Helicopterless (Again)

I take my R44 down to Chandler, AZ for its first overhaul.

N630ML at TorranceHere’s the first photo of me with Zero-Mike-Lima on the day I picked it up in Torrance, CA.

It’s hard to believe that it was nearly 12 years ago that I took delivery of my second helicopter, the R44 I usually refer to as Zero-Mike-Lima. That January 2005 day ended a two-plus-month period where I was “helicopterless” — I’d sold my R22 (Three-Niner-Lima) in late October 2004 and was waiting rather impatiently for its bigger replacement to emerge from Robinson’s Torrance, CA factory.

I bought the four-place Robinson to grow my flying business by adding Part 135 charter services. It was a good thing I was still making good money as a writer because it took a long time for that business to take off (pun intended). It wasn’t until 2008 when I discovered a few good niche markets — wildlife survey and cherry drying — that the helicopter started making enough money to pay for itself. Until then, my writing work subsidized it. I’m so glad I stuck with it, though, despite the enormous costs. My writing career went into decline around 2010 and my flying career picked up the slack. This year, 2016, was my best year ever, even topping my best years as a writer.

Unfortunately, although Robinson helicopters have relatively low day-to-day operating costs, they do have a bit of a cost “time bomb” set to go off at 12 years or 2,200 hours of flight time. That’s when they need to go back to the factory or to an authorized service center for overhaul. The current price tag for this is about $240,000 (depending on core values). Ouch!

Smart owners who expect to keep the helicopter past overhaul will start saving up for this huge expense as soon as they can. I started saving when my flying business became profitable and had socked away more than half of what I needed by 2012. Some unexpected expenses unrelated to the helicopter put bit of a drain on those savings, but I managed to replenish everything I spent and more, leaving me in good financial shape for overhaul time. I’m pleased to say that I needed to borrow a lot less than I expected to and had no trouble securing the financing I needed at good terms.

Of course, it isn’t January and the helicopter doesn’t have 2,200 hours on it. Although I was primed to reach 2200 hours in the eleventh year — I flew almost exactly 200 hours per year from 2005 through 2012 — When I stopped ferrying it between Arizona and Washington state and left it idle during Washington’s dreary winter season, my annual flight hours dropped off considerably. That enabled me to stretch it out into the twelfth year.

Right now, as it sits waiting for overhaul, it has 2,068 hours on its Hobbs meter. I didn’t quite reach 2,200, but I came pretty darn close.

You’re probably wondering why, if I didn’t reach 2,200 hours, don’t I wait until January to bring it in for overhaul? The reason is simple. Overhaul could take as long as 3 months to complete — after all, they strip the helicopter down to its frame, rebuild the engine and transmission, and replace many important components. If I dropped it off in January, I wouldn’t get it back until the end of March. But I need it back sooner, in February, for my annual frost contract. (Another niche market I picked up in 2013.) And since I don’t usually fly much in the winter months anyway, it made no sense to wait and possibly lose out on the frost work — which also gives me an excuse to hang out in California for part of the winter.

I flew the helicopter down to Chandler last week. It was a two-day flight that I did with a friend. I’ll blog about it and share photos in another blog post.

Into the Hangar
I watched Robinson helicopter mechanic extraordinaire Paul Mansfield roll Zero-Mike-Lima into the hangar where it will be overhauled around sunset last Tuesday.

So now I’m helicopterless, at least until the end of January.

There is a silver lining, however: there’s an extra 576 square feet of empty space in my garage. I’ve already begun filling it with boats and RVs that I’m storing for friends and others for the winter. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s how to turn assets into money without selling them.

10 thoughts on “Helicopterless (Again)

  1. Just curious what the cost delta would be if you traded it in and put the overhaul money towards a new one.

    • Six of one, half dozen of the other. In other words, it would probably cost the about same or maybe 10% (or so) more. But then I’d have a different helicopter (which I don’t want). Mine will be worth almost as much as a brand new one, which is more than what I paid for it back in 2005.

  2. I was thinking like Norm (above).
    When I did some R22 time at Delta Heli (Luton, UK), they joked that the BIG service was so expensive that you might consider just buying a new one.
    I realise that you will have done the ‘math’. So you will have made an informed decision about pre vs post-service value.
    I have just checked some advertisements for R44 sales in the UK. I could buy a pre-service 2007 R44 for £175k plus VAT and a post-service 2014 R44 for £220k, with 1900 hours left on the meter.
    Given that it is all about margins and ‘history’, I sense that you would rather fly an a/c that you know very well, rather than an a/c with a possibly ‘dodgy’ background?
    Seems that a good second hand helicopter you know is ‘better’ than a new one?

