Ode to the Bubble
The Bell 47, famous as the star of “Whirlybirds,” was the DC-3 of helicopters. Could it make a comeback?
- By Mark Huber
- Air & Space magazine, November 2012
(Page 4 of 4)
According to Don Maguire, who was with Bell Helicopter at the time, the company’s position was that the grip in Canada had failed because of improper maintenance and that the part is capable of a 2,500-hour life.
At the time of the grip airworthiness directive, several independent companies gained FAA Parts Manufacturing Approval for the 47’s components, including the blade grips, and the gap between Bell’s prices for parts and those of aftermarket companies continued to widen. Operators viewed the price Bell wanted for a single metal main rotor blade as a threat to the 47’s continued viability. Overnight, it jumped from $48,000 to $170,000. At the new price, it exceeded the value of the helicopter.
Says Scott Churchill: “They didn’t sell any at that price—no surprise.”
Though Bell’s Don Maguire continued to offer technical support to operators, Bell also asked Churchill to take their calls, since his company was now manufacturing parts that Bell was no longer making. Churchill drew on what he’d learned in running a Bell-authorized service center for 20 years.
In 2003, he began talking to the leadership of Bell about acquiring the license to produce more of the Model 47, and in 2010, Bell’s CEO, John Garrison, agreed to transfer the type certificate. Churchill hired Neil Marshall, who previously worked at Bell as program director for the new Model 429 light turbine twin, to run Scott’s Bell 47. Last year the company moved into a refurbished building near Churchill’s Le Sueur, Minnesota base to house the project.
Marshall’s immediate priorities are to negotiate a serial production engine deal with Lycoming, work with a new manufacturer to bring down the price of replacement main rotor blades, and build confidence in the supply chain. He also faces the challenge of converting more than 9,000 paper engineering drawings from the 1950s and 1960s to digital format; today’s suppliers only deal with digital drawings. But his ultimate goal is new production. From a recent survey of 47 operators, Marshall found that two-thirds would buy a brand-new 47 if it were available. “We are actively soliciting customers willing to put up a refundable deposit on delivery of a new Bell 47 from Scott’s,” says Don Maguire. He adds, “Bell has been incredibly supportive and is as committed to [the 47’s] success as we are. They invite us to participate in all the conferences they hold for their customers.” Joey Rhodes agrees that Bell is now honoring its first helicopter.
At a 2001 fly-in at La Verne, California, the Bell 47 Helicopter Association feted actor Ken Tobey, who starred as pilot Chuck Martin in “Whirlybirds.” Tobey died the following year, at 85. Joey Rhodes recalls that Tobey downplayed the accolades because he was not really a pilot; he just played one on TV. But the members assured him that to them he was a pilot and that many of the pilots in the room had learned to fly the 47 because of him.
At the Bell company’s academy in Fort Worth, Texas, where pilots and mechanics train on its turbine helicopters, managers hold a weekly drawing. The winner gets a coveted prize: a ride in the academy’s lone remaining Model 47.
For this feature, Mark Huber relied on his mother’s recollection of his first helicopter ride in a Bell 47. When Mrs. Huber learned that her son would be paid for writing this story, she immediately asked for the return of her $5.