The Real Cost of Helicopter Ownership

Don’t believe what they tell you.

N7139L
My first helicopter, a Robinson R22.

Twenty years ago, if someone told me I’d own a helicopter before my 40th birthday, I would have told them they were nuts. Yet on October 3, 2000, I took delivery of my first helicopter, a 1999 Robinson R22 Beta II. Four years later, on January 8, 2005, I’d traded it in for a brand-spanking-new, designed to my specifications, 2005 Robinson R44 Raven II.

N630ML

My R44, parked out in the desert at a rides event.

I was making a lot of money as a writer back then. A handful of bestselling computer how-to books — yes, they do exist — and a few good real estate investments left me with an excess of cash. I live rather modestly in a home I can afford and although I own more than my fair share of motor vehicles, none of them are new, flashy, or expensive. In other words, I don’t live beyond my means. Although my income fluctuates wildly — especially these days — I could foresee the ability to own and operate an R44 into the future, especially with added income from a small Part 135 on-demand charter operation.

Fueling my opinion on this matter was a document published by Robinson Helicopter Company on its Web site. Titled “R44 Raven II Estimated Operating Costs,” it painted a rosy picture of an “affordable” helicopter (if there is such a thing). The conclusion at the end of the “Operating Cost-Per-Road Mile” section stated that the calculated 98¢ per road mile “…compares favorably with some expensive automobiles, and will usually be lower when the value of time saved is considered.”

The Underestimated Costs

I knew from the start that the document was overly optimistic for my situation. Some of the numbers just didn’t seem right.

  • Back then, Robinson was calculating labor at $55/hour. At the same time, I had one mechanic charging me $95/hour and another charging me $105/hour. Later, I had a mechanic who charged me $75/hour. The local airplane fix-it guy, who I sent to the Robinson maintenance course, was the least expensive, charging me $45/hour at first but then bumping it up to $55/hour. He didn’t have the experience or specialized tools for the helicopter-specific inspections and maintenance I sometimes needed. So Robinson’s labor estimate was understated by 30-40%. (Nowadays, Robinson estimates $70/hour, which is still very low.)
  • Robinson’s estimated fuel and oil costs were consistently lower than what I was paying. That baffled me. Robinson is based in California, which has some of the highest taxes on fuel around. Just crossing the border from Arizona to California, you can expect to spend 50¢ more per gallon on auto fuel. Yet even today, they’re estimating $4.50/gallon for fuel. Tell that to the folks at Grand Canyon, who hit me up for $6/gallon early this month. And 14 gallons per hour? Realistically, its more like 15-17 gallons per hour. And oil: Robinson estimates 50¢/hour. Where did that come from? The W100+ oil I use costs about $6/quart and I seem to be adding a quart every 5 hours or so. Do the math.
  • Robinson’s insurance costs are based on Pathfinder rates. Pathfinder has a special relationship with Robinson that keeps its rates low. The annual premium in the current estimated operating costs — around $11,000 — aren’t too far off from what I paid when I insured with them for my commercial operation. Unfortunately, however, Robinson prorates this fixed annual amount over 500 hours of flight time per year. How many private owners — the same guys buying the expensive cars Robinson is comparing its helicopters to — fly 500 hours per year? I run a business with my helicopter and still don’t fly more than 200 hours a year on average. (Most private pilots fly less than 100 hours a year.) Take that $11,000 and divide it by 200 and the hourly cost for insurance alone is $55 — not the $22 figure Robinson uses.

Still, when I made my purchase/ownership decision, I plugged in whatever known numbers I had and relied on Robinson’s numbers for the unknown — especially the cost of periodic inspections and unscheduled maintenance. The result was within my budget, so I became an owner.

The Hidden Costs

I started getting slammed with unexpected costs not long after purchase. The first major component to need replacement was the starter and ring gear. My personal opinion on the matter is that the starter was defective and did not fully engage with the ring gear on every start. It began breaking teeth off the ring gear. The situation got so bad that it all needed replacement.

The clutch down limit switch, an $8 part, cracked. Of course, to replace it, you have to pull the tail cone, then put it back on and rebalance the fan scroll. That’s about an 8-hour job.

