less-qualified pilots (non-IFR).

Insurance premiums for liability cover exclusively (without hull cover) will range between $2,000-$3,000USD per year.

Generally speaking, insurance premiums will depend on a number of factors, including:

  • helicopter age/model
  • depth of cover (full hull coverage, or just liability)
  • use (private, or commercial)
  • pilot experience
  • flight hours, and so on.

Hangar Costs

3 Bell 206's in the Hangar
3 Bells, anyone?

Hangar costs for helicopters will usually be $4,000AUD per year in semi-metropolitan areas.

While it's possible to own a hangar, most aircraft owners rent aircraft housing from the airport, or a 3rd party. Aircraft housing rental prices vary widely depending on location and hangar size.

For example, monthly hangar costs at Bankstown airport in Sydney have been known to cost $550AUD per month ($6,600+), whereas a hangar at Bundaberg, QLD can be as cheap as $140 per month ($1,680).

Price to Buy & Rent a Bell Jetranger

While production of the Bell 206 stopped in 2010, a Bell JetRanger would typically cost between $700,000-$1.2Million USD to buy brand new before manufacturing halted.

These days, A new Bell 407 costs $3.1million USD. This is the subsequent model built upon the 206L LongRangers.

Minimalist Jetranger Panel

Buying a used 206 JetRanger

Since production of all 206 models finished some years ago, used markets are currently the only place to buy one. Most trades happen through personal connections or in local aviation ecosystems. However, there are websites like Controller and AvBuyer that connect buyers and sellers.

The regular purchase price of a Bell 206 varies significantly based on the model/variant and age of the helicopter. Since production began 55 years ago, there's some seriously old choppers for sale!

Generally speaking a Jetranger less than 30 years old will cost between $600,000-$900,000USD. However, some 1970's 206B III's are priced between $250,000-$500,000USD.

How much Does it cost to rent a Jetranger?

In Australia, you can expect to pay about $1,500AUD for dry hire of a JetRanger. If you're looking to charter a JetRanger with a pilot, prices are usually around $1,700AUD per flight hour.

In the United States, companies like Paramount Business Jets will charge an hourly rental fee of about $1,100USD per hour.

Private Hire of the Bell 206

How Safe is a Bell Jetranger

The Bell 206 has long been considered one of the safest helicopters produced of all time. For several years, the United States National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) voted the Bell Jetranger as the safest single-engine aircraft in the world.

The NTSB reported a total of 382 fatalities in the Bell 206s between 1980-2004 (average of ~16 fatalities per year). Bell studies suggest that ~75% of accident are caused by pilot (human error).

In 1985 and 1986, Bell undertook a study which investigated how to mitigate the human-related accidents. The findings lead to the development of the Helicopter Professional Pilots Safety (HELIPROPS) program - additional face-to-face training for pilots. Through the additional training starting in 1987, fatality rates would decrease drastically over the proceeding years, and fatality rates have stayed low since.

Bell 206 Fatalities with Benchmark

The data provided by the NTSB shows that the 206 itself, is both safe and reliable. There are numerous recounts from helicopter business owners that praise the reliability of the Jetrangers. A public example of this is the Los Angeles Police Department that used a Bell 206 for more than 26,000 flight hours.

Notable moments for the Bell 206

Dick Smith's Bell 206 on Display at the Kings School Science Learning Centre
Dick Smith's Bell 206 (VH-DIK) on display in Parramatta NSW, AUS

Conclusion

While the longstanding Bell 206 helicopters have stopped production, the Bell company is still achieving commercial success with the subsequent 407 model. Bell has not yielded to letting production standards fall and the newer models are still the sturdy workhorse that enthusiasts grew to love over the last 50 years.

With the increasing popularity of the 505 Jet Ranger X, it'll be interesting to see how the next decade unfolds for the Bell and Robinson helicopter companies. There is no doubt that shift toward lighter and affordable helicopters in the charter industry has been a blow for the legacy of the JetRanger/LongRanger helicopters.

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