By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2022
“The 407MRH Lightning is a world-class aircraft with
state-of-the-art technology…a prestigious, high-performance
helicopter with extraordinary and lethal capabilities…
based on the proven, Bell 407GXP airframe.”
— NorthStar Aviation USA web site, 2022.
The Bell 407 helicopter series is derived from the Bell 206L-4 LongRanger, and is an improvement on the successful, OH-58D(Bell 406) Kiowa Warrior military scout aircraft, which was in active service from 1991 to 2017. Introduced in 1996, the Bell 407 features the same, 35-foot, four-blade, main rotor system used on the OH-58D. Improvements continued, including composite blades, a more-powerful, Rolls-Royce/Allison 250-C47B turboshaft engine with 813 horsepower, and a carbon-fiber/composite tail boom. Plus, the fuselage is an eight-inch-wider and main cabin windows are 35-percent larger.
Over 1,400 Bell 407s are in-service with military and police operators in Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Colombia, El Salvador, Iraq, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in various configurations. There was an initial attempt to develop an upgraded, armed, reconnaissance version for the U.S. Army. This version was designated the ARH-70 Arapaho, in 2006; it was powered by a Honeywell HTS900-2 turboshaft engine with 970 horsepower and one mounted GAU-19/A Gatling gun, and a seven-shot pod of unguided, 70mm rockets. This Arapaho project, however, was cancelled in 2008 due to soaring cost estimates – even though it costs a mere $14.5 million compared to the AH-64D/E Apache gunship at a whopping $80 million each.
In 2009, the Iraqi Army Aviation Command ordered three unarmed, Bell T-407 training helicopters, with a contract for 24 more desert-camouflaged, IA-407 (Iraqi Army 407) armed scouts, which they received between August 2012 and April 2013, plus three additional IA-407 armed prototypes, for a total of 30 aircraft. One was shot down by a shoulder-fired missile in combat against ISIS terrorist militants on October 8, 2014, six more were lost due to various, battle-related causes by 2018.
The IA-407 is essentially a simplified, OH-58D Kiowa Warrior attack aircraft follow-on, with the same Universal Weapons Pylons (UWP) of the OH-58D, mounting two weapon stations, but without the Ball Aerospace Mast-Mounted Sight (MMS), or any other external, sighting system. It is usually photographed carrying an FN M3P (GAU-21/A) .50-caliber, heavy machine gun on the left side, and unguided, Hydra-70 rockets on the right side, in a seven-shot, M260 pod.
Meanwhile, on March 4, 2013, Bell Helicopter Textron unveiled a new, armed, light-attack version of their Bell 407GX, designated the Bell 407GT. It employs the Garmin G1000HTM digital flight deck/instrumentation and the improved avionics of the GX model, the same UMP weapons stations as the OH-58D and IA-407 and introduces the Wescam MX-15Di FLIR sensor (or FLIR Systems 230-H). This is Bell’s official entry into the helicopter gunship arena with the Bell 407, as a multirole, multi-mission aircraft, which can be configured for light attack, troop transport, medical evacuation, search-and-rescue, or command-and-control missions. Possible weapons include the DillonAero M134D Gatling gun in 7.62mm, the FN HMP-400 heavy machine gun pod in .50-caliber, the GAU-19/B Gatling gun in .50-caliber, Hydra-70 rockets, and the AGR-20BAdvanced, Precision-Kill, Weapon System II laser-guided, 70mm missiles.
In May and June 2014, Bell Helicopter conducted 15 demonstration flights and live-fire exercises with the Bell 407GT prototype (with civilian registration code N407GT) for the Royal Jordanian Air Force, Royal Jordanian Special Operations Brigade, and the Royal Saudi Land Forces Aviation Command. No purchases were made, despite a very reasonable, unit price of only $3.1 million. The Bell 407GT prototype was later demonstrated in Colombia in 2014 and India in 2015, but again there were no purchase orders.
In May 2015, it was announced that BBM (Battle Born Munitions), Inc. USA, of Reno, Nevada, would operate 16 unarmed Bell 407GXs as a defense contractor in Iraq, for a variety of missions, including casualty evacuation and reconnaissance. Then, in September 2016, BBM announced that Rhino911 (a non-profit rhino-preservation organization established by BBM president Fred Hees) in cooperation with Heli Africa Wildlife, would use the single, Bell 407GTprototype aircraft to combat rhino poaching in South Africa.