The auxiliary fuel pump went after about 500 hours. And then again another 500 hours later. And then again about 100 hours after that. The pump costs $1,600 new and $800 overhauled. I know because I’ve bought them both ways. Fortunately, a good mechanic can replace it in less than an hour.

I suppose the magneto overhaul is included in Robinson’s calculations. After all, they are required to be rebuilt every 500 hours. At a cost of $1,600 each time.

The upper bearing began leaking brown fluid at about 850 hours. The overhaul was $3,000 plus installation (which requires removal of the tail cone). The following year, it was still leaking and now overheating. I was lucky that the factory applied the overhaul cost to the price of a new one: $9,000.

I’ve also replaced the battery twice (at $400 a pop) and my oil pressure gauge once. I’ve had repairs done to my primary radio and GPS. The muffler cost another $2,200 this year.

These are just the things I’m remembering off the top of my head. If I pulled out my Engine and Aircraft log books, I’m sure I could list a lot more of the same: items that are supposed to last the life of the aircraft (okay, well maybe not the battery) simply not lasting.

But Wait! There’s More!

And then there are the Airworthiness Directives, Service Bulletins, and Service Letters. Because I operate under Part 135, these are not optional. So yes, I changed the orientation of the fuel control because some idiot who likely left his helicopter out in the rain all the time was getting water in his fuel — even though my helicopter was based in the desert, where it rarely rained, and was kept in a hangar. And I replaced the seat belt attachment points and changed the throttle link and swapped out the frame tube clamp and fiddled with the throttle linkage and changed the fuel hose supports and replaced the hard fuel lines and replaced the gascolator assembly and did something to the clutch actuator fuse holder wiring. Each one of these required maintenance items cost money — sometimes thousands of dollars. And none of them were included in Robinson’s estimate of costs.

A service bulletin that became an airworthiness directive required inspection and then repainting (or replacement) of the main rotor blades. To stay in compliance in my extremely corrosive (think dust) operating environment, I’ve had the blades removed and repainted twice in six years. It costs about $1,500 each time.

But the real kicker — the service bulletin that prompted this blog post — is the bladder tank retrofit for my fuel tanks. The kit for the retrofit will cost about $6,000 and there’s 40 hours of labor on top of that plus the cost to repaint the fuel tanks. By my calculations, this should cost me between $12,000 and $14,000. This is not one of the estimated costs on Robinson’s fairy tale cost estimate marketing document.

Limiting Robinson’s Liability

And why? I’ve discussed this at some length with two other owners and here’s what we think.

An operator — or possibly multiple operators — experience a problem. Water in the fuel tank, seat belt buckle attachment points cracking, stuck throttle link, cracked fuel lines, chaffed wiring. They whined and complained to Robinson and may have even threatened legal action. Or maybe they sued. Robinson is privately owned and self-insured. They examine the problem area and come up with a new design to fix it in the future. Then, to prevent other owners from giving them grief about it, they put out a service bulletin to address it. If you don’t comply with the service bulletin, you can’t come crying to Robinson with your problems.

The fuel line and fuel tank bladder situation is taking things to the extreme. There have been instances of post-crash fires on Robinson helicopters. (News flash: Most serious aircraft accidents involve post-crash fires.) To prevent legal action against the company, Robinson started issuing documents. First, in July 2006, came Safety Notice 40, which states:

There have been a number of cases where helicopter or light plane occupants have survived an accident only to be severely burned by fire following the accident. To reduce the risk of injury in a postcrash fire, it is strongly recommended that a fire-retardant Nomex flight suit, gloves, and hood or helmet be worn by all occupants.

Are they kidding us? Do they honestly expect me to put all my passengers in flight suits with helmets for tours around Phoenix? Or day trips to Sedona? And how do you think my passengers would feel if their pilot showed up wearing a pickle suit and helmet for their tour or charter flight?

But when that wasn’t enough to counter liability, Robinson followed up with three service bulletins: SB-67 (R44 II Fuel Hose Supports), SB-68 (Rigid Fuel Line Replacement), and now SB-78 (Fuel Tank Bladder Retrofit). They’re attempting to minimize the possibility of a post crash fire by making modifications to the fuel system to help prevent line and tank ruptures. So I’m basically required to modify my aircraft to reduce Robinson’s liability in the event that I crash and my helicopter catches fire?

That’s like requiring older car owners to add airbags and ABS brakes just to reduce the liability of the automakers.

