A walk around the latest Bell 429 in law enforcement configuration with Jonathan Castorena was a lesson in and of itself. No detail escaped his attention – from the carefully designed window in the cockpit that gives a better view for the pilot during hoist missions, to the all-glass Garmin cockpit, the side-opening doors that allow for easy and safe search and rescue, hoist and patient transfer missions, and the tail rotor authority that ensures greater stability for the operators using the aircraft for high-altitude rescue missions. It is Jonathan’s engineering background that gives him this perspective. Having worked at Bell for 16 years, starting as a tool manufacturer before moving onto rotor blade design and in various other departments of the company, he is able to share his insights into the aircraft from both narrow and wide perspectives.
Multi-mission Bell 429
The 429, of course, is not new – not really. Launched in 2009 to much fanfare, the aircraft has placed itself firmly in the market
The 429 is one of the most-desired helicopters for operators seeking multi-mission capability
. “Our customer feedback was simply intrinsic in the design of the aircraft,” said Castorena, “and it continues to be. When the development team pointed out that the rear cargo door opening system created delays in patient loading and safety concerns for the crews, they were modified to open in a different way to ensure it was adapted to be the best possible door for the crews using it. The end user is key to ongoing product development.”
And the end users in the law enforcement world – of which there are so many more these days, pointed out Castorena – are insistent that multi-mission capability is key. “Governments around the world are focused on security,” he explained. “And this means that more police forces are being empowered to invest in aerial assets to assist them in their daily tasks, whether that is reconnaissance, search and rescue, disaster relief, HEMS or even aerial firefighting support.”
The 429 has this in spades – it can be converted from tactical/troop transport configuration to HEMS mission capable in less than 15 minutes, in either a one- or two-stretcher layout. The electro-optical/infra-red (EO/IR) camera system, certification for human external cargo (HEC) and dual cargo hook, fast rope and rapelling systems all together mean that no matter what the aircraft is called upon to do, it can be customised to meet the needs of the user.
For aerial law enforcement crews – specifically, tactical flight officers (TFO) – the mission management system is invaluable. And what Bell customers wanted was a system that could be seamlessly integrated into the aircraft.
Hence the latest partnership with security systems and mission equipment company ESG, which has provided a customer-specific system that is not limited to one specific type of hardware or software. It has a touch-based graphical user interface and gives the TFO all the information they need, without risking over stimulation.
Such a partnership is but one example of where Bell is working with suppliers to make sure that its products are meeting the needs of its customers. A recent deal with training provider CAE allows for collaboration on training and simulation. “These partnerships are key to success,” Castorena told AirMed&Rescue. “Our product needs suppliers that are market leaders, and multi-mission platforms specifically require partners that are
excelling in their field to provide unique benefits to the end users, whether it is ESG, CAE, Pratt & Whitney, Safran or Garmin.”
UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) drone sector
Another area of collaboration comes in the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) – or drone – sector, and what is vital to recognise from a law enforcement point of view, said Castorena, is that UAVs and helicopters are complementary, not mutually exclusive. “Regarding the future of drones and helicopters in the law enforcement/public security sector, they would not replace one another but would be complementary and work in unison. We have several customers asking about this capability, and it will be a technology that should be developed with integrators such as ESG. Bell is also developing its own autonomous drone technology with Bell APT.”
Bell helicopters, sustainable aviation fuels and limiting the carbon footprint
There has been a lot of talk recently about sustainability, and the responsibility of the aviation sector to limit emissions and improve their green credentials. Another partnership Bell has been working on involves the use of Sustainable Aviation Fuel, but it’s not just in fuel savings that manufacturers can bolster their efforts to limit their carbon footprint. “Operating costs have to be a consideration,” Castorena pointed out. “The maintenance process has to be made simpler, with fewer parts, more recyclable consumables and the like.” The newest aircraft from Bell that is going to be coming into its own in this regard is the 525 – carbon emissions from the helicopter are going to be as low as they can go, and new levels of efficiency mean lower operating costs and better fuel consumption.
Bell Helicopters and expanding operations
We almost got through the conversation without mentioning the C word, but I couldn’t do it. I had to ask about Covid. What business hasn’t felt the effect of Covid-19 in some way or another? “While in some areas we saw stagnation, in others we experienced significant growth,” said Castorena. “The corporate and VIP market increased for us, as VIPs took alternative methods of transport to get themselves and their families to where they wanted to be.”
Companies that expanded their scope of operations during Covid are the ones that are going to see long-term success
Bell is looking ahead to the future and considering where there is a need for increasing helicopter support – while HEMS is now well-established in Europe, recent extreme weather has pushed forward the need for aerial assets in other ways. Disaster relief, aerial law enforcement, search and rescue and aerial firefighting are all growth sectors for helicopter manufacturers and having the right tool that can perform all these missions seamlessly is key. The 429 has been, and will continue to be, the aircraft of choice for many operators, and with the 525 coming online in due course, it’s clear to see Bell’s vision for the future – multi-mission capabilities in a fast, quiet helicopter that can be customised to fit the end user’s needs, no matter what.