My Health Insurance Story

If the AHCA passes, something like this could happen to you.

I’ve been self-employed since 1990. When I left my last full-time job — which did include health care benefits — I bought my own health insurance coverage. I was 29 at the time, a non-smoker, and in good health. But health insurance was something I thought everyone needed to have, so I signed up with one program or another — I honestly can’t remember any details — and stayed insured for years.

Understand that I seldom needed insurance coverage. Again, I was in good health. If I caught a cold, I went to the doctor. If my insurance covered the visit and medicine, fine. If it didn’t, I paid and didn’t complain. When I had some problems with my knee and needed several tests, some physical therapy, and finally some arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn meniscus, I ponied up the $1,000 deductible before finally getting some benefits to cover most of the other costs. I’m not rich and I’m not poor but I was usually able to afford any kind of medical attention I needed.

Each year, my insurance rates went up and I paid the new premium. It wasn’t a big deal; I made more money every year and I saw the increased expense as part of my cost of living increase. Occasionally, I’d shop around for a new policy and get one that was a little less costly. That would creep up over the years and I’d change again.

The biggest mistake I ever made

I’m not exaggerating when I say that getting on my future wasband’s health insurance was the biggest mistake I ever made in my life. Why? Because when was I diagnosed not long afterwards with a tumor that needed removal and possible cancer treatments afterwards, he told me that I might not be covered if the insurance company found out we weren’t married. Terrified of bankruptcy from medical expenses for surgery and cancer treatments, I agreed to marry him. After all, we’d been together for 23 years and “engaged” for most of that time. We’d obviously stay together forever.

I turned out to be wrong about that. But the insurance was the root of my mistake; if I hadn’t gotten on his health insurance plan, I never would have married him. It would have been a hell of a lot easier to get him out of my life when he decided he wanted a mommy more than a wife and took up with a desperate old whore he met online only six years later. (Read a few of the early posts tagged divorce if you want the details of his betrayal.)

And no, there was no cancer.

In the early 2000s, my future wasband took a job in the Phoenix area with a company that offered very good health insurance plan. Around the same time, I got a sizable increase in my health insurance premium. He told me I could get on his insurance and it would be cheaper and better. Even though we weren’t married, I assumed he knew what he was talking about when he made the offer, so I dropped my insurance and got on his.

Sometime after we married, when I was still on his insurance, I started having digestive issues. I went to a gastroenterologist connected to Wickenburg Hospital — which I will never do again — and told her about my symptoms, including pain in my upper abdomen. She translated that as chest pains and decided that I needed to get an EKG. When that showed no problem, she sent me for a stress test. When that showed no problem, she sent me for another test. When that showed no problem, she finally gave up trying to diagnose me with heart problems. She was never able to resolve the digestive issues I had. Neither was another doctor I went to see. I wrote about this in a 2010 blog post titled “Getting Quality Health Care: Apparently Impossible.”

My wasband lost the job with the great insurance got another one with good insurance. I stuck with his new plan. Then he lost that job and was unemployed for a while. He got us on Cobra, which he paid for with our joint checking account. Except he didn’t pay on time. He missed a payment and they cancelled our coverage.

He got in touch with them right away and made the payment. It was only five days late. They reinstated him immediately. But they looked at my medical records, saw the heart tests, and refused to cover me because I had a “pre-existing condition.”

Except I didn’t have the condition they claimed I had. I had never had that condition. All tests had proved negative. My heart was fine.

It took six months of fighting with Blue Cross to get insurance coverage again. For the entire time, I was completely exposed to financial loss: if I was hit with a major health problem, the cost of medical attention could easily bankrupt me. Actually, I guess it could bankrupt us — I don’t think my idiot wasband realized how exposed he was, too.

I finally got coverage under my own name, separate from my wasband, by signing papers saying I’d never put in a claim for heart-related issues. I had no trouble with that because I had a healthy heart.

And, as you might imagine, I learned my lesson and kept my insurance separate from my wasband’s no matter how good his next employer’s plan was. I simply couldn’t trust him with something that important. (That probably helped confirm my financial independence from him in divorce court a few years later.)

I have been on one health insurance plan or another since that “pre-existing condition” scare all those years ago. The Affordable Care Act (ACA or ObamaCare) made it easy to find insurance that met my requirements. Again, I’m generally healthy and I make a decent living. I have insurance primarily to prevent bankruptcy in the event of a major illness. I have assets to protect, including my home, my business assets, and my retirement funds. I’ve worked too hard my whole life to put them at risk.

To keep my premiums as low as possible, I have a very high deductible: $5,000. I take advantage of a health savings account if I can. (My new plan does not allow additional savings but I can still use the balance from my old plan.) It’s nice to have annual check-ups and special tests like mammograms covered by insurance without having to worry about the deductible. Coverage under ACA helps people who can’t afford doctor’s visits at all to make at least make one visit a year which can, hopefully, find any problems before they become serious.

I’m not at all happy with the provisions of the Paul Ryan American Health Care Act (AHCA or TrumpCare) in part because it will allow insurers to deny coverage or greatly raise rates for people with pre-existing conditions.

Will it affect me? Will I be denied coverage? Or charged some outrageous rate for premiums? Just because I had a few heart tests ten years ago? Tests that proved I had a healthy heart?

And will some test or problem you’ve had in the past prevent you from getting coverage?

And what about well-care visits? Maternity coverage? Contraception? Mental health care? Any number of items on the list of required coverages from the ACA?