Puddle
Good thing I complied with SB-55. I knew that 5 years later, I might park out in the rain.

Now if I were a private owner and not required by the FAA to comply with all these service bulletins, there’s no way I’d waste money complying with the ones that didn’t benefit me. For example why change the fuel control to avoid that water in the fuel problem? I live in the desert and my helicopter is hangared. There’s no rain falling on it. And even in the rare instance that it does get rained on, sumping the fuel tanks — which I should be doing before every flight anyway — would drain the water out. If I started finding water in the fuel tank, I’d reconsider my position and possibly get it done.

Similarly, this fuel system retrofit is beyond reason. It doesn’t make my flight any safer. It just makes crashing safer — as if that makes any sense. To get any benefit from it, I’d have to crash with enough impact and fuel on board to cause a fire. And guess what? There’s no proof that this retrofit would prevent a fire anyway.

But I don’t have the luxury of choice in these matters. When you operate commercially, you answer to a higher authority than common sense. But that doesn’t mean I won’t try to get an exemption. After all, they’ve given us until December 31, 2014 to comply. If it can wait four years, why can’t it wait indefinitely?

The Bottom Line

When you look at the cost of acquisition, the fixed cost of ownership, and operating costs, a helicopter like mine costs a heck of a lot more than the $185.10 per hour Robinson estimates. I can tell you exactly how much I spent on insurance, fuel, oil, maintenance, and repairs over the past 6 years: $208,000. Divide that by the 1100 hours I flew during that period and you get $200 per hour. Now add in the reserve for the overhaul that is required at 2,200 hours — roughly $100 per hour. So, after 6 years of operations, I’m seeing an average hourly cost of $300 per hour — not Robinson’s rosy $185.

Of course, that calculation doesn’t include my other costs to operate a business: advertising, supplies, travel, hangar rent, automobiles, taxes, fees, etc., etc. It doesn’t include depreciation, either. It also doesn’t include the $2,100 per month I pay on my aircraft loan or my initial $160,000 cash downpayment. Ouch.

Yet the Robinson document is never seriously questioned by anyone.

Here’s an example. Last spring, I flew from Salt Lake City to Seattle with another pilot who was building time, waiting for a CFI job to open up at his flight school. He told me about his plans to lease an R44 helicopter to start a business in a small Wyoming city. He had some specific ideas (which I won’t share here) that might or might not generate revenue. He’d run the numbers using Robinson’s estimates of operating costs plus the cost of the dry lease. The numbers he came up with — including his estimated dry lease payment — were about equal to my actual costs per hour. That told me his estimates were low. There’s no way someone leasing an aircraft could operate as cheaply as an owner; if there was, we’d all lease instead of buy.

Like Robinson, he based his proration of fixed costs such as insurance on a 500-hour flight year. That’s an average of about 10 hours a week flight time in a place that has a very definite and rather short flying season. And he didn’t consider the cost of service bulletins and airworthiness directives and unscheduled maintenance beyond what Robinson estimates. And I don’t think he considered getting a hangar and an office and all the things that go with running a business. So his numbers were very low and I knew it. I tried to tell him, but I don’t think he believed me. Maybe he thought I was trying to discourage him, to minimize my competition. That’s not the case. I was trying to help him avoid disappointment and possibly bankruptcy.

But hey, why believe me? Do my ten years of experience as a helicopter owner give me any more insight than a marketing document cooked up by the company manufacturing and selling the helicopters?

My pockets are not as deep as they once were. As print publishing continues its death spiral, it takes my books along with it. My six-figure income years are gone. I can’t afford to fly for fun anymore. I have to fly for hire. I have to earn money on every flight I conduct.

After all, I have to support my mechanics and the Robinson Helicopter Company.

44 thoughts on “The Real Cost of Helicopter Ownership

  1. well written, factual…and sadly very true
    I own a 2004 RavenII, now at 930TT
    can’t list all repairs, replacement, 2 mufflers, boost pump
    something must be done by Robinson to m ake good on their reputation and design..now the 2 SB from dec 29, fuel bladder, cluctch mechanism…
    were is it going to stop????

