The Real Cost of Helicopter Ownership

Don’t believe what they tell you.

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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.

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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.

Arguing with a True Believer

It’s a waste of time.

I’m a skeptic. I’ve been a skeptic for at least the past 10 years, although I didn’t have a label for it way back when. After realizing that there was no proof in a lot of things I’d been told to simply believe, I started looking at things with a more skeptic eye. Although you can’t prove a negative — for example, something doesn’t exist — you can withhold believe until proof of the positive. That’s where I sit now.

Mary’s Mother

It’s also where I sat a few days ago when a house guest brought up the topic of a person’s spirit continuing to exist after death. When she — we’ll call her Mary (not her real name) — asked me whether I believed a person’s spirit existed after death, I said, without hesitation, no. She then launched into a long story about why she believed that spirits do go on after death.

It was kind of pitiful. Mary’s mother had died about two years before after about a year of declining health. Mary lived in California. Her mother lived in New York. Her mother was financially stable and had hired in-home nurses to care for her as she began the dying process. She’d been an alcoholic for most of her life and although she was always upbeat and fun, her last months were painful. Mary believed that the Hispanic nurses had held back on pain medication until her mother “accepted Jesus” — not very likely, as she was Jewish — and, as a result, her mother’s eventual death was more painful than it should have been.

Mary and her brother visited during the months their mother’s health was declining. In the end, they stayed until it was over.

Mary claims that a few days after her mother died, she had a dream that convinced her that her mother had died “a horrible death.” (I have trouble believing that, as she was fortunate enough to die at home with family nearby.) Mary claimed that her mother’s spirit was trapped in her house, unable to escape to whatever other place spirits are supposed to go.

Desperate to resolve the situation and save her mother’s tortured spirit, she sent a family member to the now unoccupied house to tell her mom to leave. (Mary was back in California by this time.) I don’t know if this family member actually did this.

Mary then contacted a psychic in California for assistance. I didn’t get all the details on the first contact. Apparently, Mary e-mailed the psychic a photo of her mother. I don’t know if she provided her mother’s name. In any case, they spoke by phone and the psychic managed to convince Mary that she could communicate with her dead mother. Tarot cards were involved; Mary didn’t understand why she needed them but was willing to put that aside. She told Mary that her mother was indeed trapped in her home and that the only way to free her spirit was for three people in three different places to light candles and play her mother’s favorite music and pray to her mother to “cross over.” I think they had to do this for three days in a row, but I may have that wrong.

So Mary asked her husband and cousin to do this. She did it, too. She says she’s not sure if her cousin did it.

Afterwards, she met with the physic in person. The psychic told her she did not remember their initial contact. She asked the psychic about her mother’s spirit. The psychic said that her mother’s spirit had been trapped but then something had “popped” (her word) and her mother had crossed over.

Mission accomplished.

I don’t know how much money exchanged hands, but I know Mary can afford whatever it was. And I do know that Mary is happy now, so I guess you can easily argue that no harm was done.

I’m not quite that generous, though.

Cold Reading

What followed was a discussion of cold reading, where a “psychic” makes a bunch of guesses and then reads his subject’s response to zero in on actual facts. It is documented that the human mind is more likely to remember correct guesses than incorrect ones. So if a “psychic” does a “psychic reading” and makes 5 correct yes/no guesses, 9 yes/no misses, and one direct hit, people come away thinking that the “psychic” has real psychic power.

Of course, John Edward came up in our conversation. Mary fully believed in his power. She had examples of “proof” of his power. She was not interested in the fact that every John Edward Crossing Over show is taped and then edited. They edit out the discussions he has that result in mostly misses and leave in the results that are mostly hits. The result might be something like this, which I don’t think is very convincing:

Did you watch this video? This is classic cold reading. Throwing out a common name, picking the person who responds, and asking questions to get information. Guessing all kinds of things that are relatively common — cancer, military service, etc. Pulling info out of people with questions. And they think he has real power. But listen carefully. How much is he actually getting right? How much is he telling them? Isn’t it more of a fishing expedition to suck information from people who already believe in his ability?

As Joe Nickell writes in his piece about John Edward:

The “psychic” can obtain clues by observing dress and body language (noting expressions that indicate when one is on or off track), asking questions (which if correct will appear as “hits” but otherwise will seem innocent queries), and inviting the subject to interpret the vague statements offered. For example, nearly anyone can respond to the mention of a common object (like a ring or watch) with a personal recollection that can seem to transform the mention into a hit.

I could not convince Mary. She was not willing to believe in my explanation of how he could have gotten a particular detail correct. The discussion got heated. She kept trying to convince me. I could not be convinced about a “trick” when I knew how it was done.

What I find particularly disturbing about all this is that Mary has a PhD in psychology and treats patients with particularly troubled backgrounds. She should be the voice of reason in these people’s lives. I hope that “woo” does not find its way into her diagnoses or treatments.

Another Friend

When I tried to relate this story to another friend of mine, he said two conflicting things in the same sentence: “You know I’m skeptical about all kinds of things, but I really believe the psychic I go to has real power.”

It was difficult for me not to explode with laughter.

He then went on to tell me about what was likely a personal, one-on-one cold reading. He’d make an easy subject. He’s a real talker and it wouldn’t take much to pull information out of him. He’s also willing to believe, which makes him more likely to remember hits more than misses or turn partial misses into hits by voluntarily providing information that makes a wrong guess right. This is why true believers will always continue to believe. They don’t understand that if a person had real psychic power, he/she should be able to make far more factual statements than errors. And the technique wouldn’t be a glorified guessing game, like the one John Edward plays on his television show.

