A military multi-role helicopter at an economical price: This is an apt description of the Bell 407MRH (Multi-Role Helicopter). Built upon a ‘green’ commercial Bell 407GXP airframe, the 407MRH covers a range of military missions without customers having to buy military-specific aircraft to do the job.
Designed by NorthStar Aviation of Dubai (NorthStar), the Bell 407MRH is commercially modified from its ‘green’ state by Southeast Aerospace (Southeast or SEA) at its integration/maintenance hangars in Melbourne, Florida. (Southeast is an aircraft modification, MRO, and parts supplier based at Orlando Melbourne International Airport.)
The first two aircraft were designated as prototypes and all commercial and military modifications were completed by SEA at its facility in Melbourne. With Department of State approval the aircraft were exported as military aircraft to the UAE. On the remaining aircraft SEA incorporated all the commercial modifications in Melbourne and exported the aircraft to the UAE as commercial aircraft. The military modifications were then installed by Northstar in the UAE utilizing SEA work instructions and modification kits. The modifications kits contained all of the electrical and structural components required to perform these military modifications.
To date, NorthStar/SEA has supplied 30 finished 407MRHs to a foreign customer. As ordered, the Bell 407MRH’s military mission range is diverse. It can handle Passenger Transport, Close Air Support, ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance), Light Assault, and Light Attack, with its four-station, under-aircraft structure that can support Hellfire missiles, a GAU 19 machine gun, an M134 minigun, and Hydra 70 Rockets (in pods).
The reason a converted commercial 407GXP can support this range of missions is due to the use of removable electronic components, passenger seats, and weapons on the versatile 407MRH platform.
“Depending what you install, the 407MRH can monitor a contested area, ferry VIPs, or shoot Hellfire missiles,” said Greg Rodriguez, Vice President of Technical Services at Southeast Aerospace in Melbourne. “Moreover, the mission profile can be changed quickly on the ground; providing a degree of flexibility that can’t be matched by a more expensive military helicopter like the Bell OH-58 Kiowa.”
Southeast Aerospace is one of several companies that have partnered with NorthStar Aviation to build the Bell 407MRH. Specifically, Southeast handles the engineering and integration of civilian to military-related technological elements of the 407MRH.
Another partner in the 407MRH project is Tek Fusion Global (TFG), the 407MRH’s special mission equipment integrator. As part of its contribution, TFG is providing the 407MRH’s Pathfinder mission management system (MMS). Pathfinder MMS provides the man-machine interface to the helicopter’s aircraft systems, radios, moving map and infrared imagery from the 407MRH’s FLIR Star SAFIRE 260-HLD camera turret onto a single central monitor; one of three in the 407MRH’s glass cockpit panel. Pathfinder MMS is an open architecture software suite that allows for the integration of a variety of systems and provides an affordable growth path for desired upgrades.
“FLIR developed the 260-HLD with its ~55 lb. 9-10" turret especially for use on the 407MRH,” said Kelly McDougall, President of TFG. “Before the 407MRH, all that was available with multiple sensor payloads (including Laser Designator) were larger 15" gimbals that were too heavy for our purposes.”
Why the 407MRH?
Low cost is a big selling point for the Bell 407MRH. You just can’t find a military helicopter at the same price that can perform so many missions, and that also has ready access to the wealth of parts sold worldwide for the commercial 407GXP.
Another big selling point for the 407MRH is the speed in which a customer desiring an aircraft with military capability can acquire it, through a multinational partnership such as Southeast and NorthStar. “Clients can start to receive its military helicopters in as little as six months, subject to availability of system components selected by the buyer,” said Adam Gunn, NorthStar Aviation’s Technical Director.
“Working with a small non-U.S. firm such as NorthStar Aviation offers clients a faster, more efficient, and less costly way to obtain the military aircraft they need, compared to what could be done by a U.S. OEM (original equipment manufacturer) such as Bell,” he added. “The reason why the OEMs aren’t doing civilian-to-military conversions themselves is because they can’t match our speed, nor make a profit on the prices we can charge.”
According to Adam Gunn, the 407MRH project has a 100 percent on-time record of aircraft delivery, and also includes a customized spare parts inventory, tooling and ground support equipment based on the operator’s environment and utilization.
The fact that the 407MRH is based on the civilian 407GXP makes it fast and economical for military clients to access 407 parts. “You can buy Bell 407 commercial parts around the world,” Rodriguez said. “This means quicker delivery, lower prices, and much less paperwork for operators.”
