Real online banking.

One of the things a Robinson helicopter owner has to consider is the big bill that comes after 2200 hours or 12 years of flight (whichever comes first). Robinson made helicopter ownership and maintenance easy by having most limited-life parts end their lives at the same time. When that time comes, the entire helicopter goes in to the factory or an authorized overhaul center for a complete overhaul. When it emerges, it’s like a brand new helicopter.

The only drawback is that this overhaul currently costs $184,000 for a Robinson R44, which is what I own. And that amount goes up by a few thousand dollars every year.

So although my normal maintenance throughout the year is quite low (for a helicopter, anyway), I have to remember that big bill. Every hour I fly, I put aside about $85 in a “reserve” account. Right now, that’s a money market account at my local bank.

The helicopter currently has about 184 hours on its Hobbs meter. Do the math and you’ll see that I already have a pretty good chunk set aside.

The goal, of course, is to keep building up the balance in this account so when the big bill comes along, the money’s there to cover it. Lots of people go the other route — they take out a loan to refinance when the big bill comes. But I hate debt and would rather save up and be prepared.

The problem is that it’s very tempting to spend that money when it’s just sitting around, doing nothing. Especially when it’s only earning 1.25% a year. I was thinking of rolling it into CDs, which are less liquid than a money market account that comes with checks. But the rates are equally dismal at my local bank.

In New Jersey the other day, I got into a conversation about this with Mike’s ex-roommate, Greg. He suggested ING, an online bank. I checked it out last night and learned that I can get 3.5% on a savings account and 4.1% to 4.85% (depending on term) for a CD. Holy cow!

ING can offer such good rates because they have low overhead. They don’t have branches, they don’t offer checking accounts. They have very few banking products. Everything is simple and to the point. Even their Web site is simple.

The last time I had a CD was when my grandfather passed away and my little inheritance — about $15,000 — was tucked away in a CD until I turned 25. My father was the executor of the will and he put the money in a 6 month CD. At the time, inflation was running rampant and CD rates were up around 18%. My father thought the rates would keep going up, so he wanted the money to roll over at a higher rate. But the bottom dropped out and rates descended from the stratosphere. Disappointing, but not a big deal, because I wound up putting most of the money toward the down payment on my first house. But every time I think of CDs, I think about those rates in the late 70s. Today’s rates look pretty bad in comparison.

But 3.5% on a savings account is way better than the .5% my bank offers for savings or the 1.25% I’m getting on my “risky” money market. So last night I opened a savings account for my personal money at ING.

It’s an interesting process. You fill out an online form that asks for the usual information. You also provide information about your checking account, which is linked to your ING savings. ING makes two tiny deposits into your checking account and you tell ING how much those deposits were for. This is so ING can confirm that this is indeed your account. You can then initiate transfers between your ING and checking accounts via ING’s Web site or telephone. There are no fees for your ING account and no minimum balance requirements. Transfers probably take 24-48 hours, so there is a bit of a lag. But if you have a relatively large sum of money, it’s nice to have it sitting someplace where it’ll earn a decent return.

My personal savings fluctuate wildly. Most of my income comes in quarterly, so at the beginning of a quarter, I’ll have a nice, healthy bank balance but, by the end of the quarter, I may be scratching around for loose change. The ING account will work out nicely.

I’ll create a savings account and a CD account for my helicopter overhaul reserve. The CD will be short term — probably six months — and every time it’s ready to roll over, I’ll add a little to it. That’ll keep it intact and growing over the next 11 years or 2016 hours (whichever comes first).

Anyway, if you have a bit of money stashed away and you’d like an FDIC-insured way to earn a decent return on it, you should definitely check out ING.

What do you think?