(Don’t worry boys, I’m sure you’ll still be able to get your little blue pills. Republicans wouldn’t dare threaten a man’s sex life.)

With only 17% approval rating from the people, Republicans could pass the bill later today anyway. They don’t care about the people who voted them in. They care about the lobbyists and rich donors who pay for their campaigns. The people most likely to benefit from this plan.

So I guess time will tell how it affects you.

I Have No Patience for Lazy Writers

A brief rant.

This morning, I got this email from someone who is apparently farming out parts of his books to people with better description skills than he has:

You are the perfect person to help me. I’m writing a book about birding adventures that I had in 2011. One tense incident happened along the Rio Grande when armed cartel waded across the Rio Grande. To make a long story short, for the next forty-five minutes or so two helicopters (border patrol) circled overhead. Here is my question:

How would you accurately describe the sound these helicopters make?

Border Patrol at Rio Grande
Photo of Border Patrol helicopter over Rio Grande from gallery on U.S. Customs and Border Protection website.

For the record, I’ve never been birding along the Rio Grande while Border Patrol helicopters circled overhead for 45 minutes. How would I know what it sounds like?

Yet this guy was apparently there and can’t describe it. He figures that since I’m a helicopter pilot and a writer, I can describe it for him. So he sends me this email message.

Here’s a tip: if you can’t accurately describe something with words, you shouldn’t be a writer.

And yes, I addressed this in my blog back in 2009: “Writing Tips: Writing Accurate Descriptions.” If you do read that post, pay close attention to the first paragraph under the heading “Do Your Homework,” since it pretty much covers my thoughts on getting email messages like this one.

It’s Not That Simple

A response to a reader’s request.

The other day, I got the following email message in my In Box with the subject line “Quicken 2017 for Mac”:

As I write these words your “Quicken 2002 Deluxe for Macintosh” book sits in front of me. The time has come, whether I like it or not, to update to Quicken 2017 for Mac from Quicken 2007 for Mac. Sadly, thee’s no good documentation to use. In fact, I haven’t found any good material since your 2002 book! For all I know, you’ve moved on and no longer write books such as the one published back then. That being said, I’d like to request you consider writing a new Guide similar to the one your wrote way back then. All the best to you whatever your future ventures may be.

First, I want to thank the sender for phrasing his request so politely and understanding that I might not be writing books like that one any more. A lot of the email messages I get regarding my writing work is a lot less polite and a lot more demanding, which partially explains why the Contact page on this blog seems to discourage communication from readers. (It’s actually toned down a lot more than it used to be.)

Now let me tell you a little bit about the rise and fall of tech publishing.

The “Old Days” of Tech Publishing

Dvorak's Inside Track
This is the first book I was involved in; I was a ghost writer on 4 chapters and am mentioned in the acknowledgements.

I got into the world of computer how-to book publishing way back in 1991. I’d left my last full-time job as a Financial Analyst at a Fortune 100 Corporation the year before and was trying my hand at freelance writing. Through an odd series of events, I wound up ghost writing four chapters of a book by John C. Dvorak, Bernard J. David (who I worked with directly), and others. That led to a book that Bernard and I co-authored, which led to another 80+ books that I mostly authored alone.

Back in those days, the Internet was in its infancy. Hardly anyone had a website — I didn’t have my first one until 1995 — and services like Google, which was founded in 1996 and wouldn’t become the powerhouse it is for years, didn’t exist. When people wanted to learn, they turned to books.

Software developers knew this. They provided printed manuals with their software products. Manuals for some software could be voluminous — I remember the one I had for a version of FrameMaker that had to be at least 800 pages. But despite the availability of these reference guides, users wanted something easier to read and understand. So computer how-to books were born. I happened to be at the right place at the right time to write them.

And I was very good at it. I had a knack for learning how to use software, breaking it down into simple tasks that built progressively through the book to more complex tasks, and writing it in a way that readers found helpful.

With a lot of competition, however, not many readers got to see my books and there wasn’t much money in writing them. No problem: I’ll just write more books. My publishers — especially Peachpit Press — really liked my work and my ability to meet deadlines. They kept me busy. I once signed six book contracts in a single day. One year, I wrote 10 books.

I wasn’t the only one cranking out books. Numerous publishers had tech imprints and dozens of new titles appeared every month. Bookstores — and there were a lot more of them in those days — had trouble keeping up, but they did. Publishers published these books and bookstores stocked them for one reason: they sold.

Demand only got higher as software developers stopped including lengthy manuals with their software, favoring Quick Start books instead. And then switching to digital only manuals that they might or might not include on the software CD.

Thus began the glory days of computer how-to book authors and publishers, a period that lasted from around 1995 through 2010.

Success Comes with Sales

Quicken 99 Official Guide
This was one of my first bestsellers. Revised annually until I gave it up after the 2009 edition, it was a major source of income for me.

My financial success as the author of computer how-to books didn’t come from writing a lot of books with average sales. It came from writing two particular books, revised often, that were bestsellers. My Quicken 1999: The Official Guide was one of these bestsellers.

Quicken 2002 Mac
I was very happy to be able to write about Quicken for Mac, since I was a long-time user.

The success of one book often spurs a series of books. Quicken Press (later Intuit Press), an imprint of Osborne-McGraw-Hill, soon began publishing other Quicken and QuickBooks books. That’s how I wound up authoring Quicken 2002 Deluxe for the Macintosh: The Official Guide, the book referred to in the email message above.

