How do you make a million dollars in aviation?

Start with two million dollars.

That isn’t my joke — it’s standard aviation humor. And if you think it isn’t true, start an aviation-based business.

Yesterday, against all odds, UPS actually delivered the auxiliary fuel pump I needed to get Zero-Mike-Lima up and running again. Yes, on Saturday. In Wickenburg.

The UPS guy was at our neighbor’s house, looking for ours when we spotted him. Mike gave a New York hail-a-cab style whistle and the driver saw us waving at him from our hillside. Moments later, he was on our driveway in front of the house.

“How many deliveries did you have to Wickenburg today?” I asked.

“Two,” he replied. “And you’re lucky it was me driving. I was out for four weeks. If the other Saturday driver can’t find a house, he just doesn’t deliver.”

Yes, I was lucky. I needed the part to replace the fuel pump that had gasped its final gasp on Friday, right at the end of a flight. Although the pump is redundant in flight (so there was no danger during the flight), I do need it to prime the engine at startup. I couldn’t fly without it. And I had three relatively lucrative gigs lined up between Sunday and Thursday.

The fuel pump cost $1,500. Add another $40 or $50 for overnight Saturday delivery by UPS. Then add the cost of the mechanic who graciously agreed to come in on Saturday — one of his usual days off — to install it. I told him to charge me extra. He said he would. Hell, it’s only fair. He could have said it would have to wait until Monday. Then I’d miss out on one (which turned into two) of my gigs.

Doing the Math

Unexpected repairs like this are only part of what makes operating an aviation business a lot more expensive than people think. How many times have I been at a rides gig where people asked how much fuel the helicopter burned? Every single one. I tell them it’s 16 to 18 gallons an hour and sometimes they ask how much fuel costs. I tell them $4 a gallon. They do some math in their head to come up with $64 per hour. Then they see us loading people on board for $30 a head, sometimes three at a time, and figure I can get 6 10-minute flights in per hour. That number comes out to $540/hour. Jeez! I must be making a fortune!

The truth of the matter is, fuel is among the least of my expenses.

What people always fail to consider is insurance (at about $11,500 per year); regular maintenance like oil changes ($120 each), 100-hour inspections ($2,000 each), annual inspections ($2,000 each); and the cost of the oh-so-important overhaul due at 2,200 hours that costs (currently) a whopping $182,000. (Do the math on that: $182,000 ÷ 2200 = $83/hour.)

And then there are things like this fuel pump. The original pump lasted only 416 hours. If the final cost of replacement is $1,700 (with all labor and expenses), that works out to another $4/hour. Add that to the cost of replacing my primary radio, which is currently in the shop and may be declared dead: $2,100 for a used one plus several hundred for troubleshooting the old one and swapping them out. And the cost of that clutch down-limit switch that had to be replaced 200 hours ago: the $8 part with $800 labor. And, oh yeah, let’s not forget $120 just to make sure my transponder is working right — that’s something I’ll be paying for every two calendar years.

How about the support stuff that doesn’t go on my helicopter? Like the $1,200 tow bar and the $600 golf cart (used, thank heaven) to pull it? And monthly rent for the hangar to keep it safe and dry and out of the sun? And the charts and other FAA publications I’m required to keep up to date, including sectionals (twice a year per chart), terminal area charts (twice a year per chart), airport/facilities directories (every 56 days), and the FAR/AIM (once a year)? Or how about my annual medical exam, which is required just to keep my license? Or credit card fees just so I can accept credit cards for payment?

And how about marketing? The $1,600 I just spent on 4-color, tri-fold brochures and the $459/month I spend during the high season to get them in brochure racks throughout the Phoenix area? And the cost of the trade show I’ll be attending later this month to sell my multi-day excursions to folks looking for a different kind of vacation?

And how about the cost of my ground crew on those outdoor ride gigs and the cost of permits and commissions just so I can do them? And the cost for operating the helicopter just to get to and from the gig — sometimes more than an hour each way? And the cost of the table and chairs and shade structure and signs that we use on those gigs? And those orange cones and all that yellow Caution tape? And overnight lodging and meals for me and the ground crew on distant, multi-day gigs?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. I knew I was in for it when I launched this business.

But it does explain why I have to charge $450/hour for flight time. I’m not pocketing nearly $400 in profits as most people may think. I’m barely covering my costs.

Paying for It

Today is Sunday and Zero-Mike-Lima is sitting snug in its hangar, all ready to fly. I picked up a second tour today, one of my Ghost Towns & Mines air tours. Right after that, I’m doing my first ever Swansea Town site day trip. On Tuesday, I’m taking a winter visitor to Scottsdale for some upscale shopping. And on Thursday, I’m taking some folks to Sky Harbor so they can catch a flight to Canada. The total revenue for these four flights is estimated at $1,895. That’s revenue, not net income.

Just enough to cover the cash outlay for that fuel pump and labor.

Would I give it all up? Hell, no! But I do hope the new fuel pump lasts longer than 416 hours.

What do you think?