Why I Spent $11,524 to Replace Perfectly Good Fuel Tanks on my R44 Helicopter

The short answer: Lawyers.

I’m not sure when the brouhaha began.

It might have been right after this crash, when a helicopter operating at or near gross weight at an off-airport landing zone in high density altitude situation by a sea level pilot crashed, killing all four on board and starting a forest fire that raged for two days.

Or it could have been earlier, after this crash, which I blogged about here, when a helicopter operating 131 pounds over the maximum gross weight for an out of ground effect hover by a brand new helicopter pilot low-level at an off road race crashed, severely injuring all three people on board.

I’m sure it was before this crash, when a 250-hour pilot landed to “relieve himself” at an off-airport landing zone with a density altitude of at least 11,000 feet, then panicked when he got a low rotor horn and aux fuel pump light at takeoff and botched up a run-on landing on unsuitable terrain, severely injuring himself and his wife.

These three cases have two things in common (other than pilots who did not exercise the best judgement): the helicopters were R44s and the crashes caused fires that injured or killed people.

Crash an Aircraft, Have a Fire

Of course, if you crash any kind of aircraft that has fuel on board hard enough into terrain, a fire is likely to result. Fuel is flammable. (Duh.) When a fuel tank ruptures, fuel spills. (Duh.) If there’s an ignition source, such as a spark or a hot engine component, that fuel is going to ignite. (Duh.)

I could spend the rest of the day citing NTSB reports where an airplane or helicopter crash resulted in a fire. But frankly, that would be a complete waste of my time because it happens pretty often.

Don’t believe me? Go to http://www.ntsb.gov/aviationquery/index.aspx, scroll down to the Event Details area, and enter fire in the field labeled Enter your word string below. Then click Submit Query and check out the list. When I ran this search, I got more than 14,000 results, the most recent being a Cirrus SR22 that crashed on April 27, 2012 — less than 2 weeks ago.

The Knee Jerks

But Robinson reacted in typical knee-jerk fashion. After issuing a ridiculous Safety Notice SN-40, “Postcrash Fires,” that recommended that each helicopter occupant wear a “fire-retardant Nomex flight suit, gloves, and hood or helmet,” they began redesigning components of the helicopter’s fuel system. First they redesigned the fuel hose clamps and issued Service Bulletin SB-67, titled “R44 II Fuel Hose Supports.” Then they redesigned the rigid fuel lines to replace them with flexible lines and issued Service Bulletin SB-68, titled “Rigid Fuel Line Replacement.” And then they redesigned the fuel tanks to include a rubber bladder and released Service Bulletin SB-78 (superseded by SB-78A), the dreaded “Bladder Fuel Tank Retrofit.”

Why “dreaded”? Primarily because of the cost of compliance, which was estimated between $10,000 and $14,000.

Originally released on December 20, 2010 (Merry Christmas from the folks at Robinson Helicopter!), Robinson did give us some breathing room. The time of compliance was set to “As soon as practical, but no later than 31 December 2014.” I did the math and realized that my helicopter would likely be timed out — in other words, back at the factory for overhaul — before then. But the February 21, 2012 revision moved the compliance date up to December 31, 2013. At the rate I was flying — about 200-250 hours per year — it looked as if I’d still be flying it when December 2013 rolled along.

Is it Required?

I talked to my FAA POI. He’s the guy that oversees my Part 135 operations. He’s a good guy: reasonable and easy to talk to. He doesn’t bother me and I try hard not to bother him. After all, he’s got bigger operators with bigger headaches to worry about.

We talked about the Service Bulletin. Neither of us were clear on whether the FAA would require compliance for my operation. After all, it was a Service Bulletin, not an Airworthiness Directive (AD), which is definitely required.

We left off the conversation with acknowledgement that I didn’t have to do anything at all for quite some time. We’d revisit it a little later.

Pond Scum

Around this time, I was contacted by a lawyer representing the family of the 250-hour pilot who crashed in the mountains because he had to “relieve himself.” This guy had seen my blog posts about my problems with my helicopter’s auxiliary fuel pump — perhaps this one or this one or possibly this one. Or maybe all three.