I was pretty happy about this. Truth is, I’m a Mac user and had been writing Windows books only because there were more Windows users so the sales potential was higher. I’d been using Quicken on my Mac for years and knew it better than the Windows version I’d been writing about since 1998.

But my Quicken Mac book didn’t take off the way we’d hoped — there were a lot fewer Quicken Mac users and Intuit still had viable competition to Quicken on the Mac OS platform. To complicate matters, Intuit didn’t revise Quicken for Mac as often as it revised Quicken for Windows. When the next version, Quicken 2007, was released, neither Intuit nor my publisher saw a sufficient market for a book about it. So I was never asked to revise my book for future editions.

Google and the Death of Tech Publishing

Meanwhile, as publishers and authors were churning out computer books as fast as we could, the Web was growing. People were writing how-to articles and publishing them on blogs, on software support websites, on user group websites, and in online magazines. Even I did this for a long while, mostly to help promote my existing titles. These articles were free and available immediately. When search engines like Google proved to be extremely effective in helping readers find the content they sought, people started thinking twice about buying computer how-to books.

After all, why go to a bookstore or go online at Amazon to find a book that may or may not answer your specific question when you could spend a few minutes searching with Google and find the answer you need? Why wait for a book you ordered online to arrive when you could find the information you needed immediately? Why depend on the voice of one author when you could access information provided by dozens or hundreds of them?

Book sales dropped off dramatically in the late 2000s. I could see it in my royalty statements; my income peaked in 2004 and 2005 and then began a steady decline. Books about software staples like Word and Excel, that I’d revise with every new version, were dropped one after another. Publishers who had once agreed to a contract for nearly every title I proposed now declined, saying they didn’t think there was a sufficient market for the book. There were fewer and fewer new software-related titles being published. Editors who’d worked on dozens of titles a year suddenly found themselves unemployed. Publishers or imprints merged or disappeared. The few brick and mortar bookstores that managed to survive the rise of Amazon reduced or even eliminated their computer book shelf space.

By 2013, all of my book titles were officially dead — not scheduled for revision. And I know I’m not the only tech author who lived and thrived through the computer book glory days to find myself without a book market for my expertise. There are lots of us out there. The ones like me who saw it coming had a safety net to fall into; others weren’t so lucky and find themselves struggling to stay relevant and earn a living writing words few seem willing to pay for.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying that computer how-to books no longer exist. They do. There just aren’t many of them. And rather than appeal to the beginner to intermediate user I wrote for, they’re mostly written for a much higher level of user about far more complex topics. Or very narrow markets that are easy to sell to.

This Reader’s Request

Fast forward to today.

The very politely worded email request from a reader quoted in full above is asking me to revise my Quicken 2002 for Mac book for Quicken 2017 for Mac. If you’ve been reading carefully, you know why this is unlikely to happen.

There is not a sufficient market for such a book.

And that’s what it’s all about: being able to publish a book that will sell enough copies for the publisher to make a profit. It has nothing to do with the author; publishers really don’t care what authors make. Their contracts routinely minimize author royalties to help the book’s bottom line. That’s all that matters. They have spreadsheets that calculate breakeven and if a title can’t break even with a decent profit, they won’t publish it. Simple as that.

Would I write and self-publish a book about Quicken 2017 for Mac? Probably not. Even self-publishing such a book doesn’t mean I’ll earn enough money to make such a project worthwhile. Let’s do the math. It would take me a good 400 hours of time over two months to write the book and prepare the manuscript for publishing. Say I need to make a minimum of $25/hour. That means the project would have to net me $10,000. Even if I managed to net $5/book after fees paid to Amazon, Apple iBooks store, Nook, etc., I’d still have to sell 2,000 copies. Are there 2,000 people out there willing to buy a book about Quicken 2017 for Mac? I seriously doubt it.

And I’ll share a secret with you: I still use Quicken 2007 for Mac. I bought but decided I didn’t like the 2015 version and I haven’t even bothered to buy the 2017 version.

So if I — a loyal Quicken user since the early 1990s — haven’t bothered to upgrade, how many other people have? And how many of them want a book about it?

The answer is simple: Not enough for me or apparently anyone else to write a book about it.

This Explains It

And this pretty much explains why I don’t write books about how to use computers and software anymore. I can’t make a living doing it.

But I’m lucky: at least I’ve found something else to make a living at.

Postcards: Glass Beach

While waiting for a battery to be replaced in my helicopter’s GPS, I got into a conversation with one of the avionics shop guys about my planned driving route along the California coast to get home. He immediately mentioned Glass Beach near Fort Bragg and even showed me a web page about it. 

I visited on Tuesday. It’s a neat little cove on the Pacific where sand-smoothed broken glass washes ashore, forming a beach with more glass than sand. 

Postcards: Bodega Head

After spending the night in a campsite in Doran Regional Park at Bodega Bay, we drove out to Bodega Head. Wow! What a view!

Lake Berryessa and the Glory Hole

Not something you see every day.

I spent a few weeks in the Sacramento area of California — as I have been since 2013 when I brought my helicopter there for its first frost control contract — in late February and early March. I’ve gotten to know the area pretty well over the past five years and as I continue to explore new places, I also return to the old ones. Lake Berryessa, the largest lake in Napa County, is one of these places.

