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The 'Ferrari' of helicopters

MD Helicopters is back under new leadership

By Murray Huling

The theme song to the 1980’s hit TV show Magnum, P.I. plays on repeat in my head as we walk up to the new MD Helicopters MD 500E.

MD Helicopters

Photography by David Tulis A five-blade main rotor and a Rolls-Royce M250-C20B turbine engine power an MD 500E. Clamshell doors open to allow access to the MD 500’s engine. An MD Helicopters MD500E is framed by part of the Four Peaks Wilderness Area near the company’s Mesa, Arizona, factory.

Watching “T.C.” fly that rainbow-striped Hughes 500D hauling Magnum around Hawaii no doubt inspired a generation to dream of flying helicopters—it certainly did for me. Can the manufacturer’s new owners, leadership, and employees, along with a new focus on that “history of cool,” attract more private ownership and pump new life into this storied aircraft? Time will tell, but MD Helicopters, based out of Falcon Field in Mesa, Arizona, is certainly motivated to do so. The company’s strategy focuses on its currently produced models, the MD 500E, MD 500F, and Cayuse Warrior, while keeping customer support for existing owners and operators and increasing 500 production at the top of its list.

MD 500 lineage

Originating in the 1960s as the Hughes OH-6A observation helicopter, designed for the military by the Hughes Tool Company Aircraft Division, the aircraft proved invaluable in the Vietnam War. Much is written about how this helicopter was a critical tool in U.S. Army aviation, and present-day variants—the MD 530F, with a 650-shaft-horsepower Rolls-Royce 250-C30 engine for even better hot and high performance—continue to serve the U.S. military in special operations roles, along with serving in some of our allies’ military forces. Civilian versions are used in law enforcement, VIP transport, and utility roles.

With most design characteristics carried on from the OH-6 era, the current MD 500 line benefits from its engineered crashworthiness and survivability because of the primary structure being formed with a central A-frame truss with seats and the landing gear affixed, effectively creating a roll-cage for the occupants. Its egg-shape cabin and oleo-pneumatic shock landing gear add to its safety characteristics by providing, in essence, a reinforced structure.

So what’s different?

I recently had an opportunity to visit MD Helicopters at Falcon Field (FFZ) to see how and where the venerable MD 500E is built and learn what is new at MD Helicopters since it changed ownership and its new leadership team took over. Starting with MD’s historically famous single-engine turbine helicopter line, new company leadership and staff are working to rebuild the company’s reputation.

Inside the factory

A Technisonic audio panel and radio provide mission-specific tactical support. Specialists assemble the helicopter by hand. An avionics wire loom is tested on the factory floor. Kevin Partin hand-rivets a tail boom. An all-digital Garmin G500H TXi avionics suite is standard equipment.

MD Helicopters entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2022, following a tumultuous time involving declining customer service and parts availability that contributed to a poor reputation. The company was then acquired by MBIA Insurance Corp., Bardin Hill, and MB Global Partners, bringing it out of Chapter 11 and bringing on Brad Pedersen as president and CEO in August 2022.

Pedersen shared how he and the new leadership team are “focusing on after-market support to improve customer experience.” He admitted they had much work to do to continue to rectify previous issues and relationships and rebuild the company’s reputation. He shared the company hired an executive to focus on after-market support from “spares, sales, to overhaul, repair, and upgrades.” MD Helicopters has a motivated team in place, and is taking on this challenge by ensuring existing customers are taken care of from a parts and service perspective in its new beginning, then slowly starting up the 500 production line again to support new buyers’ needs.

Four new MD 500s were rolling down the production line during my visit, all sold. Director of Sales—North America, Western Region Jack Harris showed me how fuselages, tail booms, and other parts were in various stages of assembly in jigs where sheet metal and riveting were done by hand by staff that Harris calls “some of the best in the business.” As a former aviation safety inspector of 20 years with the FAA, I’ve seen many manufacturing and repair facilities, and MD’s is impressive.

Pederson and Harris each bring extensive backgrounds and years of experience in the aircraft’s manufacturing history and operation in their former careers. Pederson began his career at Hughes Helicopters and had almost 20 years of direct experience with MD Helicopter product lines. Harris came to MD Helicopters after a 30-year career with the Columbus, Ohio, Division of Police, becoming a pilot and eventual commander of the aviation section, which flew MD Helicopter products. Pedersen and Harris both said the MD 500E is known by its pilots as “the Ferrari of helicopters,” referring to its high performance, agility, and the load feel the flight controls provide, contributing to that high-end sports car feeling.

We take to the air

It was time to relive flying the MD 500E with a demo flight in a factory-new one. It had been a minute since my last MD 500E flight: November 27, 2000, according to my logbook, and two years since my last helicopter flight—in a Robinson R44—which I flew for five hours. I jumped at the chance to strap in the 500, get on the controls, and feel the power of this high-performance helicopter again.