He was looking for an “expert witness” to provide information about the problems with the fuel pump. It was clear that he was trying to pin the blame for his clients’ injuries on the fuel pump manufacturer and Robinson Helicopter. Not on his client, of course, who had caused the accident by making a series of very stupid decisions. Apparently, Robinson is supposed to make idiot-proof helicopters.

I got angry about the whole thing — lawyers shifting the blame to people who don’t deserve it — and responded as you might expect. I also blogged about it here.

I didn’t make the connection between lawyers and bladder fuel tanks. I believed — and still believe — that it’s not unreasonable for post-crash fires to occur in the event of an aircraft accident. It’s part of the risk of being a pilot. Part of the risk of flying.

The Buzz and Insurance Concerns

Meanwhile, the Robinson owner community was buzzing with opinions about the damn bladder fuel tanks. Some folks suggested that they’d been developed as a means for Robinson to make money off owners in a time when helicopter sales were slow.

Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t think that’s the case. I think Robinson was just trying to protect itself from liability. By offering this option, it would be up to the helicopter owner to decide what to do. If the owner didn’t get the upgrade and had a post-crash fire, Robinson could step back and say, “The new fuel tanks might have prevented that. Why didn’t you get them? Don’t blame us.” And they’d be right.

And that got me thinking about my insurance. So I called my insurance agent, who was also a friend and helicopter pilot. The year before, he’d managed to come up with an excellent and affordable policy for R44 owners and I’d switched to that policy as soon as my existing policy ended. Would I be covered if I didn’t get the tanks installed right away? He told me that of course I’d be covered. The compliance date wasn’t until December 31, 2013.

Buy Now, Save Money?

I also talked to my mechanic. He told me that the tanks were on back order and it could take up to eight months to get them. I was also under the impression that the cost of the tanks was going to rise at the end of 2011. And that if I ordered the tanks, I wouldn’t have to pay for them until they arrived. I figured that once they arrived, I’d store them until I was ready to have them installed. Or maybe even hold onto them until overhaul.

So I ordered them in late December, right before the Robinson factory closed for the holiday break.

I’d been misinformed. I had to pay for them up front: $6,800. Merry Christmas.

And, oh yeah: the price didn’t go up, either.

A Horrifying Scenario

Time went by. I thought about the damn tanks on and off throughout the winter months. In February, during my occasional checking of accident reports, I saw this report about an R44 with a post-crash fire. It got me thinking about liability again.

And then I started thinking about lawyers, like that sleezebag who had contacted me. And my imagination put together this scenario:

My helicopter crashes and there’s a fire. One of my passengers is burned. Although my insurance covers it, the blood sucking legal council my passenger has hired decides to suck me dry. He claims that I knew the fuel tanks were available and that they could prevent a fire and that I neglected to install them. He puts the blame squarely on me. My insurance, which is limited to $2 million liability, runs out and the bastard proceeds to take away everything I own, ruining me financially forever.

Not a pretty picture.

Is this what Robinson intended? I’d like to think not. But I’m sure that as I type this, some lawyer in Louisiana is working on a case using the logic cited above. The pilot might be dead, but his next of kin won’t have much left when the lawyers are done with him.

I started thinking that I may as well install the damn tanks — just in case.

Dealing with Logistics

In late March the fuel tanks were delivered. It cost another $310 for shipping. The two boxes weren’t very heavy, but they were huge. I had them delivered directly to my mechanic.

And then I started thinking about logistics. I had originally expected the tanks to arrive during the summer while I was gone for my summer work in Washington state. I figured I’d have them installed at my next annual or 100-hour inspection near year-end. But here they were, waiting for installation any time I was ready.

But when would I be ready? My mechanic said it would take about 10 days (minimum) to install them. Because the tanks had to be fitted to the helicopter, it was a multistep process:

  1. Remove the old tanks.
  2. Put on the new tanks and fit them to the helicopter. (Metal work required.)
  3. Remove the new tanks.
  4. Paint the new tanks.
  5. Reinstall the new tanks.

Most of that time was taken up with getting the tanks painted and waiting for them to dry.

Logistics is a major part of my life. I’m constantly working out solutions for moving my helicopter and other equipment to handle the work I have. I’m also constantly trying to schedule any maintenance at a time when I’m least likely to need to fly. This spring was especially challenging: I had to get my truck, RV, and helicopter up to Washington before the end of May. I also had to go to Colorado to record a Lynda.com course before the end of May.

