Bell 47 - The Helicopter from M*A*S*H

Written By: Jack Buscombe

Everybody's favourite TV show 'M*A*S*H' (it's probably on right now), features a very prominent helicopter in the episode opener. You can probably visualise it - the flying goldfish bowl with a tail. But apart from M*A*S*H diehards, aviation enthusiasts and veterans, few people know anything about it. It's the Bell 47 and it's had a pretty wicked history. As one of the most produced choppers of all time, it was the primary observation helicopter early in the Vietnam war.

A Brief History of the Bell 47

After its first successful flight on the 8th December 1945, the Bell 47 officially became the first helicopter certified for civilian use. Thereon, production began in 1946 and delivered the first civilian helicopter to Helicopter Air Transport Inc. on the final day of that year. While the original 47 model was unrefined, this moment changed the helicopter industry forever.

Across the US Bell Helicopter manufacturer and the license-holders for production in other countries, more than 5,600 Bell 47's were made between 1946-1974. This made the Bell 47 the 4th most produced helicopter of all time.

Bell 47D1 from 1971

As with many of the Bell helicopters that came after the 47, it was used extensively for military purposes over the decades. The Bell 47 was introduced to the US Army fleet in the late 1950's as the Vietnam was began and Korean war was ending. Originally enlisted by the US military, the 'H-13 Sioux' was created as an modified Bell 47 for military purposes.

The Bell H-13 Sioux was in the military fleet for 36 countries. As well a being manufacture by Bell in the United states, the Bell 47 was licensed by Agusta in Italy, Westland Aircraft in the UK and Kawasaki Heavy Industries in Japan.

Design Development

The original Bell 47 was based on the very different looking Bell Model 30 - the first creation of the Bell Aircraft Company. With more of a cylindrical-looking fuselage, the Bell 30 was less powerful and was created for commercial purposes. While only 3 of the Bell 30's were built, it set up the basis for what the legendary Bell 47 would become.

Bell 30
Bell Model 30 on a brochure cover from 1943!

When the Bell 47 began production in 1946, the original model featured a single 178 hp (133 kW) Franklin piston engine. Shortly after, Bell released the improved 47A model, which would become the first helicopter ordered by the US Air Force. The Bell 47A featured a 157 horsepower Franklin O-335-1 piston engine.

In 1948, One year after the original orders from the US army, the H-13 was created as a modification to better suit military requirements.

Since then, Bell went on to create several variations of the Bell 47, with the 47G as the company's most popular model. The Bell 47G base model featured a 200 hp (149 kW) Franklin engine and featured a twin saddle-bag fuel tank.

Why they don't make the Bell 47 anymore

The Bell 47 became effectively obsolete when the US army replaced their light observation helicopters for the Bell 206.

In 1960 as part of the Light Observation Helicopter (LOH) program, the US army opened requests to improve the design and build of the OH-13 Sioux (the military model of the Bell 47). In 1965, the Hughes OH-6 Cayuse eventually won the contract to replace the OH-13 Sioux. And in 1967 as part of the second round of the LOH, Bell won the contract back with the Bell 206A Jetranger.

OH-58 Kiowa at Base
Bell 206 (OH-58 Kiowa) replaced the Bell 47 in the US Military

As the Jetranger gained popularity, the company shifted their production efforts away from the Bell 47 in substitute for the newer 206 chopper. After 28 years and over 5,600 helicopters, Bell eventually announced the closing of production for the Bell 47 in 1974.

These days, it's rare to see a Bell 47. When the Bell R22 was introduced to the market in 1979, flight schools and charter companies across the world made the switch almost overnight. The Robinson R22 was:

  • About 25% cheaper to buy
  • Burned half the amount of fuel, and
  • maintenance was a quarter of the price

For a business, the switch from the Bell 47 to the Robinson R22 was a no-brainer. The gradual demise of the Bell 47 in the 1980's was a product of the Robinson R22's success.

The Bell 47 on the big screen

In 1970, the Bell 47D-1 (H-13 Sioux) appeared extensively in the feature film M*A*S*H. The success of the film lead on to create a TV show spin-off which ran from 1972-1983 and built a cult following.

One of the original M*A*S*H helicopters now resides at the American Helicopter Museum & Education Center in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

The original M*A*S*H helicopter
The original M*A*S*H Bell 47 in Pennsylvania

While M*A*S*H was the Bell 47's most prominent public appearance, it featured in many films, including:

  • Whirlybirds (1957-1960 TV Series)
  • James Bond - Thunderball (1965)
  • Batman (1966) - appeared as the 'Batcopter'
  • ...And Justice for All (1979)

Bell 47G Specifications

  • Engine Type = Six-cylinder Lycoming TVO-435 piston engine - 210kW (280 horsepower)
  • Capacity = 3 seats (1-2 pilots and 1 passenger)
  • Range = 214 nautical miles (396kms)
  • Cruising Speed = 135 km/h (73 knots)
  • Max service altitude = 10,500ft (3,200 metres)
  • Weight = 859 kgs (1,893lbs)
  • Max Takeoff Weight = 1,338kgs (2,950lbs)
  • Length = 9.6 metres (31 ft, 7 inches)
  • Height = 2.2 metres (9 ft, 3 inches)

How much does a Bell 47 Cost to Buy

Well kept Bell 47 in a hangar

A Bell 47 helicopter hasn't been produced for almost 50 years, so there are very few models to be found on the second-hand market. I should clarify; very few Bell 47's in good condition. It's difficult to find one for sale outside of the US, as this is where there were manufactured and kept for the last decades.

