Is the Bell 206 JetRanger the only pretty helicopter ever built?
We have all argued and occasionally even agreed that the aesthetic is unavoidably one of the most important things in a car. If it looks good then it’s hard not to like it – something Mercedes might like to consider. Helicopters do not look good. And that, strangely, is part of their appeal to me. I learned to fly in and still regularly get about in a Robinson R44. It’s a small, four-seater machine built in America and features a flat-six engine built by a company that started out making sewing machines. The mast sticks up from the fuselage to stop the blades chopping the tail boom off and as a result it looks like a drawing of a helicopter by a five-year old child. And I don’t care. Because it’s what a helicopter can do that holds the secret to its appeal, not the way it looks whilst doing it.
If I was after exploring and revelling in the romance of flying then I’d learn to fly a vintage, fixed-wing ‘plank’ and satisfy myself with travelling from one airfield to another in search of the best steak and kidney pie enjoyed in the company of the most enthralling vintage flyers with the best moustaches. To me, a helicopter is a machine whose overriding quality is the ability to fly from exactly where you are to exactly where you want to be. If I can’t land actually in the kitchen then I want to put it down at least close enough so I can reach the kitchen door handle before I get out. I can’t see the thing when I’m flying it and when I get where I’m going I’ll be busy doing whatever I’ve used the thing to get me there to do. It’s a utility machine, the definitive utility machine if you ask me; designed entirely for practicality and its form is dictated entirely by its function.
As with many heli pilots, I’m not really an anorak. Yes, I blather on about barometric settings and points of departure and scatter acronyms about the place like a farmer scattering seed when I’m talking to air traffic control, but my interest goes no further. I don’t have posters of helicopters on my walls and I couldn’t recognise many types of helicopter beyond the specific ones I’m rated to fly. And as for knowing anything about aircraft in general, don’t look to me for help in a pub quiz. On being forced to put in at an airfield due to practical difficulties and the laws about landing in central London, I arrived and was told by the controller to land next to the Lysander 3-5-whatever-diddly-thingy; unable to recognise one plane from another, I asked brightly if they wanted me to land next to the big blue one or the little yellow one that looks like a sad dog.
The lumpier and bumpier a helicopter is, the more gawky, awkward or odd looking, then the more its appearance sings of its dedication to task and its haughty lack of time or space to pander to pointless notions like aesthetics or visual proportion. Look at an Apache and tell me it would be good looking if you didn’t know what it could do. Beauty in people is based on symmetry and proportionality because if those things are right then it suggest that the owner of said pretty features is well put together and therefore a safe bet when it comes to performing and functioning in the way a human should. A helicopter is, therefore, always beautiful because every square inch of it looks the way it does only because it has been designed to function to the optimum level. But from a purely aesthetic view, taking away any pre-knowledge of the particular tasks for which an individual helicopter is built, then they are pretty much all, judged dispassionately and objectively, ugly as sin.
But there is an exception to the looks don’t matter in a helicopter rule. Because I maintain that the Bell 206 JetRanger is not only the prettiest helicopter built, but is measurably and actually pretty, regardless of what it is or is for.
The first prototype B206 was flown in 1962 and it has gone on to become almost the defining helicopter silhouette in most of our minds. I don’t know if it is actually a legal requirement to put a JetRanger in every Bond movie and glossy TV series, but it may as well be; leaving it out is like leaving out the car chase or the bit where they say, ‘Cover me’. It’s a glorious thing to fly as well as to look at; its decades of use in the commercial and private worlds bear testament to that and it carries itself even today, at 54 years old, with the confident grace of a genuine thoroughbred.
And if all of that is something new to think about, then good.