So on April 13, I flew the helicopter down to my mechanic in Chandler and asked my friend Don to pick me up (in his helicopter) and take me home to Wickenburg. Then, the same day, I started the 3-day drive in my truck with my RV to Washington. I arrived on April 15. A week later, on April 22, I took Alaska Air flights to Colorado, where I stayed for another 6 days. Then, on April 28, I flew directly back to Phoenix. Don picked me up at the Sky Harbor helipad and dropped me off at Chandler. All the work on the helicopter was done and it looked great. I flew the helicopter back to Wickenburg that morning. Two days later, on May 30, I picked up passengers in Scottsdale and began the 2-day flight to Washington. We arrived on May 1.

Item Cost
Fuel Tanks $6,800
Shipping $310
Tank Installation $3,960
Tank Painting $454
Total Cost $11,524

The installation and painting had cost another $3,960 and $454 respectively, bringing my total for installing the damn bladder fuel tanks to $11,524.

I Blame the Lawyers

So, yes, I spent $11,524 for tanks that might only benefit me in the event of a crash. No guarantees, of course.

I didn’t need the tanks. They didn’t make flight any safer or better. They only might make crashing safer.

And the only reason I did this is so that a lawyer couldn’t point his finger at me and blame me for ignoring a Service Bulletin that wasn’t wasn’t required by law until (maybe) December 31, 2013.

The only reason I did this was to possibly prevent a lawyer from taking away everything I own, everything I’ve worked hard for all my life, in the unlikely event that my helicopter crashed and a fire started.

Do you want to know why aviation is so expensive? Why it costs so much to fly with me? Ask the lawyers.

Another Quick Groupon Story

Another real-life story about Groupon users.

A friend of mine in Washington owns a small winery. It’s open two days a week for tastings. He charges $6/person and waives the fee with the purchase of two bottles of wine. For the $6, you get a 1-ounce taste of every wine he makes that hasn’t sold out. He had eight varieties; two were sold out as of mid August.

A while back, a hotel in nearby Wenatchee called him. They wanted to do a Groupon wine-tasting deal. Would he allow the people who bought their Groupon to have a free tasting? Other local wineries had signed on.

My friend didn’t know much about Groupon. But he’s a nice guy who wanted to help the hotel folks and he liked the idea of having more people come to his winery. He figured he’d reach new people and sell some wine. This was before three of his wines won awards at a blind tasting of area wines; before his wines started selling out.

They started coming without warning on a Saturday afternoon. Dozens of them. They soon took up all the seating in his tasting area. He called me for help. I put on some clean clothes and rushed over to help him pour.

We poured, they drank. They didn’t seem to have much interest in the wine. The seemed more interested in the list of wineries included in their Groupon. The more wineries they visited, the more free wine they’d drink. My friend sold one bottle for every three or four people who tasted.

One table of eight young women were there for more than two hours. I guess they figured that their Groupon had entitled them to a shady place to spend their entire afternoon. Collectively, they bought two bottles of wine. They left chewing gum stuck to the table.

Some people without Groupons didn’t stick around. There wasn’t enough seating for them. They didn’t feel like waiting.

This was repeated on the following two weekends. My friend had to pay someone to help him pour to keep up with the crowd. He lost money on every Groupon tasting. And he doubts the Groupon users will be back.

My friend learned a valuable lesson. As you might guess, he won’t be offering his own Groupon deal anytime soon.

On Buying Friends

Another wake-up call from Twitter on the state of some people’s minds.

The other day, I went to look at a small jet boat. I friend of mine here in Washington was thinking of selling it and it sounded like what want I wanted to zip around the Columbia River on sunny days during cherry season. When I went down to take a look, I saw a 16-foot 1995 Sea Ray with some cosmetic issues (as you might imagine) but very clean and in generally good condition. The 120 hp engine was immaculate, tuned up twice a year for its entire life. The price, although not agreed upon yet, would be right within my limited budget for a boat I would only use five months out of the year; paying cash would not be a challenge at all.

