By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2023
“The incredibly quiet, Bell 429 helicopter…sparking two turboshaft motors into life.
Still, all was quiet. In fact, the only indication that the motors were running came
from the gauges on the cockpit display screens…the 429 felt nimble as well as
stable – a neat trick…A noticeably vibration-free ride…the quietness of the
429 was remarkable.”
— Rohit Jaggi, Financial Times, July 24, 2009
“From desert heat to marine environments, the Bell 429M excels in the most-
austere conditions. This aircraft is an advanced, multi-mission helicopter that
comes equipped with the latest weapons and mission-management systems.”
— Bell Helicopters website, 2023
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, in an eclectic mixture that includes the Bell 407GX, Bell 412 EPI, Bell 429 GlobalRanger, Bell 505 Jet Ranger X, and Bell UH-1H Huey II conversions. These helicopters are not for Army service, however, but are destined for foreign military sales and “other government agencies” (possibly State Department, CIA, etc.).
Interestingly enough, Bell Helicopters unveiled their new, “M” (Military)-series of helicopters on February 15, 2022, which not-so-coincidentally encompasses exactly these same five helicopter types, the newly-designated Bell 407M, 412M, 429M, 505M, and Huey II, positively confirming that these models under the U.S. Army contract are for international, military use. Bell 407 gunships are already in service with the Iraqi Army Aviation service and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Air Force, and Bell 412s are in widespread service with 45 nations around the globe, including Colombia, Indonesia, Iraq, Pakistan, South Korea, the UAE, and the United Kingdom.
The Bell 505 is used by Bahrain, Indonesia, and Jamaica, among others, and the famous Bell UH-1H Huey II is in military service with at least 44 nations globally, including Colombia, Indonesia, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Oman, and Turkey. Finally, the Bell 429 GlobalRanger serves with the armed forces of Australia, Canada, Jamaica, Oman, and Tunisia, and with police and rescue forces in nine more countries, including New Zealand and Sweden.
Oddly, however, this was the very first time that the Bell 429 was mentioned in connection with the U.S. Army, even though it’s technically not for Army service. Most countries are perfectly capable of making their helicopter purchases directly through normal channels, without using the U.S. Army as an intermediary. Channeling arms purchases through the Army is routinely done, however, when the buyer wishes to remain discreet, or there are plausible-deniability issues at stake, such as for special operations use, or when the buyer is at war, and desires not to advertise its weapons acquisitions.
So, who’s getting militarized Bell 429s, and doesn’t want to advertise that fact? Piecing together this Army contract with the Bell M-series and known customers in sensitive or contentious areas, we can make an educated guess concerning the likely buyers. In the lists of nations above, Indonesia and Iraq each appear three times, while Oman, Pakistan, and the UAE each appear twice. All of these countries are either at war, have neighbors at war, or have counterinsurgency problems on their own soil. There’s also the very discreet and little-known connection between Iraq and the U.S. Army’s super-secret, Aviation Technology Office (ATO) special operations unit in Virginia, which operates five dark-gray Bell 407s originally destined for Iraq. ATO directly supports Delta Force and SEAL Team Six for counterterrorist operations.
The combat-proven Bell 407 single-engine gunship is a known entity, with 20 IA-407 armed scouts in Iraq, plus five brand-new IA-407GX attack aircraft, and 29 NSA 407MRHs in the UAE. In addition, ATO’s five Bell 407GXs are normally unarmed, but installing a weapons kit can be accomplished in a very short time.
By comparison, the slightly larger, heavier, twin-engine Bell 429 GlobalRanger, introduced in 2009, was originally designed for the emergency medical services (EMS) industry, and it completed high-altitude testing in Colorado, and high-temperature testing in Arizona. It has the same length as a Bell 407 (42 feet), a four-blade, main-rotor assembly only slightly larger (36 feet versus 35 feet), and it has eight seats inside instead of seven. The Bell 429 is 59-percent heavier, however, largely because of the second engine and extra cabin space, and uses a much quieter, four-blade, composite tail rotor instead of the 407’s two-blade, tail rotor.
The twin Pratt and Whitney PW207D1 turboshaft engines each generate 625 horsepower in flight, or 730 horsepower for takeoff, but they are potentially rated for up to 1,000 horsepower, so future power upgrades are entirely possible. Compared to the Bell 407, the 429 has a greater power-to-weight ratio (only 2.9 pounds per horsepower, versus 3.28 pounds for the 407), 11-percent higher speed and seven-percent higher altitude capability, 20-percent greater range, and more payload capacity, plus the comparative safety of two engines instead of one. The Bell 429 can still fly with one engine out, if necessary, which is a definite advantage in combat scenarios or when flying over remote, inhospitable regions.
But the Bell 429’s most significant feature is that it’s whisper-quiet, using a highly-advanced, vibration-suppression system, with Smart Vibration Absorbers attached to the rotor head, Active Stabilization System for the pitch-control level and rotor blades, and Active Noise and Vibration Control System, to make it one of the quietest helicopters ever made!
It was the very quietest helicopter exhibited at the 2015 Heli-Expo in Orlando, Florida, where Danny Maldonado, executive vice president of Sales and Marketing for Bell Helicopter stated that, “The Bell 429 is among the quietest helicopters ever to fly, with an interior noise level comparable to many luxury cars. We are proud to demonstrate this capability.” In fact, the Bell 429 achieved the lowest sound level reading ever at Heli-Expo during a demonstration of its “Quiet-Flight” capability.
