Ode to the Bubble

The Bell 47, famous as the star of “Whirlybirds,” was the DC-3 of helicopters. Could it make a comeback?

The trademark plexiglass sphere enclosing its cockpit gave the Bell 47 its nickname and provides the pilot cruising this beach a glorious view of a Florida sunset. (Frank Steinkohl)
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One of the association’s first tasks was to stem the stream of bogus 47 parts coming onto the market. Most of these had been stripped from decommissioned military helicopters and, at the very least, lacked the proper documentation to be used legally on civil 47s. An undocumented part could have been flown longer than its specified life, Rhodes says, and could pose a real danger.

Just as the association was solving that problem, the FAA issued an emergency airworthiness directive that threatened to ground 75 percent of the U.S.-based 47 fleet—possibly for good.

On the morning of August 13, 1998, a Bell 47G-2 cropdusting near Windsor, Ontario, crashed. Canada’s Transportation Safety Board investigating the accident found that one of the main rotor blades had separated in flight because a grip connecting it to the drive shaft and hub had failed. Based on that report, the U.S. FAA mandated on August 31, 2000, an inspection of the 47’s main rotor blade grips every 200 flight hours and their replacement after 1,200 flight hours. Each grip inspection was estimated to cost at least $2,000; a new set of grips, $7,200. This for a helicopter that was then worth less than $80,000, flown by operators who worked at razor-thin profit margins. With the imposition of a 1,200-hour lifetime, three-quarters of the fleet was out of compliance overnight, and Bell had nowhere near enough new grips to sell to the affected owners. The FAA’s rotorcraft directorate was swamped by requests from operators for approved Alternate Means of Compliance; they petitioned to keep flying while they waited for grips. Meanwhile, the Experimental Aircraft Association led an industry coalition that eventually persuaded the FAA to relax the new restrictions, but not until mid-2001. “If it hadn’t been for the EAA, most Bell 47s would have stayed grounded because of a very isolated event in Canada,” says Rhodes.

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.

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