A Helicopter Repair Story

Including a happy ending.

On Tuesday, I flew out to Robson’s Mining World in Aguila, AZ. I was scheduled to appear there on Saturday for their anniversary celebration and I wanted to make sure my usual landing zone was in good shape.

It was a windy day and I was tossed around a bit on the 8-minute flight from Wickenburg (vs. a 30-minute drive). But the winds were calmer closer to the ground. I circled Robson’s once, then set down on what I thought was a spot closer to the road. Turned out, it was the same spot I’d occupied the year before. It just looked closer to the road from the air. The quartz rocks Mike and John had laid out in a line for me were still there. The idea was to land with the helicopter’s cockpit over the line. That would keep my tail rotor away from the bushes behind us. But since the bushes looked bigger than they had the year before, I positioned the helicopter a little bit closer to the road.

I cooled down the helicopter and shut down the engine. Then I went out to assess the landing zone on foot. I discovered that the quartz line was still quite workable for me. The bushes were farther back than I’d thought on landing. (I always estimate the helicopter’s tail longer than it really is.) So the landing zone was fine. No trimming would be required. That’s good because I don’t like the idea of cutting any desert vegetation unless absolutely necessary.

I put on my jacket — it was still quite cool at 9 AM — and walked through Robson’s front gates. The place looked deserted. I headed toward the restaurant, planning on having a piece of pie for breakfast. The door was locked but as I was starting to turn away, Rosa, who works in the restaurant, hurried out from the kitchen and opened the door. I settled down at a table and she talked me into having a real breakfast of bacon and eggs. She set me up with a small pot of hot tea and went back into the kitchen to prepare my food.

I had a few awkward moments when the teapot’s lid fell into my cup and became stuck there. If I’d been with someone, we would have been laughing hard. But I was alone and laughed at myself more quietly. I had to pour all the tea back into the pot and wait for the lid in the cup to cool and contract a tiny bit before I could get it out.

Rosa brought me a plate of fresh fruit — grapefruit, pineapple, grapes, and oranges — then disappeared back into the kitchen. I busied myself by reading the history of Robson’s and some information about the equipment and vehicles on display. When she brought out my breakfast a while later, I gobbled down the two eggs over medium, three slices of bacon, and two slices of wheat toast with real butter. (Don’t you hate when restaurants use mystery spread on toast?)

The person I was hoping to see there, Rebecca, wasn’t in yet. She lives in Wickenburg and drives out five days a week to manage the place. I saw her drive in just as I was starting the engine for the helicopter at about 9:45. Since the engine was already running and the blades were already turning, I didn’t shut down. I had another stop to make.

I flew from Aguila to Prescott on a pretty direct route. I had to cross two mountain ranges (5000 feet and 6500 feet respectively). The wind was really howling, kicking me around in the sky. The kind of flight that might have scared a first-timer. Or made someone sick.

At Prescott, the wind was coming out of the northeast so they were using Runways 3 Left and Right. As anyone who uses Prescott Airport frequently can tell you, the wind is usually favoring the opposite runways (21). Runway 3 was more convenient for me, since I was coming from the southwest and needed to land on the ramp halfway down Runway 3 Right. The tower cleared me to land with traffic not far behind me. There weren’t many people flying — just Embry Riddle students and instructors.

I parked and shut down, then pulled my jacket on again and walked across the ramp to Dr. Ritter’s Office. It was bitter cold with the wind blowing at 12 gusting to 27 and the outside temperature just above 0°C. I slipped through the gate and walked into the toasty office. Dr. Ritter does FAA medical exams. As a commercial pilot, I’m required to pass a Class 2 medical exam every year. January is my exam month. Since I had surgery in May and was worried that I might need additional documentation to pass, I figured I’d get my exam mid-month so I’d have two weeks to get other paperwork together if I needed it. Otherwise, if I wasn’t finished with the process by February 1, I wouldn’t be able to fly passengers for hire — although I could still fly for another year.

Fortunately, my surgeon had faxed Dr. Ritter’s office the paperwork he needed to sign me off. We chatted a bit and Garth, his son, called airport operations to get me a ride to the terminal. I’d have to cross two runways to walk there, so walking wasn’t an option. I could have started up the helicopter to fly there, but that was more of a bother than it was worth. I figured I’d get a lift to the terminal with Airport Operations, then hitch a ride back to the helicopter in the fuel truck when they came to fuel the helicopter.

At the terminal, I went into the restaurant where I was about 45 minutes early for a lunch date. I was meeting some people who had made contact with me through this Web site. I sat at a table sipping iced tea and reading Dava Sobel’s The Planets (more on that in another post). My new friends arrived and we had a very pleasant lunch.