I first discovered it during a drive up Putah Creek, starting in Winters, CA. From there, I made a stop at the Lake Solano Campground (which I eventually stayed at for the first time this year) and noted its crazy collection of peacocks. Farther up the road, I passed numerous parking areas for fishing and hiking and picnicking. Still farther, the road crossed the creek, wound up a hill, and passed the Monticello Dam, which holds in the waters of Lake Berryessa. Penny and I have hiked in various places along the shore, driven much of the west side’s shoreline, and even flown over it numerous times in my helicopter.

Aerial View of Lake Berryesssa
An aerial view of Lake Berryessa, shot with a GoPro on my helicopter back in March 2014. The water was very low.

For the first four years I’ve been in the area, the lake level was low — very low. This isn’t surprising given the serious drought that affected nearly all of California. All of the lakes I flew over were low. But this year things were different. This year, all the lakes are full, nearly full, or even — in some cases — overflowing. Lake Berryessa is one of the lakes with too much water.

Man-made lakes — basically, any lake that holds water in with a dam — usually have flood control features built in that guide excess water safely out of the lake and into a receiving stream or river. This is normally done with the use of a spillway that can be opened or is automatically utilized before the water level reaches the top of the dam.

Spillways come in different styles. The most common is a sort of water chute that excess water flows down, away from the dam. Most dams have this kind of spillway. The Oroville Dam, which has been in the news a lot lately, has spillways like this, one of which was severely damaged by floodwaters.

Another less common type is an open bell mouth spillway. That’s the type at Lake Berryessa. It’s a round concrete hole not far from the road and the dam. From Wikipedia:

Near the dam on the southeast side of the reservoir is an open bell-mouth spillway, 72 feet (22 m) in diameter, which is known as the Glory Hole. The pipe has a straight drop of 200 feet (61 m), and the diameter shrinks down to about 28 feet (8.5 m). The spillway has a maximum capacity of 48,000 cfs (1360 cms). The spillway operates when there is excess water in the reservoir; in 2017 after heavy rains it started flowing, for the first time since 2006.

Monticello Dam w/Glory Hole
In looking through my archive of photos from 2014, I found a GoPro photo of the dam from the air that clearly shows the Glory Hole when it isn’t in use.

It was in the news in February because the lake had finally filled, after 11 years, and water was flowing into the Glory Hole. Of course, I had to go see it. So when I got the helicopter into California and needed to a “maintenance flight” to check a few things, I headed over there. Sure enough, water was flowing into the hole and a small gathering of people along the road were looking in. I flew by a week later and the water was still flowing in.

I wanted to see it again from the ground, so I returned on Saturday. By that time, Penny and I were on our way home from nearly four months on the road so I had the Turtleback on my truck. Once again, I’m so glad I downgraded from my big fifth wheel; parking in the very crowded parking area was remarkably easy.

There were a lot of people there. It was, after all, Saturday and the Glory Hole had been on the news quite a bit. It made a good, easy, and free point of interest for sightseers.

Glory Hole from the Road
The Glory Hole, photographed from the road. That’s the dam to the right. The water is pretty close to the top.

Penny and I joined the crowd and walked along the road for a good look. The chain link fence made it difficult to get a good photo. The hole is right next to the road and pretty much fills the camera lens. But I did my best.

A guy was out there with a Phantom 4 drone so I decided to give my drone (AKA flying camera) a shot when he was done. I went pack to the truck, put Penny inside, and pulled out my drone. Within about 5 minutes, I had it all set up in a clear area between parked cars and the fence downstream from the dam. When I was sure the other drone had landed, I launched mine.

Understand that I’m still learning how to use my Mavic Pro. I’m also very careful. Immediately after launching, I took it up over the lake, away from people. Then I captured some still and video shots of the Glory Hole from the air, including a short pass where I flew directly over the hole with the camera pointing straight down.

Glory Hole from the Air
I really don’t know why the water looks so green in this shot. I don’t think it’s the camera. It must be something to do with the light.

I tweeted the video clip and got a lot of positive feedback about it. I also got a request to contact the folks at a video licensing company who want to represent me on the resale of the clip to news other media organizations. I’ll all for that, provided my FAA Commercial UAS Pilot certificate has come through; it’s not legal to sell drone photography without it. Need to get home and check my mail to see if the paperwork is there; I applied back in January so I should be good.

I need more practice using my Mavic and I intend to get some on my way home. I had it out again this morning from my campsite at Bodega Bay. I’m hoping to put together a little montage when I get home and share it here on the blog. Stay tuned.

My R44 Helicopter’s Overhaul

Easier than I expected, but I’m still glad it’s all behind me now.

I picked up my 2005 Robinson R44 Raven II helicopter, Zero-Mike-Lima, from its first 12-year/2200-hour overhaul on Monday, February 20, 2017. I’m very happy with the way it turned out. I thought I’d take a moment to share some information about the process and the way I dealt with it.

About the Overhaul

While most helicopters — most aircraft, actually — have a wide variety of life-limited parts and complex maintenance schedules, Robinson handles maintenance for major components a bit differently. It requires that the entire helicopter be overhauled every 12 years or 2200 hours of flight time, whichever comes first. It does this by syncing the life on certain components so they all need to be inspected, rebuilt, or replaced at the same time.

For example, another helicopter might have blades with a life of 3000 hours and an engine with a life of 2000 hours and a transmission with a life of 1500 hours. The owner/operator/maintenance manager is required to keep track of when each component is due for maintenance or replacement and make sure the helicopter doesn’t overfly the next due item. Then the helicopter needs to be taken offline so that the work that is due can be done. Once it’s finished, that item’s clock is reset (so to speak) and the helicopter continues to operate until the next item needs attention. The benefit to this is that major maintenance costs are spread throughout a helicopter’s life and each maintenance task can be knocked off relatively quickly. The drawback is that there’s a lot of components to track and the helicopter could be down for maintenance quite frequently if it’s flown a lot.