    • I think that pretty much sums it up. It’s also a lot easier to just get mine overhauled. I don’t have to worry about selling a timed-out helicopter and possibly not getting a good price. I don’t have to wait for the factory to make me a new one. Or buy a used one that I don’t know. (I have terrible luck with used vehicles.) I don’t fly in the winter, so it’s really no loss to have it gone for three months. (Although I did turn down a flight today.) And I trust the guy who runs the shop that’s doing the work. That’s probably the most important thing of all.

      • I think, your decision (to stick with your old but trustworthy vehicle) & timings (overhauling during dull phase of business) are really good. All The Best for your busy season. your preference to overhaul instead of buying a new one reminds me of my son (aged 13 years) who wants to overhaul his old bike rather than go for a new one with additional features! something to do with sentiments/attachment, I guess.

        • Yeah, I gave this a lot of thought. I figure I’ll fully retire in about 10 years — I’m sort of semi-retired now — and who wants to spend those last 10 years paying off a new vehicle when there’s nothing wrong with the one I have? Timing should be perfect; I’ll get it back just in time for a few fun flights around Arizona before frost season begins.

          And it sounds like you have a smart kid!

  3. It’s too bad that you couldn’t find some way to use up those “extra” 132 hours till overhaul. If there was some way to fly off the remaining hobbs time at an accelerated pace without subjecting the aircraft to unnecessary risk and wear/tear, it might even make sense to offer it at a somewhat lower rate to get as close as feasible to the component time limit before you time out on the calendar. Unfortunately, that would probably mean flight instruction at one of the busier schools, and that means subjecting your “baby” to the ungentle hands of student pilots. Flight training is mostly an R-22 game in any case, though I’m sure there’s some market for R-44s.

    I had noticed that you don’t feature flight instruction as a regular part of your offerings, is this dictated by finances, insurance, or personal preference? I’ve done quite a bit of flight training in both R-22s and Schweizer 300s, and while I prefer the latter (especially for initial solos) you can’t argue with the economic advantage of the Robinsons.

    Is Neil Jones still running the show down in Chandler? I used to work for him back in the mid-90’s, during the “bad old days” when Gordon was still calling a lot of the shots at AWR. Paul M. was already turning wrenches on R-22s back then; they had about a dozen of them running around central AZ in very unsubtle hot pink and teal cactus-theme paint jobs. Tell him Sean Cone said hi if you get the chance. :)

    • Well, there’s actually an untold story about that. I had every intention of doing more flying — especially this month — but we found a bit more metal than usual in the oil filter on my last 50-hour inspection. Since I really wanted to fly (and not trailer) the helicopter to Phoenix, I limited my flights until I was ready to go, then went as soon as I could to avoid having the helicopter tempt me into more flights. I did another oil change and filter inspection before I left — after only 8 more hours! — to be sure the situation wasn’t critical. It wasn’t. But I was definitely feeling that the helicopter lacked its usual pep — something I’d been sort of noticing since about 2000 hours.

      As for flight training, I’m not a CFI. I could probably become one easily enough — I have about 3500 hours of flight time now — but the extra $5K/year for insurance would require me to do a lot of training just to cover those costs. And let’s face it: the helicopter (and me) is a lot safer without a student pilot at the controls.

      Yes, Neil is still down there, although I don’t usually see him. I’m working with Paul, who has always treated me well and fairly. It’s a real pleasure to be able to do business with him again. I’d had a disagreement with Quantum back when I was finishing up my commercial flight training and actually left the school. I finished up at LA Helicopters in Long Beach in just 10 days, doing my check ride with Tim Tucker — after being told at Quantum that I lacked even basic flying skills. (WTF?) There’s more but I’d prefer not to tell it at this point. They’ve got a huge hangar down there just crammed with R22s, R44s, and R66s. Gordon is (as far as I know) still running Universal Helicopters is Scottsdale. I’ll be down in Chandler a few times (at least) over the winter to check in on my helicopter’s overhaul progress. I’ll be sure to tell Neil you said hello.