I used my phone to take photos to send my husband. He thinks I’m nuts for even considering the purchase, but then again, he thinks I’m nuts whenever I consider a purchase. And he’s not spending every summer just a few miles away from one of the greatest boating and fishing rivers in the country.

Sea Ray Under ConsiderationI also sent the photo you see here to Twitter. I get around a bit and sometimes tweet photos of the things I see and do. It’s part of how I participate in social networks. Along with the photo, I tweeted:

Thinking about buying this for next summer.

I went on with my life, as I usually do. (Contrary to what many people think, I do not live my life buried in a Twitter feed.) We covered the boat back up and made plans to take it out on the river later in the day. I returned around 5:15 with my friend, Pete (in the photo) and his 12-year-old son. Pete has a hitch on his truck and towed the boat to the ramp about 1/4 mile away. We launched it. Linda (in the photo), the owner, joined me for a ride on the river. Considering it hadn’t been used in at least a year, it started up pretty quickly (the battery was kept on a tender in the garage). We took it slow in the No Wake area, then Linda took it up to full speed. She made a few hair-raising turns before we switched places and I zipped around a little. Then I went back, traded Linda for Pete and his son, and took another ride. The boat performed very well and was small enough that I’d be able to handle it on my own.

The next morning, as I lay in bed waiting for the sun to rise, I went through my normal social networking routine, checking Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ for replies to anything I’d written and interesting new tweets. Among the replies was the following, posted by someone who apparently follows me on Twitter:

Maria, why do you want that boat? I suspect you have plenty of friends already just by having a helicopter.

If I’d been sitting up when I read this, my jaw probably would have dropped four inches. I had to read it five times to make sure I understood what he was implying. Was he trying to say that my primary purpose for buying this little boat was to make more friends?

Crescent BarThat couldn’t be any further from the truth. I planned to use the boat mostly by myself, likely on weekdays when most of my friends were working. I imagined exploring the river’s lakes early and late in the day when the winds were calm and the light was good for photography. I imagined skimming over the river when the water was like glass (see photo), cutting a line across its surface at 40 miles an hour. I even imagined taking up fishing again. I had no desire to be out on the river on weekends when the crazies were out. And the boat’s weight limit is only 750 pounds with 5 seats — not the kind of thing you’d use for partying. Heck, I was told it can’t even pull a water skier.

I also need to stress here that I didn’t buy a helicopter to attract friends or even use as bragging rights. There’s a lot of people who don’t even know I own one. (Actually, I don’t own it — the bank and I are still partners on it; I pay them monthly, they let me keep it.) Yes it’s fun to fly around, but I can’t afford to just fly it for fun. It’s part of my business and I work it as hard as I can to make it pay for itself. On the limited times I get to fly it just for fun, I’m usually by myself. I don’t dangle it as a carrot in front of people as a lure into a “friendship.”

I felt a need to set this guy straight, so I replied:

People who are my friend just because I have a helicopter aren’t the kind of friends I want to go boating — or flying — with.

And this is really true. If someone “likes” me because I have a helicopter, they’re probably not the kind of person I want to be friends with. I don’t like shallow people.

His response came quickly; perhaps he’s the kind of person who does live his life buried in a Twitter feed.

I guess that means you have ‘real’ friends. It seems like I have to ‘buy’ mine. Sure wish I could that repositioning trip with you.

He was referring to my twice-a-year helicopter flight between Arizona and Washington, which I take paying passengers or pilots on in an attempt to recoup my costs. Believe me, I wouldn’t take strangers along for the ride if I didn’t feel that I had to. Flying a helicopter is very expensive.

Although the concept of “buying” friends was something almost beyond my comprehension, I certainly didn’t want to open that can of worms with him. I replied:

Yes, I have both real and virtual friends. I don’t tolerate “hangers on.” The trip is amazing; maybe next spring? I come back in May.

He replied:

I first saw your time-lapse video across Arizona (I think) it was amazing. I am envious of people that can go flying every day.

I wasn’t sure which video he was referring to. I hadn’t done a time-lapse across Arizona. I suspected he was talking about my Phoenix to Page video, which was on YouTube. I had done a time-lapse of a flight between Pendleton, OR and Salt Lake City, but I didn’t recall putting it online. I said:

I think that one was just a bunch of clips, Phoenix to Page? Or did you see the time lapse Pendleton to Salt Lake? long flights!