On a Robinson helicopter, the engine, rotor blades, transmission, and other major components are all built to last 12 years or 2200 hours. That’s also when the whole helicopter needs to be thoroughly inspected for frame cracks or other structural problems. So Robinson owners usually get it all done at once as an overhaul.

I say usually because it doesn’t always work out that way. For example, some components — for example, the engine — are limited by hours flown only. So if a helicopter is only a few years old but is flown often, only those components that have a flight time related life limits need to be replaced or inspected. But since you often have to take the helicopter apart to get to those components, it usually makes sense to do the whole overhaul. And there’s always a chance that a helicopter’s component will simply go bad — a blade strike can destroy a set of blades, an engine overspeed can damage an engine, etc. — and that component will be replaced on its own, thus throwing the whole 12-year/2200 hour synced schedule out of whack.

It Ain’t Cheap

An R44 overhaul isn’t cheap. These days it usually runs about $220,000 to $240,000. And no, that isn’t a typo.

But remember this: instead of spending $50K one year for a set of blades and $40K another year for a rebuilt engine and $15K another year for a tail rotor assembly and $15K another year to borescope the frame tubes, you’re paying for everything at once. When it’s done, the helicopter is in like-new condition. (Heck, mine is now worth more than I paid for it 12 years ago.)

I didn’t think much about the overhaul cost during the first few years I owned Zero-Mike-Lima. Ideally, I should have been saving up about $100 for every hour I flew, but I didn’t. I was already paying about $2,100/month on its eight-year loan, about $1,000/month to keep it insured, and anywhere from $3,000 to $8,000 a year on regular maintenance. (Don’t let anyone tell you that owning a helicopter is cheap.) Back in those days, my flying business struggled. I still had this silly idea that I could operate a tour business in (of all places) Wickenburg, AZ, and even when I moved it down to the Deer Valley area for part of the year I couldn’t make a tour business work. So my writing work was funding my flying business and I wasn’t very interested in using my royalties to save up for the helicopter’s overhaul.

But around 2007, things started to change. I discovered the world of aerial survey work and began to understand the value of regular, repeat clients rather than one-time tour passengers. My business began paying its own expenses. Then, in 2008, I got involved in cherry drying work in Washington state and, through careful management of my expenses and the acquisition of new contracts, began making some decent money. (My tenth season is coming up in May and I expect to hire at least five pilots with helicopters to work with me.) It was around 2010 that I was able to start putting aside some of Flying M Air’s revenue for the overhaul. By 2012, I’d saved up $132K, which was pretty darn close to the $150K I should have had saved by then. Not bad, huh?

Of course, it was that $132K and the helicopter that my future wasband and the desperate old whore he moved in with had their eye on in divorce court. But my legal team was smart. We brought in a helicopter flight school owner who operates a fleet of R22 and R44 helicopters as an expert witness. He testified that the money I’d saved was to cover a deferred maintenance expense — which, of course, is what the overhaul is. Fortunately, the judge understood this and I was able to keep the money.

Sadly, a portion of it went to pay for divorce legal fees. But I consider that money well spent since I got to keep the helicopter and a variety of other assets I owned, too. I still don’t understand what made my wasband think he was entitled to any of it. (Expensive delusions?)

Once I’d gotten through the divorce, downsized a bit, and built my new home, I was able to start saving again. Last year’s very rainy cherry season couldn’t have been more timely for me — although I admit I felt bad for my clients. By the time I was ready for the overhaul, I had a bunch of money saved up again.

Timing is Everything

In the first eight years I owned my R44, I flew it almost exactly 200 hours a year. At that rate, it would have needed to go in for overhaul within 11 years.

I thought about overhaul timing starting around 2010 or so. My busy season in Arizona was winter and spring and I wanted the helicopter around for that. And, of course, I needed to take it to Washington for the summer for cherry season, which was starting to really pay off. That meant an autumn overhaul. I’d bring it in around September to get it back by Christmas. That was the plan.

But despite picking up new work doing frost control in California in the late winter/early spring of 2013, I began flying a lot less. My frost and cherry contracts paid to have the helicopter standing by, ready to fly. It didn’t necessarily fly. (This amazes me: that I can fly less and earn more.) When I permanently moved to Washington in May 2013, I no longer had that long ferry flight — at least 10 hours each way — between Arizona and Washington for cherry season. And as I worked to build my new home, I didn’t have as much time for joy flights. So it soon became apparent that the helicopter would go the full 12 years before overhaul.

My season changed, too. Now it was vital to have the helicopter available from late February through September for frost season, cherry season, and local area tours. Winter was absolutely dead — in fact, I’d begun going south for the winter, leaving the helicopter idle in the garage until I needed it in California for frost. Clearly, that would be the best time to get the overhaul done.

I started speaking to overhaul shops about what needed to be done as early as August 2015. They all estimated anywhere from two to four months. That meant dropping it off in October or November 2016 to get it back in time for this year’s frost season.

Researching Overhaul Shops

As you might imagine, you can’t get an overhaul done in just any repair shop. It needs to be an Robinson authorized repair shop. The helicopter is literally stripped down to its frame and rebuilt. I wanted to make sure it was rebuilt by people who knew what they were doing.