By 2:30 PM, I was ready to go back to the helicopter. I wanted to fuel up in Prescott — the fuel price is about the same as in Wickenburg but Prescott has two things Wickenburg doesn’t have: service and a fuel truck.

While I waited for the fueler, I chatted with the woman behind the desk at the FBO. Prescott Airport’s FBO is run by the City of Prescott. It’s an extremely well-run operation that includes a professional, well-trained staff and lots of fuel trucks. We talked a bit about the residential development going on around that airport. Within the past five years, well over 100 homes have been built in the hills right off the departure end of runways 21L and 21R. She told me that the FBO gets complaint calls about the airplanes every single day. I told her about the proposed development in Wickenburg, right off the departure end of Runway 5. We both agreed that developers are exceedingly greedy and home buyers can be exceedingly stupid. “But the real estate people lie,” she added.

A while later, I rode out to the helicopter in the fuel truck. The driver and I talked about the cold. At the helicopter, I unlocked the doors and starting getting myself together while he went about topping off both tanks.

I always do a walk-around of the helicopter before I climb in and start it up. I’d done a full preflight in Wickenburg and a walk-around with a fluids check at Robson’s. That’s why I knew that the oily fluid on top of the cockpit was something new. At first, I thought it had come from the fueler — it was a big drop right near the fuel cap. But then I realized that it was coming from somewhere else and that somewhere else had to be up. I looked up and saw some oil on the mast cowling. I borrowed the fueler’s ladder and climbed up to inspect the rotor hub. And that’s where I found the leak.

The helicopter’s two rotor blades are attached to the helicopter on either side of the rotor hub. The place where the attachment is made for each blade is covered with a rubber boot. That boot is filled with a lubricant that keeps the pitch movements of the blade smooth and prevents wear and corrosion. One of the boots was leaking right where the main connection from the rotor hub — pardon me if I can’t get exact names — was entering the boot.

I immediately got on my cell phone and called Bobby at Guidance. Bobby is my old mechanic and he’s right on the field at Prescott. We parted ways when Guidance decided to stop getting “outside completion” insurance and thus became uninsured to work on helicopters other than their own. But Bobby was still knowledgeable. I thought he might be willing to drive over to take a look at my problem.

He wasn’t willing. He told me over the phone that both blades would have to be removed so the boots could be serviced and that once they were put back on, they’d have to be tracked and balanced. He didn’t have time to do it. He was swamped.

But could I fly with it like that?

Yes, he said. Fly it to parking.

That didn’t help me much. Ed, my Wickenburg-based mechanic, had no experience doing a track and balance. He’d taken and passed the Robinson maintenance course, but I knew he wouldn’t be comfortable doing this. And I wouldn’t be comfortable if he wasn’t comfortable. So flying it to Wickenburg and leaving it there wasn’t really an option.

I called Kelly, my current mechanic. He’s based down in Mesa, at Williams Gateway Airport. That was about an hour flight and if I left it there, Mike would have to make a two hour car ride to get me. I explained the problem to Kelly and he said he knew exactly what was wrong — he’d fixed the same problem for my friend Robin’s R44 less than a month before. And no, he wouldn’t have to take the blades off.

But how long could I fly it? Long enough to get home to Wickenburg and then fly down to Mesa when he was ready to fix it.

So far, I had two opinions from qualified helicopter mechanics, who I think of as helicopter doctors. One said the blades had to be pulled, the other said the blade could be fixed without pulling. Obviously, I liked the second opinion better, since it would have a lesser impact on my checking account. But they did both agree on one thing: it could be flown. And since it wasn’t going to be repaired in Prescott and the sun was starting to sink low on the horizon, I decided I’d better fly it out of there.

I climbed up the side of the helicopter with a rag and wiped off all the oily stuff I found on the boot, mast, and cockpit top. Then I finished my walk-around, checked the oil and other fluids, and closed everything up. A while later, I was sitting inside the helicopter with the engine running and blades spinning high above me.

I requested a takeoff into the wind with a departure to the south. Helicopters don’t need to take off into the wind, but it’s always a good idea, especially when the wind is blowing in excess of 15 mph. I got clearance and took off as requested.

I was nervous on the flight down, but not very. The helicopter was flying fine and the leak hadn’t been very bad. I didn’t know how much fluid was in the boot to start with, but I knew I hadn’t lost more than an ounce or two of it. The flight to Wickenburg was short — especially with a tailwind most of the way. I set down on the ramp in one of the helicopter parking spots 25 minutes later.