The tan-and-brown-camouflaged helicopter carries no weapons but mounts the FLIR sensor for tracking poachers at night, with room inside for up to six passengers, including game wardens armed with FN FAL rifles in 7.62mm. So, oddly enough, the world’s only official, Bell 407GT “gunship” is unarmed.
The next evolution of the Bell 407 attack series was the NorthStar Aviation 407 Multi-Role Helicopter (NSA 407MRH), or “Lightning” gunship, produced by NorthStar Aviation of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and its American affiliate, NorthStar Aviation-USA of Melbourne, Florida. After three years of development, and construction in FL, it was unveiled in 2014.
In 2011, NSA ordered 56 Bell 407GXs from Bell Helicopters for possible conversion to 407MRHs. The Emirati (UAE) Joint Aviation Command received 30 examples of the nine-million-dollar Lightning in Medium Gunship Gray paint schemes. These helicopters saw considerable combat service in the Yemen Civil War. One 407MRH crashed (due to a “technical fault,” not battle damage), in battle near Aden, killing the pilot on June 13, 2016. From 2015 to February 2020, this regional war resulted in 34 aircraft losses (including nine allied, jet fighters and 15 helicopters) and at least 39 drone losses. In addition, 18 unarmed, NorthStar/Bell 407GXs were provided to the UAE for flight training, totaling 48 helicopters delivered by November 2015.
Since 2016, the NSA 407MRH avionics suite includes a Star SAFIRE 380-HLDc FLIR system (although the UAE uses the older, Star SAFIRE 260-HLD system), Garmin GRA-55 radar altimeter for low-level flight, and Garmin G10000H digital flight deck/instrumentation. The standard armament utilizes a DillonAero weapon system, with four weapon stations instead of two, and consists of two GAU-19/B (the UAE uses the older, GAU-19/A model) .50-caliber Gatling guns, with 500 rounds of ammunition per gun in Cantine Armament magazines, and two M260 seven-shot pods full of either 70mm Hydra-70 unguided rockets, or AGR-20B APKWS-II laser-guided missiles.
This provides more than double the useful firepower of an OH-58D or IA-407 gunship. In addition, there is still room in the rear cabin for two passengers in rearward-facing seats, which is certainly not the case with most other gunships. DillonAero M134D-H Gatling guns, DAP-6 (M134D-H) gun pods, or AGM-114K Hellfire II missiles may also be employed. The NSA 407MRH Lightning is a truly formidable, combat-proven aircraft, which paved the way for future improvements to other Bell 407 models.
Then, on October 4, 2018, based upon the proven combat successes of the Emirati NSA 407MRHs, the U.S. State Department announced the approved, “Foreign Military Sale to Iraq of five (brand-new) Armed Bell 407GX helicopters…for $82.5 million…configured with five M240 7.62mm machine guns…five RF-7850A Secure Communications Radios, five AN/AAR-60 MILDS Automatic Plume Detectors, five AN/ALE-47 Airborne Countermeasure Dispensing Systems, five M3P .50-caliber machine guns, five M260 Rocket Launchers (APKWS-configuration), five MX-15Di EO/IR sensors, five GAU-19 .50-caliber machine guns, five Pathfinder Mission Management Systems, five ARES Weapon Management Systems, five Mission-Configurable Armament Systems (MCAS)…cockpit and seat armor kits, and…exhaust infrared suppressor systems.
“The addition of five Bell 407GX helicopters will help compensate for the combat loss of seven IA-407 helicopters in recent years…The 407GX variant, an upgrade from the current IA-407 configuration, includes (AGR-20B) Advanced, Precision-Kill, Weapon System II (APKWS-II) launchers.
“They will be fitted with a six-station, DillonAero mission-configurable aircraft system (MCAS-407AH) weapons ‘planks.’ Weapons systems included comprise FN Herstal M240 7.62mm and M3P12.7mm machine guns, General Electric GAU-19 12.7mm Gatling guns, and M260 70mm rocket launchers configured to fire the BAE Systems…APKWS II, a laser-guided conversion of the Hydra 70mm rocket that has been used by the Iraqi (Army Aviation Command) since December 2016.” These new aircraft have apparently received the official designation of IA-407GX.