    • j-p: The Aux Fuel Pump (I assume that’s what you’re referring to as a “boost pump” is a killer. I’ve now replaced mine THREE times in 1100 hours. The last time, it lasted less than 8 months and 100 hours. Robinson and the manufacturer know there’s a problem but can’t seem to fix it. Yet every time it happens, I spend $1000 to $1800 getting it fixed. Ouch. I now keep a spare to prevent having to be down more than a day or two.

  2. Found this post very interesting. I’m a recent owner of a R44 II and have already seen that the truth is not as rosy as Robinson, or any other involved company, states.
    I’ve budgeted a lump sum for this “hobby” and as soon as it ends I’ll have to sell the craft and find some other way to spend my spare time. Unortunately this time will come much faster than expected.

    • Enrico: I’ve been giving my business a lot of thought lately. I’m now selling my services at about breakeven for the business. Obviously, I can’t survive on that. I’m starting to think that getting a real job as a helicopter pilot might be a better way to get my “fix.”

      Best of luck to you.

  3. How true ! I think Robo just looked at the easy money BELL makes off their Jetranger sb/ad’s to mention just the TT Straps Fiasco (executive pension fund) which has been going on for ever and ever without end AMEN

    • Bob: I’m not convinced it’s just a way to make money. I think that they’re nuts about limiting their liability. Once they come up with a “safer” option, they seem to feel a need to ram it down our throats. They’re making us pay to reduce their liability to us. And that’s what bugs me about this fuel tank issue.

      One bad way to look at it is this: If I don’t get it changed per the SB and my passengers die in a post-crash fire, the liability for the fire falls on me, even if they can’t prove that the fire was caused by a tank design issue. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

  4. I enjoyed your story…Some ideas to make your business more profitable…
    You should get your A&P.
    Drop the part 135.. unless you crank up the cost per hour..I haven’t seen in your posts where many of your missions couldn’t be done part 91 with a LOA.
    Pick a different aircraft (cheaper?) that would perform 80% of your missions and still allow you to enjoy flying.
    Thanks again for the great blog posts… I just found your site thru a link…

    • I don’t think a letter of authorization would cover multi day excursions and the day trips I often do to Sedona and the Grand Canyon. I don’t blog every flight I do.

      Cheaper aircraft than an R44 for 3 pax seats? Not likely. And I’d much rather get my ATP than A&P. But thanks for the suggestions.

  5. Very well documented-Recent SB’s and Ad’s seem to have put alot of ships on the used market-All the good pr Frank received over the years especially regarding LOW OPERATING COSTS for his piston ships seem to be taking a huge chunk of cash from his loyal customers,as they accumulate hours.I trained in an R-22,but would never buy a robinson helicopter.The R-66 should be interesting as it gathers time in the field,to see what extra cost and repairs it incurs.

  6. @Jim gregory
    It’s left me very disillusioned. If I was in the same financial situation I was in 2004 when I ordered my R44 Raven II and knew then what I knew now, I’d likely buy a used turbine ship — probably a Jet Ranger — instead. I could have been building turbine time all these years to leave me in a better situation for when I simply can’t afford to keep this ship anymore and have to sell it. Not fun to be an owner if you can’t afford to fly.

  7. I know this is an old post but just happened to come across it. Just wanted to thank you for sharing with us the true cost of helicopter ownership. You push the numbers over and over but know that the only way you are going to really know how much it will cost is to jump in. This post allows for a sneak preview. Thanks again!

    • What’ll really get you are the unexpected repairs. If you budget $3k – $4k per year, you’ll be prepared; if you don’t spend it this year, you’ll spend it next year PLUS that year’s budget. :-(

  8. My technical manager called me today about the bladder tanks and I found some comfort in your text :) We are operating in Norway and our cost estimates are somewhat different. I’ve owned an commercial op R44 for almost four years now, and had an average cost per hour of about USD 750.
    On the other hand I have very rarely had a commercial mission cancelled due to a tech fault in my 3000hrs in the Robbie. Because we charge about USD1100 an hour, the op still makes sence.

    • I agree: the Robinson is a cost-effective machine to operate at a profit. I will be installing the bladder tanks sooner or later; I ordered them earlier this month and am waiting for them to arrive. I’m worried mostly about liability if something happens and the tanks are not installed. Liability is a huge concern here in the U.S.