My friend told me I should go see his psychic for proof. He’d set up an appointment. He’d tell her that I was a skeptical friend —

I stopped him right there. I told him I’d go, but only if he didn’t tell her a single thing about me — including my name. He didn’t seem to understand that she could simply Google me to learn all kinds of things about me that would be useful in her “reading.” It wouldn’t be a cold reading anymore; it would be a hot reading. She could simply recite things off my bio.

Will I go? Only if I’m sure she doesn’t know anything about me when I arrive. I may throw out my first name to see if she takes the hispanic bait (in Arizona, it’s far more likely for a woman named Maria to be Mexican than Italian). I’ll likely dress myself up a bit to alter my appearance and lead her to believe things about me that might not be true. I think these would be good tests of her ability to read minds rather than physical appearances. It would be an interesting experiment.

After all, I am a skeptic. Although I don’t believe that anyone has psychic power, I’m willing to let them try to prove that they do.

Vaccine Insanity

When doctors join in on the fear mongering.

FluViewI’ve been wanting to get an H1N1 Flu Vaccine for a while now. I believe that by getting the vaccine, I’ll not only protect myself from getting the Swine Flu, but I’ll prevent myself from becoming a carrier that can infect other people. In other words: I’ll do my part to help protect my fellow citizens and possibly prevent deaths.

When I heard the vaccine was available in town, I started making calls to see where I could get a shot. The Safeway Supermarket pharmacy ran out of doses yesterday. They suggested that I call my doctor. I did. And that’s when I got a shock.

A receptionist answered the phone. When I asked about the H1N1 Vaccine, she told me the doctor wasn’t giving shots. When I asked why, she replied:

The doctor heard that there were serious neurological side effects to the vaccine. She doesn’t think it’s safe.

What?

I asked the girl for details and she had none. I asked her to have the doctor call me. I hung up and went to Twitter. My query there brought links to two reliable sources of information about the vaccine:

I read the information on both pages. Neither discussed any likely serious side effects. The CDC piece did mention the usual flu vaccine side effects but said the H1N1 vaccine was no more likely than any other flu vaccine to result in those side effects. It also mentioned Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), which was apparently an issue back in 1976. The article said that studies had been done and that the risk of GBS was 1 additional person out of 1 million.

Let me repeat that: 1 person in 1 million.

Is this the kind of risk that worried my doctor?

The phone rang. It was the receptionist at the doctor’s office. She told me that the doctor had read about the risks online, but she couldn’t remember where. (Fox News? I wondered.) She’d also heard about it from patients. (Now patients are advising doctors?) And she’d also heard it from a few doctors.

In other words, it was hearsay from vague, unidentified, and mostly unqualified sources.

Stay home if possible when you are sick. Visit www.cdc.gov/h1n1 for more information.

I told her what I’d learned from the CDC. She wasn’t interested. She wanted to argue with me. Evidently, the doctor’s sources were more valid than the Centers for Disease Control of one of the most advanced nations on the face of the earth. She wouldn’t listen to reason, she wouldn’t give me a chance to speak.

So I hung up on her. Why should I waste my time listening to a raving idiot?

I’ll be looking for a new doctor. Again.

And I’ll keep looking for my vaccination.

You want more information from the CDC? Start here.

You want some satire on the whole vaccine idiocy? Check out this on the Onion.

The Offending Pickup Truck

A photographer’s dilemma.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might be aware that I’ve been fooling around with panoramas. Last night, I created a panorama from 11 vertical images shot at Monument Valley:

Monument Valley Panorama

The ability of Panorama Maker 5 to stitch these together so perfectly sold me on the product. I bought it as soon as the stitched image appeared on my laptop screen so I could save my latest creation at full-size. The resulting image is a whopping 16,724 × 3,485 pixels in size and weighs in at 37MB — as a JPEG file.

Silver Pickup TruckOn close examination of the photo, however, I realized that there was one thing that marred it: a silver pickup truck dead center of the image (see red box above and blowup right). It wouldn’t be so bad, but the darn truck is shiny and really does stand out when you look at the image in full resolution.

So the question is: Do I Photoshop it out?

I experimented with this and did a reasonably good job with the cloning tool. But then I got to thinking about it. To me, a photograph represents reality. The reality of this image is that a silver pickup truck driven by what looks like a Navajo man was there when the image was shot. Removing the truck removes part of the reality of the image.

Or am I over analyzing this? Putting ethics where they don’t belong?

Are you a photographer? If so, how do you feel about modifying images to remove unsightly elements? If you’re not a photographer and just like to look at photos, how do you feel about a photographer’s honesty when creating and sharing photographic images?

What Ever Happened to Honesty and Integrity?

Am I asking for too much?

Am I asking too much when I expect elected officials to be honest and forthcoming with their constituents?

Am I asking too much when I expect elected officials to put the needs and desires of the voting public before their own?

Am I asking too much when I expect elected officials to actually care about the people they serve?

I am disgusted by the political bullshit going on in this country and in my adopted home town. It makes me sick when I see who’s paying off who and the benefits contributors get. Whether it’s lobbying expense accounts in Washington DC or campaign contributions to town council candidates in Wickenburg, the people accepting these bribes — because that’s pretty much what most of them are — should be ashamed of themselves.

The next time you go to the polls, be prepared. Know what the candidates stand for. Learn who financed them. Understand why they are running. Know how they will vote on issues. Make sure you vote for the person, not the sign on the side of the road.

Don’t be lazy. The wrong vote can have catastrophic consequences for your future.

If you’re sick and tired of elected officials making decisions that benefit themselves, their families, and their rich friends, do something about it. Vote to make a change. It’s your right and your responsibility.

Election Day is November 7. Don’t let the rest of us down.