Bell 206 JetRanger On Track for Summer Rollout!

By Jeff Holubitsky

(Written for May/June 2023 Issue of the From the Hangar E-Newsletter)

Bell 206 Jetranger restored in the museum's shop
When the people at the Alberta Aviation Museum received the wreck of a Bell 206 helicopter, they saw a quick job for the dedicated volunteers in the restoration shop.

“Our initial thought was it is going to be easy because Bell 206s are really common and it would be easy to get parts and it would be a quick win project,” curator Ryan Lee says.

Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Now, seven years later, following a struggle to find parts, a museum-closing pandemic and hundreds of hours of volunteer work, the helicopter will finally go on display this summer in the museum’s main hall in its vintage wartime hangar.

Restoration work on the craft began in 2016 after the museum received it from the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.

“NAIT had an aviation program that was mainly trades focused,” Lee says. “They trained avionics techs and others to repair aircraft. They were using it for repair purposes because it was junk.”

After the Edmonton’s City Centre Airport closed more than a decade ago, NAIT shut down the aviation program and the helicopter was given to the museum in 2013. It had been at the school after being involved in a crash when in service for Echo Bay Mines in the Northwest Territories.

“Echo Bay actually used it for surveying and for transportation,” Lee says. “It was carrying a big, long diamond drill that got snagged in trees and the helicopter crashed. It was an unfatal crash.”

Echo Bay sent the wreckage to NAIT.

Bell 206 Jetranger in early Echo Mine colours

The museum received the helicopter, with the turbine jet engine removed and many parts damaged or poorly repaired and covered in house paint by generations of students. The challenge facing the restoration team was to transform the into a display quality artifact representing Edmonton’s aviation history.

Bell 206 Jetranger wreckage
“One of our board members at the time was an ex-RCMP air division member,” Lee says.  “So, if we could restore it as an RCMP helicopter, it could represent the air division that was once here at the City Centre Airport.”

Parts proved to be a big problem. Many small parts, such as pieces of trim were either missing or irreparably damaged in the crash. And because so many Bell 206s are still flying there is a high demand for parts that do not fit a museum’s budget.

But the museum got lucky, more than once.

“There was a warehouse fire, and a bunch of parts were written off for insurance purposes, but they were still useable,” Lee says. “So, we were able to get them that way.”

He says Delta Helicopters of St. Albert also supported the project.

Sometimes luck walks in the door.

“People will just show up to say they heard the museum is restoring a Bell 206 and do you need this part, including the exhaust tips,” Lee says. “They are made of titanium and cost like $2,000 each.”

With a plan in place, volunteers including John Liddle who is also the museum’s librarian, Brian Mackenzie, and restoration crew chief Harry Nagel, committed themselves to the project and the work began, starting with the “mechanical” removal of the house paint.  That took about nine months.

Bell 206 Jetranger with paint stripped
“There were a couple of other guys, but Harry did the majority of that work himself,” Liddle says. “We gutted the aircraft completely. Got rid of the stuff we didn’t need and fortunately there was a helicopter maintenance warehouse in Calgary that had had a fire. We got quite a bit of stuff.”

Mackenzie points to a thin piece of shaped aluminum that serves as a rain gutter above one of the doors. If they restoration crew had not found that in Calgary, they would have had to custom make one themselves.

The crew was not so fortunate with a panel that sits between the engine compartment above the cabin and the door. The original was badly squashed in the crash and a new one was carefully made with each rivet hole exactly placed.

Restored panel for Bell 206 Jetranger
“That took us a month to get it shaped and drilled out,” he says. “And we did the same on the other side.”

Liddle says the tail cone they found came from a different version of the helicopter. Since the Bell 207 has been an aviation workhorse for half a century, many different versions have been developed.

“Harry had to adapt everything,” he says. “We are here for three to four hours a day, two days a week on average, but we were shut down for Covid and vacations.”

The Bell 206 may never fly again, but with luck, will still see years of service inside the museum.