I started my search in August 2015, when I brought Zero-Mike-Lima to Hillsboro, OR for an annual inspection. Hillsboro Aviation is the outfit who had sold me the helicopter at Heli Expo in 2004. (I got it priced up there, ordered it two months later, and took delivery six months after that.) They had a good shop full of experienced mechanics that maintained the R22s and R44s for their flight school. But I didn’t get many details then; I wasn’t really thinking about yet.

In November 2015, while I was in Florida visiting my sister, I stopped off to visit a shop in St. Augustine that I knew of. (I had actually rented an R22 from them way back in 2000 or 2001 so I could give my stepdad a ride.) I had no problem with the distance; I figured I could spend some time visiting my sister while they worked on it. They were very receptive and gave me a tour of their hangar, where their mechanics were working on two Robinsons. I was introduced to the guy who would be doing most of the work. “He’s great with Robinsons,” I was told. “He’s been working on them for nine months now.”

Nine months! I thought to myself. I want someone who has been working on them for nine years.

A few months later, in March 2016, I checked out a shop in Salinas, CA. They had a very impressive operation where they did a lot of work on airplanes, including some classics. They could even make their own metal parts using computer-driven fabricators. But they didn’t seem overly eager to do it. It was almost as if they’d take it on as a sort of challenge. And I couldn’t pin them down on timing. Maybe four months, maybe more.

I tried to contact Hillsboro again and, for a while, got no response. Later, I discovered that they’d undergone a personnel change and the guy I’d spoken to was gone. They seemed eager to get the job, though, and I was confident that they’d do it right.

And then I contacted Quantum Helicopters in Chandler, AZ. I had a history with Quantum and it wasn’t all good. I’d gotten my private pilot license with them, finally finishing it up after a year and a half of part-time lessons, taking the summer off to avoid the heat. I liked my instructor a lot and thought the school treated me well. The owner had even been instrumental in helping me buy my first helicopter, a 1999 R22 Beta II. I leased that helicopter back to the school and began my commercial training in it. All was going well until my commercial flight instructor took a job at the Grand Canyon and I just couldn’t seem to do anything to please my new instructor. I was ready to take my check ride but no one would sign me off. I got frustrated and wound up leaving the school. (It took me only 10 days a few months later to finish my training and pass my check ride at a different flight school in Long Beach.) I made the mistake of voicing my concerns and frustration to the owner in a letter and he told me not to bring my helicopter in for maintenance anymore. He later backed down a bit from that position, but it would be ten years before I came back. I was pissed.

Why come back at all? Simply said, Quantum has one of the best Robinson maintenance shops in the country. The Director of Maintenance, Paul, is the same guy who was there in the same job when I started my training back in 1998. That’s 20 years working on Quantum’s Robinsons and before that, he worked at the Robinson factory. He’s got a staff of at least a dozen mechanics and apprentices and they work on Robinson helicopters all day long every day. They know Robinsons. And their maintenance hangar is huge, with enough space to work on at least six helicopters at a time and all the tools they need to fix Robinsons.

When I first came back to them, it was because I had a leak in my hydraulic servos. Another mechanic had told me they’d need to be replaced but hadn’t been able to do it. In a bind, I called Paul and he agreed to take a look. He said that the problem wasn’t uncommon and that there was a good chance the servos would last until overhaul. He told me to keep an eye on it and how much hydraulic fluid needed to be periodically added. He saved me about $2,000 and a week of down time that day. (And he was right; the leak never got worse and the servos lasted until overhaul.)

Before moving to Washington in 2013, I had Quantum do a few of my annual inspections, replace the original fuel tanks with the new bladder tanks, and even install some specialized lighting on the front skid legs. The work was always done right. Best of all, they understood that I wasn’t a sucker with deep pockets. They did what needed to be done to keep the aircraft safe and airworthy and advised me of any potential problems that might need future attention. But they never replaced anything that didn’t need replacing. That saved me a lot of money, too.

So when it came to start getting estimates of overhaul cost, I included Quantum in my list of possible shops to get the job done. Again, it was quite a distance from where I lived in Washington, but I was spending much of my winters in Arizona, anyway.

I also contacted the Robinson factory. They do overhauls, too. In fact, they have a separate assembly line just for overhauls. The benefit of a factory overhaul is that it really does come out just like new. They do everything that could possibly be done to restore it to like-new condition. But I was warned in advance of a few things. First was timing: it could take up to six months. Second was expense: factory overhauls usually cost a lot more than their estimates because any part that is even slightly damaged is replaced — and if it isn’t part of the kit, it’s added to the bill.

The Estimates

The estimates fell into three categories:

  • Cheap. The Florida outfit thought that I was mostly concerned with meeting airworthiness requirements as cheaply as possible. They would do the minimum amount of work so I could pay the minimum amount of money. While that may be attractive to some, I’m always skeptical of the lowest bidder. What costs are hidden? Besides, was the nine-month mechanic still there — now with 18 months of experience? Or had he been replaced with a four-month mechanic? I decided I didn’t want to take the chance.
  • Reasonable. Quantum’s estimate was reasonable. It was based on the cost of the “overhaul kit” sold by Robinson and just the parts I needed. They’d have my engine rebuilt locally — rather than replace my engine with someone else’s rebuilt engine. (I’m not sure if that matters but I kind of liked the idea.) They had the tools and knowhow to do all the inspections in-house. The factory overhaul estimate, which arrived after I made my decision, was also reasonable, but I already knew that the estimate was misleading; it would cost me 20% to 25% more by the time they finished replacing every single dinged panel with a new one and running it all through the paint shop.
  • Expensive or Crazy Expensive. The other estimates were either expensive or crazy expensive. I can’t remember which was which. I’m thinking Salinas was crazy expensive — maybe 20% more than Quantum. The other was close to Quantum’s but I didn’t have the same level of confidence in them as I had with Paul and his team.