      I’m curious to know why your operating costs are so much higher than mine. Obviously your fuel costs are higher — I’m currently paying $5-$6 per gallon. What else? Insurance? Maintenance? How many hours a year do you fly? Just curious; no response needed if you think I’m prying.

      • Insurance is about 50/hr, fuel is about 135, depreciation 170, maintenance 240, hangar 35, adm. cost 200, currency training and courses for 3 pilots 33/hr, misc cost ?. We also have additional eq. like fuel system, atv, sling load eq, gps, icoms, helmets etc. All this eq. Needs to written off. As you can see all this comes to much more than the av. cost I mentioned above. Reason is that the detailed cost here is all cos

        • Okay, this makes sense. My calculations did not include overhead that wasn’t specifically related to helicopter operations. Add hangar, other equipment, training, etc. and the costs rise accordingly. Fortunately, I run a small operation with a tight rein on costs. Unfortunately, I have a lot of competition in the area flying similar equipment and have to limit pricing to stay competitive.

  9. Thank you, Maria. I do really appreciate your reply.
    My friend likes R44 and he is a helicopter guy, but never own it. Now he retaired and looking for the R44 with a few flying hours left. He lives in Ukraine, it’s far away from USA.
    I’d try to ask you one more question: do you know by chance the best place/link where to look for such R44 ?
    Best regards
    Alex

    • Thank you Maria for this very “matter of fact” article. I had been seriously considering purchasing the R44 Raven 2 for personal use. I will do further research now into Bell & Agusta Westland models, because of your article and double the money for the initial purchase price. Do you know which manufacturer, if any produce a small helicopter for around a million dollars, with accurate advertised operating costs?

      • No one will have “accurate” costs. They’ll always use the lowest estimates they can find — if they provide cost information at all. I think the R44 is a good helicopter. I don’t regret buying it. It just irks me a bit that the operating cost estimates were so far off from what I’ve experienced.

  10. very useful article/post. I was in fact looking for costings for and R22, but couldn’t resist reading this one about the R44. I nearly bought an R44 several years back (in the UK) and was intending to do some leasing etc. I thought the numbers looked over rosy, but in the end, decided it was beyond my means. Reading your post, I’m certain of that!

    In the end, I happened upon gyros – fell in love with them, and now own and operate an MT Sport total cost is much lower, and of course there’s very little in the way of lifed components. Fuel is about 16 litres and hour – or £40, but that’s because the UK is so damned expensive for motor fuel.

    They don’t suffer the punishment that heli’s do, so the parts last longer, and catastrophic failure is much less likely due to the non-articulated rotors, and fact that they auto-rotate.

    phil@pandrews.com

  11. I’m in the UK – if you send me your e-mail – if you’re allowed to on this site – I’ll send you some pictures of my open cock-pit gyro-plane – it is such fun to be out in the elements – to look over the side, and see straight down – field of view is incredible – not all round, but about 270 degrees horizontal, and 330 in a vertical circle. Just went down to Compton Abbas yesterday, but that was a bit on the cold side in and open cockpit, with the temp about 3 deg C!

  12. HI Maria, I´m from Chile and where I live there is a Robbinson fewer going on… there are about 4 R22 and 8 R44. I am getting the flu now and I am thinking to buy a R44 :) , but all I hear is how expensive is to fly them. What do you think about the Enstrom 280FX or 480B or the Schweitzer 333, I know the last 2 are turbine. Do you think the Enstrom has more experience in manufacturing Helicopters? Do they have the same DA problems all the time? I will use the helicopter only for hobby.
    thanks

  13. I have a loaded question here. For someone who’s interested in becoming a helicopter owner, I’m curious to know about the price of all this. How far does the range go from the most affordable to the most expensive? And everyday usage, how much could someone expect to pay in the most affordable of situations to the most expensive, including insurance, maintenance, storage. I know that my usage will affect the amount of money I use. How much would all this cost from the most affordable to the most expensive if I never flew it? And how much can I expect to spend in fuel, again a range from the most affordable to the most expensive?

  14. I am writing In response to the operating cost Blog.
    I have been a helicopter pilot for 42 years and an owner/operator for 15 years.
    I now fly Bell 206B3 and L3 helicopters and I agree with all your comments.
    Projected operating costs are works of fantasy,and not just Robinson’s.

    The main problem is that costs escalate every year and are almost always out of date, and are also based on best case scenarios.