Fitted with a laser-designating, MX-15Di FLIR sensor from the Bell 407GT, and the DillonAero MCAS-407AH six-station weapons kit, these are clearly the five most-capable, most-accurate, and best-armed, Bell 407 gunships in existence.
On January 13, 2021, over Los Angeles, California, three mysterious, unarmed, semi-gloss, dark-gray, Bell 407GX helicopters, using the military callsign of “Mike-01,” were photographed by Sebastiaan Does, the senior director of sales and marketing at Safran Seats in Texas. The helicopters bear non-standard serial numbers, including 12-01142, military-style antennas, and military, wire-cutting devices, but no FLIR sensors. In fact, there were five Bell 407GXs originally intended for the Iraqi Army Aviation Command, but they were all retained in the United States for “trials and development work.” The actual, serial numbers were 12-01141, 12-01142, 12-01143, 12-01144, and 12-01145, all being 2012-model aircraft.
These are currently operated by the ultra-secret, Aviation Technology Office (ATO), formerly known as the Flight Concepts Division (FCD), until 2017, at Felker Army Airfield on Fort Eustis, Virginia. This office is a covert, special operations aviation asset supporting the nation’s very finest, counterterrorist units. ATO is manned primarily by former, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) pilots, and specializes in Top-Secret, plausibly-deniable missions, often deep behind enemy lines.
They operate at least two dozen aircraft, including the CH/MH-47F/GChinook, MH-60L/M Black Hawk, at least five Russian-made, Mi-17V-5 Hip-H helicopters, and five or more Bell 407GXs, all recently seen in satellite images of their base. In the past, other aircraft have included small numbers of MD-500Ds, MD-530Fs, MH-6J/M Little Bird transports, AH-6J/M Little Bird gunships, and Beechcraft King Air 350s.
More-recent acquisitions apparently include the C-27J Spartan fixed-wing transport, and the S-92A Helibus helicopter, seen in dark-gray colors flying over northern Syria. ATO also apparently operated the famous, prototype, MH-60X“Stealth Hawk” helicopters used in the Osama bin Laden raid (Operation Neptune’s Spear) on May 2, 2011, in Abbottabad, Pakistan; then again operated the prototype on the ill-fated and unsuccessful, Foley Hostage-Rescue Raid in Syria on July 3, 2014.
It’s also noteworthy that NorthStar Aviation (NSA) purchased 56 Bell 407GXs and GXPs (only converting 30 of them to NSA 407MRHgunship models), plus 18 unarmed, Bell 407GXtrainers, leaving eight GXP helicopters unaccounted for. At least one or two are obviously NSA’s current, demonstrator aircraft, usually seen in semi-matte, dark-gray finish. It seems quite likely that ATO would certainly want two or three heavily-armed, 407MRH gunships – preferably with DillonAero, six-station armament kits like the newest, IA-407GX attack models – tucked away inside a hangar, for close air support during combat missions in Iraq, especially since their previous, MD530F and AH-6 gunships have not been seen or photographed for quite some time (since 2003.)
In any case, whether ATO currently uses 407MRH Lightnings or some other Bell 407-armed variant, their principal advantage is that none of the U.S. Armed Forces officially fly OH-58D or Bell 407 models. Thus, the aircraft is not readily identifiable during covert operations as an American asset, yet it’s still a highly capable gunship for supporting special operations missions.
Interestingly enough, in December 2017 the U.S. Army officially announced its intention to purchase up to 150 new helicopters over a five-year period, from 2019 to 2024. The Army wanted an eclectic mixture including the Bell 407GX, Bell 412EPI, Bell 429, Bell 505 Jet Ranger X, and Bell UH-1H Huey II conversions. These helicopters are not for Army service but are destined for foreign military sales and “other government agencies” (State Department, CIA, and possibly ATO, etc.).
ATO aircrews may wear civilian clothing during exercises in the U.S., to appear inconspicuous, but overseas, in combat zones, they wear the standard, Army Aircrew Combat Uniform in the Operational Combat Pattern (A2CU-OCP), similar to MultiCam, since 2015, with suede combat boots or jump boots in Coyote Brown. As fully qualified paratroopers, they also wear the Army’s maroon, Airborne beret when in garrison.