So I went with Quantum. And I managed to save about $10K to $12K by not having the helicopter repainted and not replacing the leather seats and headliner, neither of which needed replacement. (I did have the carpet replaced; the pilot side was completely trashed.) After all, I’d taken pretty good care of the helicopter for the past 11+ years and it had spent most of its life in a hangar or garage when not flying. A good detailing and it would look fine.

Paul told me the fastest they’d done an R44 overhaul was about 8 weeks for a very anxious owner. I told him I’d give them 3 and a half months. I’d drop it off in November and pick it up in mid-February. He said that would work for him.

The Last Days before Overhaul

I flew a lot last summer. It was a rainy cherry season and more than a few times I flew all day long, sometimes several days in a row. But I was still at just over 2030 hours at the end of the summer.

With a calendar date set for the overhaul, I began flying as often as possible, hoping to put as many hours on it as I could to get my money’s worth from the overhaul. I took it to an AOPA fly-in near Seattle, then flew it around the Olympic Peninsula and down to visit a friend in Salem, OR. I took almost all of my friends and neighbors for rides, often to my favorite eating spots: Tsillan Cellars winery, Cave B winery, Blustery’s Burger. (Will fly for food.) I went joy flying before or after charter flights.

Then, in early October I took it in for a 50-hour inspection, which includes an oil change. My mechanic found metal in the oil filter. He told me that he’d been seeing some metal for a while, but the amount he now saw was significant. My engine was sending me a message: I’m tired, rebuild me.

Into the HangarOn October 18, 2016, Paul wheeled the helicopter into the hangar where the overhaul work would be done.

Although it was running smoothly, I decided to move up the calendar a little, mostly to get the helicopter out of my sight so I wouldn’t be tempted to fly it any more. I made arrangements to fly down to Arizona with a friend. Then I did a few last rides that I’d promised to friends and had the oil changed again. I’d decided that if there was a lot of metal in the filter, I’d have it trailered to Arizona. There wasn’t. So I flew, but chose a route that took us near major roads so we could land and get help if the engine started acting up. It didn’t. The flight, which we did over a two-day period in mid-October, went smoothly and, in the evening of October 18, 2016, Paul rolled it into Quantum’s hangar. I would be helicopterless until February.

Down to the Wire

Of course, Paul wasn’t going to start work on my helicopter until I sent money: roughly $171,000. I had money saved up, but not that much. So I needed to get a loan.

I talked to three lenders, including my local bank. In the end, I went with a lender I’d learned about at the AOPA fly-in the previous summer. I filled in all the paperwork online and was approved in 24 hours. It pays to have good credit.

I arranged for two wire transfers: one from the lender and the other from me. They converged at Quantum in the beginning of November, just in time for Paul to order the overhaul kit from Robinson and get it before Robinson closed down for the Christmas holiday. In the meantime, his team began stripping down my helicopter.

Visitation

I made a total of four visits to the helicopter over the next few months.

I arrived in Arizona in early December after a leisurely drive down from Washington with my camper that began the day before Thanksgiving. I was scheduled to dog sit for 10 days for a friend in Wickenburg, but I thought I’d visit the helicopter before I started that gig. So I drove down to Chandler on December 2 for my first look. At this point, they’d been working on it for about a month and it was almost completely disassembled. I blogged about that visit here.

Fuselage
The helicopter’s fuselage was sitting on a rolling wooden cart. You can see more photos here.

Tail Rotor
Here I am back in December with my brand new tail rotor, still wrapped in foamy paper. That’s my helicopter’s fuselage on the right behind me.

My only regret is that I didn’t bring goodies for the crew that day. I’d gone after a midday trip to the eye doctor and was running late; all I could think about was getting back to Wickenburg before the traffic jams started.

I returned on December 16. I remembered to stop for pizza for the crew that day. The overhaul kit had arrived and I posed for a picture holding the new tail rotor, still in its foam wrapping.

Main Rotor Blades
The main rotor blades are a lot longer than the 8-foot bed of my pickup truck.

I returned a few days later, after spending the weekend with some friends in Phoenix. I wasn’t there for the helicopter; I was there to fetch the rotor blades. Robinson doesn’t want old rotor blades out there in the wild, so they require any shop replacing blades to send back the blade roots as proof the blades are not being used elsewhere. (It would be too costly to ship back the whole blades.) Quantum throws away what’s left. But I got this crazy idea that they might look cool hanging in my house. So I went back and fetched them off the recycling pile. I brought them back to Wickenburg in the back of my truck and then later got them hoisted to and tied down on the top of my camper. That’s where they are right now — under my kayak. It’ll be fun getting them down when I get home.

I was busy for the rest of December and most of January and didn’t visit again for a while. I didn’t want to be a nuisance, either. But I did return for one more visit on February 3, 2017. By that time, it was starting to look like my helicopter again, with the tailcone back on and the blades and engine installed. (I think it was the engine that had been holding up progress.)

Nearly Done
By February 3, Zero-Mike-Lima was starting to look like my helicopter again.