As befits a fully capable multi-role military helicopter, the Bell 407MRH is outfitted with the latest in modern avionics technology. This includes a full glass cockpit based upon a Garmin G1000H avionics system with dual GPS, Mode S transponder, a radar altimeter, and synthetic vision. (Each pilot has their own dedicated Garmin 1000H display on the cockpit front console, on either side of the Pathfinder MMS display.)
To support its military missions, the 407MRH’s Pathfinder MMS system interconnects the 407MRH’s commercial aircraft equipment to the special mission equipment. The Pathfinder MMS includes a digital moving map that can be used for tactical mission planning. This MMS system is compatible with FalconView and Google Earth, and provides Mission Cycle Tools to calculate weight, balance, and fuel consumption.
On the communications side, the 407MRH has military-quality dual integrated tactical ARC-210 multi-band radios, a Terrestrial Trunked radio (TETRA), and a BMS Helicoder 4 microwave video downlink system. Each pilot has a complete control system for the radios, mounted underneath their Garmin 1000H monitor. The helicopter also has an APX-121 Mode IV IFF transponder, plus an L-3 Avionics Systems 3900.2 electronic standby instrumentation system that provides backup airspeed, altitude, and attitude data in a single small display window. (The 407MRH’s tail rotor drive fairing designed by SEA has a built-in shelf for mounting three antennas.)
The 407MRH’s cockpit is night vision goggle-compatible – including the cockpit and console lighting - and is equipped with infrared navigation lights and a dual-mode IR/white light searchlight. To provide protection against hostile fire, the 407MRH has lightweight modular cockpit and cabin armor, plus carbon fiber doors and mission equipment shrouds. “The doors and shrouds were custom-built for Southeast Aerospace for this aircraft,” Rodriguez said. “The carbon fiber doors are 50 percent lighter than the original OEM versions.”
Again, all of these 407MRH elements are installed or kitted by Southeast Aerospace. This ensures that the aircraft is ready for the final finishing work by NorthStar; both on this side of ‘the pond’ and the other side.
As for armament: The Bell 407MRH comes with an integrated weapons management system to provide the two pilots (each of whom have redundant military cyclic control sticks) with easy targeting and firing of the onboard guns, rocket and missile systems. Targeting is handled using the SAFIRE 260-HLD’s HD-quality visible/IR camera system with its laser designator/rangefinder, and a near-IR laser illuminator that can be seen by pilots wearing night vision goggles.
The 407MRH’s four weapons systems are all tracked on a single monitor, located below the three displays on the main glass cockpit console. The helicopter’s Weapons Management System keeps the pilots updated on the remaining ammunition and rockets onboard, so that they can manage their resources accordingly.
“In doing all of this on the 407MRH, we have done our best to maintain the 407GXP’s original maximum airspeed (120-140 kts), and maximum range (200-300 NM),” Gunn said. “Granted, installing the externally-mounted weapons does cause drag that affects speed and range, but overall we have preserved the 407GXP’s excellent attributes in the 407MRH.”
All told, the Bell 407MRH is an impressive aeronautical accomplishment; one that proves that it is possible to adapt commercial technology for military applications.
According to Adam Gunn, bridging the gap between the two was the hardest part. “Our real efforts went into developing the prototype 407MRH; finding ways to make a commercial platform serve a range of military requirements without compromising the 407GXP’s fundamental characteristics,” he said. “Once we worked out those issues, the rest was relatively easy.”
“The biggest challenges were balancing the military technology with its impact on the 407MRH’s payload capacity and available space,” Gunn said. “The 407GXP is a great aircraft, and the Garmin 1000H is an excellent avionics suite. Our mission was to respect these facts, while adding the military special mission equipment (sensors, weapons, and mounting structures) that provide the multi-role capability that our clients require.”
The 407MRH’s camera system is a good example of what Southeast/NorthStar and its other partners had to contend with. Before FLIR developed the lightweight Star SAFIRE 260-HLD turret – delivering six payloads within a 9-10" gyro-stabilized unit – the thought of having to use a larger turret weighing 100+ lbs or more haunted the helicopter’s design team.
“Every pound of mass that we had to allocate to the turret took away from our remaining payload capacity,” McDougall said. “Having IR, visible light, and low light cameras and a good laser designator inside a ~55 lbs gimbal made a big difference.” Similar solutions like the 407MRH’s lightweight carbon fiber door minimized the demands on the helicopter’s payload capacity, thereby maximizing its performance.
An Economical Military Helicopter
The functional practicality of the 407MRH clearly provides the world’s militaries with a cost-effective, speedy alternative to procuring military-specific helicopters.
“This is the kind of exciting helicopter work that we do at Southeast Aerospace,” Rodriguez added. “We are always interested in pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, and doing more for our clients.”