Aircrew survival and self-defense weapons carried by ATO pilots normally include the Colt M4A1 carbine (often suppressed) and the Glock-19 Gen. 4/5 (formerly the Beretta M9) pistol, also favored by U.S. Special Forces, Delta Force, the CIA, Navy SEALs, and other special operations units. They are trained to use Russian-made, AK-47-series and AK-74-series assault rifles, in case these are the only weapons available after capture from enemy forces in a combat scenario. And it’s quite likely that they use HK416 carbines in 5.56mm, or SIG MCX “Black Mamba” suppressed carbines in .300 Blackout, often with EOTech holographic sights, like the elite Army Delta Force and Navy SEAL units that they routinely support.
Later in 2021, Bell Textron offered their brand-new, Bell 407M Armed Scout and Military, Multi-Role Helicopter, which is essentially an armed variant of the new Bell 407GXi helicopter, with a Rolls-Royce 250-C47E/4 engine, producing 862 horsepower. It’s similar in capabilities to the NSA 407MRH and Bell 407GT, with either four or six weapon stations.
Bell Textron also provides their optional, “Quiet Cruise” kit for reduced noise levels in flight. Communicating with the engine controls to adjust rotor speed to 90 to 93-percent of its normal RPMs, significantly decreases external noise in cruise flight, keeping the helicopter as quiet and undetected as possible for either civilian noise abatement or for special operations use. The company also produces optional, polycarbonate (bullet-resistant) windshields, as desired.
Various Bell 407 upgrades are available, including a joint, Honeywell/Eagle Copters conversion package, called the Eagle 407HP (as in “High Performance”). Since 2010, Honeywell, of Phoenix, Arizona, supplies its powerful, HTS900-2-1D engines, each rated at 1,021 horsepower, to Eagle Copters of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Eagle then converts an existing Bell 407 into their upgraded, 407HP for $925,000 (or $200,000 less, if you resell your old engine) over a period of six to eight weeks. The work can be performed in either Canada, Australia, or Chile depending upon the customer’s location. An all-new Eagle 407HP may be purchased for about $3.5 million.
They had their first customer in 2015 and have converted 43 helicopters since then. Although no military or government sales have been made to date, the Eagle 407HP is achieving some success with helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS), such as AirLife Denver, with at least three conversions so far, and firefighting services, such as Helicopter Express, with two conversions completed.
The Eagle 407HP upgrade has been approved in Australia, Canada, Chile, China, Indonesia, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, and the United States, offering 26-percent greater horsepower, 17-percent better fuel burn, 19-percent increase in payload capacity at higher altitudes (40-percent at 12k feet), making it especially useful in hot, desert environments, or at high-altitude locations, such as the Canadian Rockies. In addition, the passenger windows are one-third larger than on standard, Bell 407 models, for improved visibility.
DillonAero (the manufacturer of the M134D-H 7.62mm Gatling gun) currently offers weapons-upgrade packages for the 407MRHLightning and Bell 407GX, including the Mission-Configurable Aircraft System (MCAS-407AH), with up to six weapon stations instead of the standard four, adding two wingtip, AGM-176B Griffin-B laser-guided missiles, 600-round ammunition magazines (instead of the standard, 500-rounders on the 407MRH) for .50-caliber weapons, and the brand-new, 503D Gatling gun, designed to replace the .50-caliber, three-barrel, GAU-19/Bweapon that is currently standard on both the AH-6MLittle Bird gunship and the 407MRH. The new 503D is 21-percent lighter and 6.5-percent faster-firing than the already-lightweight GAU-19/B, which has been in service since 2012.
DillonAero is also producing a brand-new, five-barrel, .338 Norma Magnum Gatling gun for the U.S. Special Operations Command, firing at a rate of 2,500 rounds per minute (42 rounds per second). This weapon could eventually replace the DillonAero M134D-H 7.62mm Gatling guns currently in use on special operations gunships, by providing much longer range, hard-hitting firepower in a comparable-sized package.
In summary, surviving Bell 407 gunships worldwide include 20 remaining IA-407 armed scouts in Iraq, plus five brand-new IA-407GX attack aircraft, and 29 NSA 407MRHs in the UAE. ATO may, or may not, discreetly possess a few more gunships in Virginia, but they’re not talking, and we’ll probably never know for certain. In a perfect world, they’d have at least a quartet of heavily armed, dark-gray, 1,000-horsepower Bell 407Ms secretly on hand for close air support missions, but maybe that’s just wishful thinking in a decidedly imperfect world.
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Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, and four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.