Bell has been able to reduce noise levels by up to 50 percent. Their use of vibration-suppression technology eliminates almost all felt vibrations, and they’ve added a new rotor-blade tip design to improve performance and reduce noise at lower speeds. At Heli-Expo 2015, the 429 was independently measured as producing only 68 decibels of noise inside the helicopter, and 70 decibels outside. This is the same noise level as an air conditioner, shower, dishwasher, office noise, or inside a car at 60 mph, and was 10 decibels quieter (a 90-percent reduction in sound-pressure level, or 50-percent perceived reduction) than anything else at the exposition.
Rohit Jaggi wrote for the Financial Times on July 24, 2009, “The incredibly quiet, Bell 429 helicopter: I climbed into the pilot seat of Bell’s newest helicopter, the 429…sparking two turboshaft motors into life. Still, all was quiet. In fact, the only indication that the motors were running came from the gauges on the cockpit display screens. The 429 is intended to be the first of a new breed of Bell helicopters. Roomier, more versatile, smoother – and, of course, quieter…And it has been certified for single-pilot operation in all conditions…the 429 felt nimble as well as stable – a neat trick…A noticeably vibration-free ride…How much? ($7.5m in 2023, compared to $80m for an AH-64D/E Apache helicopter gunship)…Overall, Bell has exceeded the performance targets it originally made for the helicopter…the quietness of the 429 was remarkable.”
A Swedish National Police (SNP) Air Unit pilot named Erik has stated that, “What I like is the low vibration level and the horizontal flight stability. It’s fast and powerful…really smooth in flight…and with very direct response to pilot inputs…there is nothing I don’t like about the new machine.”
Accordingly, the Bell 429M military upgrade package includes a TekFusion Global (TFG) Pathfinder Mission-Management System and Weapons Management System (all-digital, cockpit displays), with armored seats, ballistic floor protection, dual hydraulics, rear clamshell doors, damage-resistant, composite rotor blades, night-vision goggle (NVG) compatibility, a Star SAFIRE 380-HLDc FLIR sensor under the nose, and a Fulcrum Concepts Configurable, Lightweight, Armament Wing (CLAW), with up to six weapon stations. The Bell 429M is mission-configurable for either light attack, special operations, armed reconnaissance, command-and-control, or medevac missions.
Possible weapons include two GAU-19/B Gatling guns in .50-caliber, similar GP-19 gun pods, Dillon 503D Gatling guns, M134D-H 7.62mm Gatling guns, Profense PF M134 Gatling guns or DAP-6 gun pods, and two M260 seven-shot pods full of either 70mm Hydra-70 unguided rockets, AGR-20B Advanced, Precision-Kill, Weapon System II (APKWS-II) laser-guided missiles, or even AGM-114K Hellfire II laser-guided, anti-tank missiles. The wingtip stations can carry two AGM-176B Griffin-B laser-guided missiles. In addition, pintle-mounted, FN M3M (GAU-21/A) .50-caliber machine guns may be mounted in the side door openings, thus creating an extremely heavily-armed gunship.
This provides more than double the useful firepower of any OH-58D (Bell 406) Kiowa Warrior or Iraqi IA-407 (Bell 407) gunship, and double the firepower of the U.S. Army’s vaunted AH-6M Little Bird attack helicopters from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), which currently fly with only three operational weapon stations, due to the big GAU-19/B gun’s ungainly, ammunition-feed arrangement.
There is still room in the rear cabin for three passengers (versus two in the Bell 407 gunship) in rearward-facing seats, which is certainly not the case with most other gunships. Bell Helicopters also produces optional, polycarbonate (bullet-resistant) windshields, folding rotor-blade kits, fast-roping kits, and other military accessories.
In May 2020, Babcock Australasia aviation company announced that it was offering the Bell 429 for the Australian Army’s special operations support helicopter requirement, to be operated by the 6 Aviation Regiment at Holsworthy, in Sydney. The deal called for 20 new helicopters to support special forces operations in urban environments, and four of the selected aircraft had to be able to fit into one of the eight Boeing C-17A strategic airlifters operated by the Royal Australian Air Force, for rapid deployment.
Bell Helicopters confirmed that four 429s can fit within a C-17A. Graham Nayler, executive director of strategy and future business at Babcock Australasia, concluded that, “It really came down to cost, capability, and risk. In the end, the 429 was the clear winner for us.” Unfortunately, on March 1, 2023, the Australian Army cancelled this special requirement, and will be using ordinary, new (40 arriving in 2023), Australian Army UH-60M Black Hawks instead.
So, if Australia is not discreetly acquiring militarized Bell 429s through circumspect U.S. Army channels, who is? The Bell 429 GlobalRanger is externally about the same size as the Bell 407, but it’s certainly more powerful, more roomy, faster, more capable overall, and definitely quieter, which is a major factor for the element of surprise in special operations missions. Perhaps the strongest clue comes from the “other government agencies” clause in the Army requirement.
If the precedent set by Bell 407 gunship acquisitions is any example, the most-likely customers may include Iraq, where we’re still advising and assisting, and a distinct possibility of at least several Bell 429M gunships for the ATO, but we’ll never hear any official confirmation of that. For now, they’re clearly trying to keep Bell 429 military purchases on the low-profile, plausibly-deniable track, which seems indicative of an intended, special operations role, the perfect use for one of the world’s quietest helicopters.
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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.