He replied:

the vid was PHX to Page, very enjoyable. I saw the motorcycle racer Mat Mladin has an R-44 for his profile pic. #envy

I had nothing more to say. I felt sorry for this guy. He’d used the word “envy” (or a form of it) in two of his tweets to me. It reminded me that there are people out there who aren’t satisfied with what they’ve been able to achieve in their lives — but instead of working hard to get where they want to be, they sit back and look at what everyone else has with envy. (I can think of two people I’m envious of, and what I envy about them is their jobsnot anything they own.) I don’t know this guy’s story and I probably don’t want to. I suspect we have nothing in common.

I do know people, however, who seem to think that a person’s value is based on what they own. These are the same people who go out and buy a new car every two or three years and load it up with a lot of blingy options. They live in big houses, have lots of toys like watercraft and off-road vehicles, and are in debt up to their eyeballs — or even drowning it it. They think they really want and need these things, but all they really want and need is to show their neighbors and friends and others that they have them.

People call it “keeping up with the Joneses.”

And if they’re lucky enough to have kept their jobs in this recession, they’re working their asses off 40-60 hours a week to earn enough money to keep their heads above water, leaving very little time to enjoy the possessions that have enslaved them.

I’m not like that. I work hard, I live well within my means, and I value my time — and the freedom to make my own schedule and enjoy life — above most things. I don’t have a showy car or house. I also don’t have any real debt (except for that bank partnership for the helicopter). I probably spend about 180 days a year goofing off, doing things I like to do.

It bothered me, at first, that this Twitter person seemed to think I was someone who used money to buy toys to attract friends — and envy, I suppose. But then I realized that he probably didn’t know any better. He might be like that and simply assume that everyone is.

I feel very sorry for the people who just don’t understand what life is all about. It’s not about collecting toys and impressing others with what you own. It’s about learning, growing, doing. It’s about earning friendships by respecting, genuinely caring about, and helping people you like — without asking for anything in return except perhaps a smile or a cup of coffee. It’s about spending quality time with friends and family, doing things together to enrich all of your lives. It’s about making every day count, every minute worth living.

So please don’t hold it against me — or label me as a conspicuous consumer — if I buy this little old boat. I just want to get out on the river a bit and make next summer just a little more fun.

Homeless in Page, AZ

A true story.

“Can you help me…with some food?”

The query came from a Navajo woman with a cane in the Safeway supermarket parking lot in Page, AZ. I was just walking up to my rental car when she came up to me.

I thought for only a moment. “Sure. What would you like?”

“Taco Bell.”

The Taco Bell was just down the street. “I’ll take you there,” I told her. “Hop in.”

She walked around to the other side of the car while I climbed in my side. I put my Starbucks latte in the cup holder and tossed the lemon coffee cake I’d bought onto the dashboard. I had some things on the passenger seat and moved them for her. Then she climbed in, putting her cane between her legs and shut the door. She was conservatively dressed, looked clean, and didn’t appear (or smell) drunk. She had a round face with flattened features and half-opened eyelids. She looked almost Asian. I remembered that the Navajo were descended from the people who had crossed the Bering Strait into North America in prehistoric times. She looked to be in her sixties.

I started toward Taco Bell. It was 9:40 AM. “It’s not even 10 o’clock. Do you think it’s open?” I asked.

“No. I don’t think so,” she replied thoughtfully. “It’s open until 11 at night.”

“How about McDonald’s?” I suggested. “They make a good breakfast.”

“Okay.”

McDonalds was down off the mesa on Route 89, about 2 miles away. I started down the hill.

“Do you work for a hotel?” she asked me. She’d obviously seen my rack cards, which I’d be bringing to the airport the next day.

“No,” I replied. “I work for a tour company.”

“Where are you from?”

“The Phoenix area,” I told her. “Wickenburg.”

“Oh, I know Wickenburg,” she replied. “I used to live in Glendale. Peoria, El Mirage.” She thought for little while and added, “I moved there when my husband died. Now I’m just homeless.”

I steered us down the hill. Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon Dam came into view.

