Canada’s first commercial 407GXi readies for 2020 fire season

Canada’s first commercial Bell 407GXi should be ready for backup duty during the 2020 firefighting season as its new owners at White Saddle Air Services in British Columbia learn to fly and maintain their customized aircraft.

When White Saddle's GXi enters regular service after February, it will serve as backup for the two Bell 212 twin-engine firefighting helicopters in the area. Mike King Photo
When White Saddle’s GXi enters regular service after February, it will serve as backup for the two Bell 212 twin-engine firefighting helicopters in the area. Mike King Photo
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Before picking up the new GXi in Mirabel, Que., White Saddle owner Mike King and his son Patrick flew to Fort Worth, Texas, in October, where Mike underwent training on the new aircraft. King has about 20,000 total flight hours; he was impressed not only with the machine but also with the comprehensive training Bell offers to new owners, he told Skies in a recent interview.

“They kept the GXi there just for me,” he said. “The training was really good.”

From there, the pair flew to Montreal where they met engineer Ian MacDougall and their new aircraft. The three flew it from Montreal to Calgary, where Bell leased it back from them to perform some demonstration flights. Then it was on to Kamloops, B.C., where it sits awaiting some final customization and radio installation, King said.

“Flying that thing home, it’s unbelievable,” King, who has operated a 206L4 and a 407 for years, said. “Power-wise, it’s hard to tell with just the three of us, but I don’t think we got it above 75 per cent torque. There are also a bunch of things in it that make flying a lot easier. Plus, the extra horsepower is nice, too.”

The Bell 407GXi features the Garmin G1000H NXi integrated flight deck and a new Rolls-Royce M250-C47E/4 engine with dual channel FADEC, which delivers better high and hot performance, full automatic relight, and the ability to cruise at 133 knots.

Flying at high mountain altitudes to aid firefighters, provide photographers a lofty perch and sometimes deliver skiers and mountaineers to rocky peaks, there are several features and options on the GXi that suited White Saddle, King said.

“The wind direction and speed are really important to us,” he said. “You have to know where the wind is and it does that automatically. It’s right there. Power check is there, nonstop. There’s a whole bunch of different functions that we will find useful.”

Situated to the northeast of 13,000-foot Mount Waddington, British Columbia’s highest peak, about 80 per cent of White Saddle’s business is helping out during the fire season, King said.

When the GXi enters regular service after February, it will serve as backup for the two Bell 212 twin-engine firefighting helicopters in the area. When customized, the new GXi will be about 80 pounds lighter than King’s current 407, owing mostly to the composite materials used in construction of the newer aircraft, he said. It is fitted with a cargo hook for hoisting firefighting equipment and to perform high-altitude rescues.

White Saddle Air Services owner Mike King (right) and his son Patrick at Bell's Mirabel, Que., facility for the delivery of White Saddle's new Bell 407GXi. Mike King Photo
White Saddle Air Services owner Mike King (right) and his son Patrick at Bell’s Mirabel, Que., facility for the delivery of White Saddle’s new Bell 407GXi. Mike King Photo

King’s road to owning a brand new 407 GXi is the decades-long story of buying affordable, utilitarian helicopters and trading up. The company has flown Bell helicopters exclusively since the beginning, he said.

White Saddle was founded in 1961 by King’s father, who began his flying career in 1943 in de Havilland Tiger Moth biplanes. His first helicopter was a Bell 47 purchased in 1974. After the younger King joined the business, they purchased another 47 in 1979 before then leasing a Bell 206 JetRanger.

They liked the larger, newer 206 enough to buy their own from Rilpa Enterprises in Calgary that flew for 3,600 hours before its Allison engine “came apart” in flight and “ended up in the trees,” King said. He walked away from that crash and decided to buy a brand new helicopter of his own so he could accept responsibility for its maintenance, care and parts from the beginning.

“I thought, if I’m going to do this for a long time, I’m going to go see Bell, borrow a huge pile of money, buy a brand new helicopter and then when I need to overhaul a part, it will be my own part,” he said.

He eventually put more than 8,000 hours on the then-new 1988 JetRanger. That’s when the Airbus AS350 AStar arrived on the scene and became the utility helicopter of choice for small operators. Resisting the trend, and leaning on his past experience with Bell and first-hand knowledge of the L4’s capability at high altitude, King bought a new L4 LongRanger in 2004. He bought another in 2009 and began to operate a two-helicopter fleet.

In 2011, he replaced the older L4 with a new 407. Then Bell brought its 407GXi demonstrator for him to try. After a single flight, charmed by the bells and whistles — the all-glass digital cockpit and more powerful engine — King was sold, but with much of Bell’s existing production output accounted for, he had to wait some time for his chance to bring the type into his fleet.

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In terms of the customization of the aircraft, King settled on a seven-place all-leather interior, AFS filter for firefighting, a cargo hook and interior heaters.

Mike King has operated a Bell 206L4 and Bell 407 for years. For a period of time he operated a two-helicopter fleet of L4s, and then replaced his older L4 with the 407. Once the 407GXi was introduced, King jumped at the opportunity to purchase one. Mike King Photo
Mike King has operated a Bell 206L4 and Bell 407 for years. For a period of time he operated a two-helicopter fleet of L4s, and then replaced his older L4 with the 407. Once the 407GXi was introduced, King jumped at the opportunity to purchase one. Mike King Photo

“[Bell] did this thing up really nice — except a couple radios we’re going to do at our local shop because Bell was a little expensive on that,” King said.

Plans are to keep the aircraft parked in Kamloops until January, when the LongRanger will park and the company’s pilots will learn the specifics of the GXi that King learned at Bell in Fort Worth. When King returns in February from a month’s-long Costa Rican escape from the British Columbia deep winter, he plans to ferry it to White Saddle’s Tatla Lake headquarters and begin limited operations.

King’s 407GXi is the first commercial GXi in Canada, but not the country’s first. Earlier in November, Bell delivered the first GXi to Municipal Enterprises of Nova Scotia, which will use the helicopter in its construction materials production business.

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