A Bell 47 will usually cost around $100,000-$150,000USD, depending on the age and condition of the helicopter. This is relatively cheap compared to other helicopters of similar nature. And there's no doubt they have a particularly unique aesthetic.

The best place to find second hand Bell 47's are on marketplaces such as Trade-A-Plane. Some of the ex-military models still have the iconic 'ARMY' print on the side of the fuselage. It's an expensive collectors item for hardcore M*A*S*H fans, but it certainly turns heads.

Alternatively, charter rentals and scenic tours in a Bell 47 will cost around $500USD per hour.

The New Bell 47

In 2009, Scott's - Bell, Inc. acquired the Type Certificates for Bell’s Model 47 helicopter. From this, they have become the original equipment manufacturer for the Bell 47 and the go-to for parts and support.

Over the last 10 years, Scott's - Bell, Inc. has been building new Bell 47's from scratch and deliveries began in 2016. On the outside you get a true homage to the original Bell 47, but under the hood is a modern and more reliable setup; the best of both worlds.

Scott's Bell 47 model
The newer model made by Scott's Bell 47

The newer Bell 47GT-6 by Scott's Bell, Inc. is a turboshaft powered helicopter featuring the same Rolls Royce RR300 engine that's in a Robinson R66. The price of the new Bell 47 created by Scott's - Bell, Inc. is $820,000. Quite a bit more than one of the original 47's!

Operation Costs of a Bell 47

Bell 47G housed in Dallas

Now we know that buying a Bell 47 is relatively affordable, we should look at the ongoing costs of having ownership. As they say, 'buying a helicopter is the cheapest part of owning one'. So for starters, it's worthwhile mentioning that a Bell 47 is not cheap to run. In fact, a Bell 47 will usually cost upward of $3,000USD to run per month. Let's have a look at everything involved.

  • Base inspection: $4,000USD (~40 hours labour)
  • New blades overhaul: $15,000USD (or $50,000USD every 5,000 hours on metal rotors)
  • Root-end repairs: $6,500 per year
  • Engine and airframe overhaul: $125,000USD every 1,200 flight hours.
  • Insurance: $6,000USD/year (no hull coverage), or $20,000USD/year for commercial insurance coverage.

As the most significant cost, owners need to be prepared for significant maintenance costs. Remember, buying the helicopter is just the start!

Operating Costs with Minimum Maintenance Reserve

The total costs with minimum maintenance Reserve is $223USD/hour. This includes:

  • $10.00 New main rotor after 4,000 hours
  • $3.50 Tail rotor rebuild after 4,000 hours
  • $105 Engine and Airframe overhaul after 1,200 hours
  • $90 15gph fuel burn at $6.00/gal
  • $3 Quart of oil every 2 hours (not uncommon, so let's figure it in)
  • $2 Oil change every 25 hours
  • $9 Rotor grease job every 12 hours (or after being flown in the rain)
Components of a Bell 47
The simple components of a Bell 47

Fixed Costs

Fixed costs are expected to be around $3,130USD/month. This includes:

  • $335 Annual Inspection
  • $1,675 Insurance
  • $400 Hangar (You will definitely want to protect your asset with a hangar on this one)
  • $720 If you financed this aircraft with 10% down for 6% interest over 15 years

So in total, the ongoing costs of ownership of a Bell 47 come to around ~~~. To put in perspective, the Robinson R22 (a similar sized helicopter) will easily run well under the $200/hr range. While it may not have the x-factor that the Bell 47 has, it's a far more efficient and 'well-purposed' helicopter.

When you look at the breakdown of costs for this two-seater, that is not a bad price for renting; in this case the renter definitely comes out ahead. We didn't even account for any of the potential premature maintenance items.

How Safe is the Bell 47?

It's been established that the Bell 47 is a very outdated, but oh-so-cool helicopter. In fact, the primary motivation of the LOH program in 1960 to replace the Bell 47 in the US Army was because it was outdated. It's a simple helicopter with minimal moving parts. What the original Bell 47 makes up in aesthetic and history, it lacks in safety features. So let's look at the numbers.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) published a report in 2004 examining the accident rates of popular light utility helicopters. They found that:

  • The accident rate of the Bell 47G was 3.1 per 10,000 flight hours. As a comparison, the accident rate of the Robinson R22 was 1.8.
  • The fatal accident rate of the Bell 47G was 4.4 per 100,000 flight hours, as opposed to 1.5 for the Robinson R22.

So, is the Bell 47 the safest helicopter in the sky? No, it's not. The original Bell 47's from the 1950's, 60's and 70's are old and built from outdated parts. Not to say that they are particularly unsafe (the accident rate is still well under driving a car). However, against many other small helicopters including the Robinson R22, the safety statistics of Bell 47 are not as impressive as many of its peers.

A grounded Robinson R22
The R22 is a cheaper and statistically safer helicopter than the Bell 47.

The exception to this is the new Bell 47 by Scott's Bell, Inc. As they are being manufactured with a better setup and modern parts, many of the safety concerns associated with the original Bell 47's are no longer. The company has states that their new choppers stand up against any small helicopter on cost and safety.

Conclusion

While the Bell 47 still lives on through a new manufacturer, the golden days of the H-13 Sioux are gone. For owners and helicopter businesses, the original Bell 47's from 50+ years ago are but an aged blueprint in rotorcraft history.

While owning a Bell 47 with the intention of flying it is an expensive endeavour, I strongly recommend seeing it in person, or better yet - chartering one. A flight in a 47 is a truly remarkable experience. Relive the days of aerial observation in the Vietnam war with the luxury of an un-compromised airspace. And if you're looking to impress someone and turn heads, there are very few cooler things to do in life than fly in a Bell 47.

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