Nearly Done
The main rotor blades, transmission, engine, tail cone, and tail rotor were installed and it would be ready for test flight and blade balancing in a week.

By that point, I’d been communicating with my frost client in California and had an idea of when I needed to be there: February 25. Would the helicopter be done in time? I wanted to pick it up sooner so I could fly it a bit and work out any bugs before I left the state. Paul assured me that he’d begin flying it within a week and that it should be ready soon after that. We agreed on February 20 as a pickup date.

The Pickup

I continued my travels, now with the goal of getting to the Sacramento area with my truck and camper by February 19 so I could hop on a flight to Phoenix on February 20. I spent a few more days in Wickenburg with friends and then hit the road, spending a few days in Death Valley along the way. I had an interesting — read that never again — experience driving through snow storms in mountain passes on the east side of the Sierra Nevada before reaching Lake Tahoe and crossing the mountains on Route 50 at Echo Pass. By the afternoon of February 16, I was at my destination, visiting with friends and making arrangements to park the helicopter and camper for a while.

I also had to make arrangements for one more wire transfer of $48K — the final payoff amount. As I blogged here, I was able to handle that over the phone with the money delivered on Friday since Monday was a holiday.

(If you’re doing the math, the total amount I spent comes out to $219,000 for the overhaul. But that doesn’t count the amount I’ll get back from Robinson for cores sent in for evaluation. Paul seems to think I’ll get about $8K back.)

I arrived at Sky Harbor airport just after noon on February 20. Quantum sent a van to get me. A while later, I was back in the hangar. My helicopter had been moved to where the other R44s and a handful of R66s were parked. It was done.

Finished
Zero-Mike-Lima, ready for pickup.

It looked great: clean and almost pristine. But not so pristine that it didn’t look like my helicopter.

I spent about an hour going through the plastic toolbox I’d left behind to store the helicopter’s contents and setting it back up the way I liked it with headsets, iPhone and iPad mounts, extra oil (Paul swapped out the W100 Plus I’d had with some mineral oil I’d need to use for the engine’s first 50 hours), and cleaning supplies. While I worked, I chatted with Paul and the other mechanics as they took care of some last-minute items for me: replacing the cap for the cyclic dual controls, making me a new plastic cover for the pedal area at the front passenger seat, and replacing one of the Danger stickers on the tailcone.

Paul from Overhaul
Paul pulls my R44 out of the Quantum hangar after its overhaul on February 20, 2017.

When it was finally set up and Penny, the toolbox, and my luggage was stowed inside, Paul towed it outside onto the ramp. I did a preflight and added a quart of oil. And then I got in and started it up.

It might sound weird but when you’ve flown the same aircraft — and only that aircraft — for 12 years and over 2,000 hours, you really get to know the way it sounds and feels. The fuel pump sounded different. The startup process felt different. The engine sounded different. And when the blades started spinning, I heard a definite whistle that hadn’t been there before.

I called Paul from the cockpit, using my Bluetooth-enabled Bose headset. “The blades make a whistling noise now,” I said. He was standing on the ramp just outside the hangar watching me. He told me they will sound different because the new blades are stiffer than the old ones. I wasn’t too happy about that but I was very happy to have the new blades, which I knew were a lot better than the originals. The old ones were barely within specs for airworthiness and I was thrilled that they’d made it to overhaul.

When I took off, it just about jumped into the sky. I’d later discover that it cruised about 10 knots faster than it used to. Nothing like a rebuilt engine.

I flew it to visit friends at Falcon Field in Mesa and then took two of them for a flight up the Salt River as far as Roosevelt Lake. The next day, I went to Wickenburg and then took two friends for an overnight trip to Bisbee (their choice). I noticed that the cylinder head temperature was running higher than it used to and it was burning a lot of oil. I texted Paul about it. He said it was the mineral oil and that it should cool down once the rings set. I sent more pizza.

I took three other friends to Sedona for breakfast and it performed magnificently at altitude on a relatively warm day. Then I flew back down to Chandler to have a few minor things tended to: clutch belt adjustment, strobe light fix, and oil change. The next day, I flew it to California with a friend.

Postscript

Zero-Mike-Lima was parked on the ramp at Woodland for a few days. I took it for a little joy flight out over Lake Berryessa (which is full) to see the “Glory Hole” and came back to the airport via Cache Creek. Then I decided that I wanted it in a secure, sheltered place so I made arrangements to hangar it with a friend’s helicopter at another airport nearby. Yesterday I took it to Sacramento Mather airport to have the battery in the Garmin 420 panel mounted GPS changed. And I took it for another flight to make sure the traffic feature of the Mode S transponder still works with the GPS.

On Sunday or Monday, I’ll start my drive home with my truck and camper. Today’s weather is kind of dreary, but I’ll be sure to take Zero-Mike-Lima out at least one more time before I head home. Unless I get called out for frost protection, it’ll be a long time before I get a chance to fly it again.

Meanwhile, I’m glad to have the overhaul behind me. Finding the right shop, arranging for payment, and then waiting for it to be finished were somewhat stressful tasks that had to be done. Now I’ve got a helicopter with a clean bill of health and few maintenance items ahead of me for the next few years. I suspect my cost of operations will drop, helping my business stay more profitable in the years to come.

And yes, this is likely my last overhaul. I figure I’ll retire from flying in about ten years, which should be before the next overhaul is due. The next owner is likely to get quite a deal on a well-kept machine — and possibly my business at the same time. Stay tuned.