Mike was waiting for me and joined me with the golf cart and tow bar after I shut down the engine. Together, we climbed up to see how much leaking there had been on the way down from Prescott. Because of centrifugal force, any fluid that got past the boot would be flung out along the blade. We saw only one drip like this — a narrow line curving along near the blade root. Yes, it was still leaking but no, it wasn’t leaking badly.

I had talked to Kelly about when he could do the repair. Originally, he’d told me that he could do it over the weekend. But that was no good; I had two gigs on Saturday and needed it before then. So he told me I could bring it down on Wednesday and leave it until he had time to fix it later in the week. Although this seemed like a good plan at first, it wasn’t ideal. Although Williams Gateway Airport (where Kelly was based) was only 50 minutes away by air, it was a good 2-hour drive in Phoenix-area traffic. And although my friend Ray often flies me to pick up the helicopter after a repair, he’d just done it for me less than a month before and I didn’t feel comfortable asking him to do it again. That meant Mike and I would have to make the long drive twice — an inconvenience for both of us.

So I called Kelly again. Any chance he could do it while I waited? I could bring it by first thing in the morning and stay until it was done. He agreed that it was possible and suggested Thursday.

On Thursday morning, I climbed my 10-foot ladder to examine the blade root area. It was still leaking — a small but steady drip of the thick, oily fluid. I’d lost perhaps another ounce or so of fluid in more than 24 hours. I had Ed with me to look at it. We consulted the Robinson Maintenance Manual to see what work had to be done. We agreed it was something for Kelly to do. But Ed also agreed that flying it wouldn’t be a problem. So that was three “doctors” concurring on the flying thing.

I wiped up what was on the top of the cockpit, finished my preflight, and started up the helicopter. I flew down to Williams Gateway Airport, listening to my iPod the whole way. The wind was coming out of the northeast but on the ground, the wind was calm at every airport I passed near. (According to the ATIS recordings, anyway.) I landed at Gateway near the Silver State hangar, shut down, and went in to find Kelly.

I turned the keys over and retreated to the terminal where there was a restaurant, a flight planning room, and a lounge. I discovered that the terminal had wi-fi access, which was great, since I’d brought along my PowerBook to get some work done. I had breakfast in the restaurant, then ordered some pizza for Kelly and his crew for lunch, then settled down in the flight planning room to work. I wrote an article about using Google’s channels feature and submitted it to Informit for publication. (Look for it in about a month; they take a while to get these things online.) I also wrote a bunch of blog entries.

The only problem with the flight planning room was the fact that my cell phone didn’t work there. Worse yet, it kept slipping into analog mode (it’s an old phone), which sucked its batteries nearly dry. I had to keep turning it off when I was in the room, then turning it back on and going outside to check my messages. Around 3 PM, I got through to Kelly and learned that the work was done.

Kelly explained what he’d done: removed the boots for each blade, tightened the do-dads inside (he didn’t say do-dads, but I can’t remember the name of what he did say), replaced the boots, and serviced the boots to add whatever fluid is supposed to be up there. He told me that I was never in any danger while flying it with the tiny leak. He said that he’d talked to another mechanic about a similar repair. That customer had ignored the leak until it stopped — because there was no fluid left to leak. The customer had continued to fly until the boot started making noise when he pulled pitch. The mechanic had taken off the boot to find the area inside it completely dry. No harm done in that case, but certainly not recommended.

Of course I would never do anything like that. I keep my ship in pristine condition, fixing every little problem that comes up, no matter how tiny it is. (And a leak in a main rotor blade’s boot doesn’t seem very tiny to me.) I fly for hire, so it’s not just my life in the cockpit on a flight. I have a heavy responsibility and I take it very seriously.

Anyway, Kelly and I went to Silver State’s office together where I got my bill and paid it.

And that’s the happy ending: he’d only spent 2 hours working on my helicopter.

Let me put this in perspective for those of you who don’t own an aircraft or a fancy boat or something else that can easily bleed you dry financially when it needs a repair. You have a problem with your car and talk to a mechanic. He says it’s the transmission and it may need to be rebuilt. You talk to another mechanic and he also says it’s the transmission, but it might not require a rebuild. You get an idea of the what work might cost you. The number is big, but you need the work done. You bring it in, expecting the worst. But all that’s needed is a bolt tightening and a can of transmission fluid. That’s kind of what I faced, except multiply all the numbers by 5 and you have a real idea of the possible and real costs involved.

Anyway, I was ready to fly home again at 4 PM with only a slight dent in my checking account.

Many thanks to Kelly at Silver State for the “quick” but thorough fix and to Bobby and Ed for confirming that it was flyable.

As for my two Saturday gigs, well, they were canceled due to weather. Imagine that! Fog in Arizona. I spent a very pleasant day at home.

What do you think?