In addition to push-to-talk communication and radio frequency switching, the cyclic control grip can deploy cargo and hook release mechanisms or other custom functions.Many pilots and nonpilots alike listen to videos of the startup and takeoff of helicopters on their favorite websites, especially turbine-powered ones; I know I do. Hearing that Rolls-Royce 250-C20B spool up with rotor blades beginning to turn in sync until reaching 15 percent N1 and introducing Jet A, lighting off the turbine in what sounds like a low-pitch high-pressure blower accelerating until reaching about 64 percent was invigorating. You feel the engine’s power from startup throughout the aircraft’s flight envelope. With no hydraulics assisting the flight controls in maneuvering its five-blade fully articulating main rotor system and tail rotor, the pilot has excellent feedback and precise control over how the helicopter performs, confirming what Pedersen said: “The 500E is a helicopter a pilot becomes part of.” An additional benefit to no hydraulics is lower maintenance costs.

After Chief Pilot Dennis Banks repositioned N40125 and set it down, I pulled pitch with the collective to get the 500 light on the skids, let it stabilize, and then eased it up to my first hover. The helicopter oscillated left, right, forward, and back a few feet until I found the sweet spot holding the hover steady a few seconds later. Banks asked for a right then left 360-degree pedal turn, which went well; then came a set down and pick up to a hover again. Even though I hadn’t hovered a helicopter in more than two years, the 500’s stability—attributable in part to its control feedback—allowed me to quickly get the feel back and return to a stable hover. It was time to depart the airport and head out to the scenic plateaus and bluffs around Mesa.

These aircraft are coming off the production line with advanced glass panel avionics; N40125 was sporting the company’s newest option of a slimline panel that dramatically increased forward visibility for the pilots when compared to the standard, wider T-instrument panel. Having previously flown the wider panel, I appreciated the increased visibility while retaining dual Garmin G500H TXi TM touchscreens and excellent situational awareness.

The 500E has power to spare under most conditions because of its engine, which comes in two choices.The excitement of being behind the controls of one of my favorite helicopters again was immeasurable. We traversed the high desert topography a few hundred feet above the ground, looking out over its beauty and vastness while I was getting reacquainted with this beautiful helicopter’s high performance and flight characteristics as a dry riverbed came into view, which Banks informed me would be my off-airport landing zone. As I established a descent and slowed the helicopter, Banks reminded me to keep reducing airspeed as we weren’t in a fixed-wing aircraft. Bringing the helicopter into a stable descent, Banks chose my spot to land on the riverbed—next to an embankment on the right taller than the helicopter. At around 50 feet agl, Banks shared that during descent and bringing in hover power, there can be a tendency for the torque to suddenly kick the tail left, which could surprise an unprepared pilot. As I brought in hover power, sure enough, the tail kicked left—but I was prepared to counter the torque with left pedal and set the helicopter on the ground with plenty of room between the main rotor and the embankment. The second landing to the same spot went well, followed by a departure back to the airport to refuel and perform the thorough safety briefing for the two-ship air-to-air photo mission to follow. During the two-ship photo flight, the 500E showed its versatility when landing in a mountain peak saddle. The 500E has power to spare under most conditions because of its engine, which comes in two choices, and its gross weight. Engine choices include the Rolls-Royce 250-C20B sporting 420 shaft horsepower or a 250-C20R with 450 shaft horsepower. The 500E has a maximum gross weight of 3,000 pounds internally and 3,550 when hauling an external load. The useful load is 1,519 internally. The helicopter’s performance is excellent, with its sleek aerodynamic design and power. With a VNE of 152 knots and a maximum cruise of 135 knots, the 500 is faster than several popular four-seat fixed-wing aircraft and maybe even a few six-seaters. Standard fuel provides a range of 235 nautical miles. The 500E boasts a in-ground-effect hover of 8,400 feet and an out-of-ground-effect hover of 6,500 feet. The 500 is set up with four seats. However, it can be optioned for five with three in front and two in back.

Who’s flying MD500s?

The military continues to fly the MD 530F variant of the helicopter. Other users include utility companies supporting powerline work, aerial observation and photography, external load operators, law enforcement agencies, and many others. But how about the private pilot looking for the perfect high-performance turbine helicopter which emulates the feel of that exotic sports car, providing a seat-of-the-pants feeling only high-end sports cars can provide? It’s certainly on my shortlist, should the stars ever align for me.

Murray Huling is AOPA’s vice president of regulatory affairs. He is a private pilot single-engine land with instrument, rotorcraft-helicopter, and airframe and powerplant ratings.

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