    Cost such as insurance and date life parts are based on yearly flight times that are almost always in the realm of number of hours flown by a larger operator.
    I also believe that most of the Alert Service Bulletins are a money generating cash cow.
    An example is, Bell have just come out with one that requires owners/operators to change the old style two piece vertical fin attachment with a new cast one piece attachment.
    The original system first flew in the mid 1960’s, and now, approximately 50 years and many helicopters later they have decided that the original mounts must be replaced within 18 months. This is of course a sufficiently long period that Bell does not supply the improved mount at their cost even though they have decided that their original design needed improvement.
    As a point of note In my 16,000 plus hours I have flown most types of helicopter work.
    16 years were as an agricultural spray pilot. During those years I crashed a Bell 47 and a Bell 206B3. Both were totaled and neither caught fire.
    Regarding your comments on capitalization, punctuation and spelling, I agree, although I am not perfect myself. I am 67 years old and I feel that the root cause of a lot of the problems are the younger generation have become used to texting, and developed these traits as a result, in my opinion, due to using a number pad to text .

    • Any cost estimates provided by the manufacturer will be pure fantasy based on best-case scenarios with minimal hourly rates and unit costs. It’s a real shame because some people base entire business plans on these numbers only to fail when their actual costs turn out to be much higher.

      As for ADs and SBs being a cash cow — well, I agree within limits. Often, these changes are required more by the FAA than the manufacturer. And we can’t really expect the manufacturer to foot the bill for a change required by the FAA. But with that said, I don’t see any reason why the manufacturer needs to profit from these required changes. Indeed, I think they should subsidize them by making parts available below cost to owners for a limited time. This will share the burden of the retrofit’s cost.

      I spent almost $12K to replace my helicopter’s fuel tanks. I was fortunate that I had overhaul savings I could dip into to cover that huge expense. But how many others simply couldn’t afford it?

      As for grammar/punctuation (which you probably read about in a different post) — yes, I agree. Those folks brought up in the texting generation don’t see the importance of good grammar and punctuation, mostly because their abbreviated text communications have been accepted for so long. It’s a shame.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment! Fly safe!

  15. Reminds me how much I miss the good old days (1962) when I flew for a FBO in St Paul, MN. I charged $48.00 an hour for a Hughes 269A that sold for $22,500.00. The high priced guy was flying a Bell 47 for $75.00 an hour -

  16. I own several fixed wing aircraft and only recently got my hell ticket. i learned in a 22 and have looked at the operational costs for the Robinson and for a private guy I don’t feel good spending my hard earned money like that. After spending time on their website its seems that they are looking to protect Robinson (I guess I don’t blame them) but as a customer i will bring my business elsewhere.

    Enjoyed the article.

  17. Have a lot of extra money to use so I felt like buying a small,,,possibly used Helicopter…..after reading the articles and every ones comments….I think I’ll just buy an office building and then jump out of it…….it’s cheaper
    Thanks to all the wrote you comments
    Ed S

  18. Hi everyone , thank you for this wealth of information….you have saved me a lot of trouble as I was nearly on my way to get my helicopter ticket and buy a R44, after thinking about it for a whole year, and practicing at home on a simulator !!! your experience on real costs is PRICELESS !!! it seems that helicopter manufacturers have absolutely no shame about sending their customers slowly broke, and take no responsabilities,….I’ll buy a boat instead..cheers

  19. Hey now. Us wrench-turners gotta eat too! ;-) It amazes me that anyone thinks a helicopter- ANY helicopter- is cheap to operate. I work for a sizeable EMS operator, and I know the ballpark of what we charge per flight. But it’s very interesting to get your perspective as someone who didn’t necessarily set out to make a living with one of these aircraft.

    • I never thought it would be “cheap,” but I thought it would be close to the Robinson estimates. It’s the unexpected costs — SBs, SLs, ADs, and parts breaking too soon — that really hit hard. I’m just lucky that my ship will be going in for overhaul before the blade replacement AD must be complied with. That would have been a very inconvenient $48K bill. What really kills me, though, is the number of people who think they’re doing me a favor by offering to pay for gas in exchange for a ride. Gas is less than 1/3 of my total cost of operation. People are so freaking clueless sometimes. I guess that’s why I wrote this.

What do you think?