Buying My R44

Looking back 5 years.

January 7 marked the 5 year anniversary of the day I brought my new Robinson R44 Raven II helicopter home from the Torrance, CA factory. I blogged extensively about the experience and the days leading up to it. I put this post together to help me remember it all. It’s full of links that you can follow to read the details behind the summary.

The Backstory

On June 30, 2004, I was working as a pilot for a Grand Canyon helicopter tour operator. I’d aspired to the job since I realized four years earlier that I wanted to fly helicopters commercially. When I was hired in March of 2004, I was thrilled.

Three-Niner-Lima
An air-to-air shot of me at the controls of my R22 back in 2002.

I was not a typical tour pilot for the company. Besides being a woman — which has its own issues in a male-dominated field like aviation — I was about 20 years older than most of the “kids” they’d hired. It was an entry level job, after all. Most of my coworkers had built their time the usual way: as helicopter flight instructors. I, on the other hand, owned my own helicopter, a 1999 Robinson R22 Beta II, and was trying to run my own helicopter tour business with it. I’d built my 1,000 hours of PIC time flying passengers for hire, tooling around the desert, and taking very long cross-country flights by myself. To this day, I believe I have more solo flight time than 90% of the commercial helicopter pilots out there.

While I enjoyed flying at the Canyon and all the challenges that went with it, it soon became clear that flying there could not be a permanent position for me. My writing career was doing extraordinarily well and I was earning far more writing on my days off than I could ever learn sitting in the pilot’s seat for 8 or more hours a day.

I realized that June that I was at a crossroads of my life and careers. I knew I couldn’t maintain my standard of living if I got a full-time job as a pilot for someone else; without time to write, my income simply wouldn’t be sufficient to cover my living expenses. I knew I couldn’t build a real business with an R22 — especially without a CFI rating. I began thinking about taking the next step and buying a larger, better equipped helicopter. One that could take more passengers. One that made sense to build a business with, likely with a single-pilot Part 135 certificate to give me additional flexibility.

So, on June 30, I ordered a Robinson R44 Raven II.

The Wait Begins

In those days, Robinson had a 6-month backlog for new helicopter orders. You’d work with a dealer to choose options like instruments and colors and other features. The dealer would come up with a price. I’d already done all that in February of the same year, at HeliExpo. When it came time to order, all I had to do was make a phone call, sign a bunch of papers, and send in a check for $25K. That got me on the waiting list.

At the end of September, I left my job at the Grand Canyon. It would probably be the last time I flew there and I was more than a little sad.

In late October, I sold my R22. I’d need the money for part of the R44’s down payment. I was planning to put enough money down to keep my monthly loan payments the same as the R22’s were. I also started work with the local FSDO to get my single pilot Part 135 certificate.

By November month-end, I was going stir-crazy. It was the first time in years that I didn’t have access to an aircraft for flying. I flew as a passenger with friends who had helicopters. I buried myself in my writing work. I tried not to think about flying.

Zero-Mike-Lima NOT
Photoshop guru Bert Monroy gave my friend Tristan’s helicopter a paint job to illustrate what mine would look like in flight.

A friend of mine used Photoshop to doctor up a photo of another friend’s R44 flying near my home, applying my aircraft’s color scheme. It was an air-to-air photo of a helicopter that didn’t exist yet. But it existed to me. I’d already begun referring to it by its last three call sign digits: Zero-Mike-Lima.

A Giddy Kid
They put SN 10603 on the line the day I visited the factory.

When my family flew in from the east coast for Thanksgiving, some of us took a road trip out to California. We got a tour of the Robinson factory. By some incredible coincidence, it was the day they put my helicopter’s frame on the assembly line. My sister snapped a photo of me standing next to the frame, holding up the fake photo I’d brought along to show the folks at the factory.

(Yes, I realize that I sound like a giddy kid.)

By late December, the six month wait was almost over. I started booking rides gigs. I was anxious to get the helicopter by year-end, but that wasn’t going to happen. December ended and January 2005 started. By now, I was very anxious. I’d already cancelled one gig for December month end. I had another lined up for January 8.

Then, on Wednesday, January 6, the wait was suddenly over. You can pick up the details of the rest of the story here.

4 thoughts on “Buying My R44

    • Donald: I DO look very happy in that silly factory photo, don’t I? Things were different back then. I could actually AFFORD to fly the darn thing. Now I have to sell flights to get an opportunity to fly. I need to write another bestseller.

  1. I understand the R44 choice: for what you planned to do with her it was the only practical option. But what made you choose to purchase a brand new helicopter instead of a used one? Was it the simple wish to have a brand new toy to play with (which is perfectly understandable), or did you make a full analysis of pros and cons?

    • Pretty simple: I don’t like to buy used vehicles. They often have hidden problems. I could afford a new helicopter so that’s what I bought.

      (I should add here that I still own the 2003 Honda S2000 I bought new and the 1999 Jeep Wrangler I bought new. The only reason my 2012 Ford F350 truck wasn’t bought new was because I couldn’t see laying out $60K for a truck — which is what a new one would have cost.)

      In all honesty, although my previous helicopter — an R22 — was gently used (168 hours) when I bought it, I never even considered buying a used R44. I wanted one made to my specifications; I didn’t want to hunt for a good used one to meet my needs.

What do you think?