“Can’t they help you at the Chapter House?” I asked. It didn’t seem right that the Navajo people would let one of their own remain homeless on the streets of Page.

“No, they can’t help me.”

The conversation died as we rolled down the hill. I suspected she wasn’t telling me everything. She was too clean and well kept to be truly homeless. She must be going somewhere at night.

“Do you have family in Page?” I asked her as I made the left turn onto Route 89.

“I have a son in Salt Lake City and another one in Phoenix,” she replied.

The conversation died again. This time she revived it.

“I heard that Chinatown got wiped out.”

I made her repeat what she said; I didn’t think I’d heard it right the first time. But I had.

“Chinatown?” I repeated. There was no Chinatown within 500 miles of Page, AZ. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“I heard it on the news.”

It came to me suddenly. “Oh, you mean Japan. The earthquake and tsunami.”

“Yeah, that’s it.”

By this time, McDonald’s was in sight.

“Can we go to Burger King instead?” she asked.

I saw the Burger King logo just up ahead. “Sure. You like that better?”

“Yes. They have a good deal. Two hamburgers for three dollars.”

I pulled up to the drive through at Burger King. The menu was on a board beside the talking box. “What do you want?”

“Two hamburgers,” she said. I think she was trying to save me money.

“Some orange juice to go with that?” I asked. I was thinking about getting something healthy into her.

“Yeah.”

“Anything else? Some fries?”

“No fries.” She was reading the menu board. “Maybe the sausage, egg, and biscuit,” she said suddenly.

“Okay. And two hamburgers for later?”

“Yeah.”

After what seemed like eternity, a voice came through the speaker. I ordered the sausage, egg, and biscuit breakfast meal and two hamburgers. The order taker asked if I wanted coffee or orange juice with that. I asked my companion.

“Orange juice.”

The order taker read back our order. It came to seven dollars and change. She told us to pull up to the second window.

At the window, the order taker took my money and gave us the orange juice and a straw. Then she asked us to pull up and wait in the parking lot while they made the burgers. Because it was so early, they’d have to be made special. So I pulled around to the parking lot.

While we were waiting there, I asked, “Why did you come back here from Phoenix?”

“I wanted to come back to my reservation,” she said. After a while, she added, “My mother and father live here.”

“Do they live far from Page?”

“Yes. Very far. Thirty-six miles. You go down Haul Road and then you keep going.” She added the name of the town but I didn’t catch it. Later, I found Kaibito on Route 98 36.9 miles from Page in the right general direction.

“Maybe you should go live with them for a while,” I suggested.

“I been thinking about it.”

“I think it’s a good idea,” I said honestly. I hesitated, then asked: “Do you need someone to drive you there?” I would have done it to get her off the street. My morning was wide open.

“No,” she replied. “I can hitchhike.”

I knew that hitchhiking was a popular means of transportation among Navajo people on the Reservation. I’d picked up a hitchhiker once myself, when I was driving through the Rez with some friends. She’d be okay.

The order taker came out with her food and I handed it over. I backed out of my parking space and prepared to take her back up into town.

“Can you drop me off at McDonald’s?” she asked.

McDonalds was just down the road, near the Wal-Mart. “Sure.” I drove over and made the turn. “Where? Here or near Wal-Mart?”

“Here,” she said. “By the tables.” McDonald’s had some outdoor tables in the sun. “I can sit and eat here.”

“Okay.” I drove over to the tables and stopped. For a moment, she struggled with her bag of food, orange juice, and cane. Then she managed to get the door open.

“Do you think you can help me with some money?”

I was wondering if she’d ask and was prepared. I handed her a $10 bill. “Here you go. Use it to get something good for yourself.” I still wasn’t convinced that she didn’t have a drinking problem — alcohol is a major problem on the Rez. But I couldn’t say no. I have so much; she had to ask strangers for food.

She took the money. “Thank you.”

She got out of the car, closed the door, and stood still behind it. I shifted into drive and pulled away slowly. When I’d gone around the McDonald’s to the exit, I saw her sitting at the table with her breakfast and lunch.

I drove back to my hotel, just down the road.

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. We live rather modestly in a home we 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, we don’t live beyond our 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, we 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 we 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.