Why It Took Me 6 Days to Change a Tire

Hey, at least I finally got it done.

Yes, it took me six days to change the tire on my cargo trailer. But before I explain, let me give you a little backstory. (Regular readers of this blog should expect that of me.)

About the Trailer

I own two cargo trailers.

One of them is a little 4×8 trailer I bought to haul my bees around in the summer months. Lately, while my truck is in California, I’ve been using it to haul pavers and mulch and anything I don’t feel like shoving into the back of my Jeep. It’s a nice little trailer, but isn’t really suitable for hauling anything that weighs more than 600-800 pounds.

Cargo Trailer
This cargo trailer really came in handy when I moved from Arizona to Washington state and needed to haul an extremely heavy helicopter landing platform and 600cc Yamaha Grizzly ATV.

The other one is a big 8 x12 trailer I bought back in Arizona in 2000 to haul furniture and other things related to the rental properties I used to own. It has a wood plank bottom, low metal rails, and a drop down ramp. In the past, I’ve used it to haul just about anything that wouldn’t easily fit into the back of a pickup.

I should mention — only as an amusing point of interest — that this is also the trailer that got swept downstream in a flood when I lived in Arizona. A dry wash ran through my property there and, for most of the year it was completely dry. I used to park this trailer in it. Bad idea. This trailer was washed a full mile downstream one day. I needed my neighbor’s backhoe to pull it out of the sand. (I just spent 30 minutes looking for the buried trailer photo I know I have somewhere and came up empty. Ugh.) Years later, before I moved to Washington, I replaced the tires, had the bearings repacked, and repaired the ramp, which was damaged in the flood. The trailer looks beat to hell but it’s actually still very sturdy and useable.

Parked Trailer
Here’s the trailer right after I offloaded it and parked it on the west side of my home.

When I got to Washington and my building was completed, I off-loaded the helicopter platform that had been on the big trailer for about two years and parked the empty trailer on the west side of my building, out of sight. Somewhere along the way, it got a flat tire, which isn’t too surprising given the number of construction nails that were still scattered around. But I didn’t need the trailer for anything, so I just put the repair on my list of things to do and promptly forgot about it.

Over the winter, I decided to store some extra irrigation hose and wooden pallets on the trailer — again, to get them out of sight. So I moved everything onto it and secured a big, white tarp over the top. It was ugly from the road, but I didn’t care too much. Winter was coming and I was leaving town anyway.

When I got home from my winter travels and the snow melted and the land started getting lush and green and beautiful, I decided I didn’t want to see the ugly trailer and its ugly white tarp parked next to my home, even from the road. I’d been storing my little trailer on the far east end of my property, near my bee yard. I can see it from my home, but it isn’t in my face. I figured I’d move the big trailer out there with it.

But first I needed to get that flat tire fixed.

Removing the Flat

On Thursday, I figured it was time.

I started by pulling off the tarp and offloading the nice, dry pallets I’d stored beneath it. The extra irrigation hose was light and could stay, at least for now.

Then I used my ATV, which has a hitch on the front end (for pulling the helicopter platform) to pull the trailer out of its spot beside my building and into the driveway in front of the last two garage doors. (One garage houses my absentee truck and the other houses my boat, which isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.) It was a tough tow, mostly because of the way the land has been sculpted there by my earth moving guy, Jeff. There’s a bit of a dip that the very flat tire had to “roll” through. But the ATV, in 4WD, managed it.

I took the trailer off the ATV hitch and put it on its support wheel. Then I used the jack from my Jeep to jack up the trailer where the bum wheel was. I didn’t lift it much — I knew enough about changing tires to know that you loosen the lug nuts while the tire can’t spin.

I grabbed the lug wrench from the Jeep and attempted to fit it over one of the bum tire’s lug nuts.

And that’s when I hit my first (of many) hurdle: the lug wrench wouldn’t fit. It was too small.

I didn’t even bother trying the one for my Honda. Instead, I pulled out my socket wrench set and tried the largest one I had: 3/4 inch. That didn’t fit either.

I hopped on my ATV and drove the half mile to my neighbor’s house at the winery. They were in the middle of building a new tasting room and I knew they had tools. After a nice chat with Kathy, I headed back with three different sizes of sockets, from 13/16 through 1-1/4. 13/16 was the right size, but the socket attachment was 1/2 inch and the largest wrench I had was 3/8 attachment.

At this point, I figured I may as well buy my own socket for the tire as well as the attachment I needed to use it with my impact driver and/or drill. So I headed down into town with the little cargo trailer behind me. I bought the tools I needed at the local Ace hardware store, then went to Costco to buy eight bags of potting soil for my garden. One thing I’ve learned living 10 miles from town is that when you need to go into to town for one thing, you should take care of a bunch of errands at the same time.

When I got back, I set up the new socket with my impact driver and went to work on the lug nuts.

They wouldn’t budge. None of them.

I tried my drill, which I thought might have more torque. Same result.

I sprayed some lubricant on them. The only thing I had was silicone. No joy.

By that time, it was getting late and chilly and I decided to call it quits for the day. I left the trailer and jack right where they were.

On Friday morning, I did some work on another project while I was smoking a rack of ribs on my Traeger. At lunchtime, I packed up the ribs and drove to my friend Bob’s house with that little trailer in tow. He was going to help me with a trailer wiring issue on my Jeep. We finished the ribs with sauce on his grill, ate them with some broccoli slaw I brought from Safeway, and took care of the Jeep wiring issue (which still isn’t quite right). Then he handed me a socket wrench with a 13/16 socket, a long handle, and a bar that fit over the handle.

I let him keep the leftover ribs and took his socket wrench home with me.

I gave the socket wrench/handle combination a try and it worked like a charm. It’s all about leverage. I loosened all the nuts, jacked up the tire a bit more, and removed the nuts with my impact driver/socket combination. Then I loaded the tire onto my little cargo trailer.

Fixing the Flat

On Saturday morning, I headed back into town with that little cargo trailer. I dropped off the tire at Discount Tire, then went to Lowes and bought 30 pavers and 30 edgers for another project. When I went back to Discount Tire, it wasn’t ready so I went home and got to work on other things.

Discount tire called later in the day to report that the tire was too far gone and would have to be replaced. Although the tire had been new when it had left Arizona in September 2013, it had spent more than a year sitting flat at the side of my building. What the hell did I expect? I told them to replace the tire and that I’d come get it on Monday.

The trailer sat there all Saturday and Sunday, jacked up on one side with my Jeep jack. I was glad I hadn’t parked it someplace where it would be in the way.

On Monday, I went down to town to fetch the tire. I left the little trailer behind; it still had pavers on it. I had the back seat out of the Jeep, so there was room there for it. They charged me $42 for the new tire, which I thought was quite a deal. Until the guy went to carry the tire out — it wasn’t my tire. It was a tiny tire, like one for my little trailer.

That led to confusion and a search. They asked me what size my tire was and, amazingly, I knew. They found one that matched, said it had been patched and not replaced, and gave me a refund for the $42 I’d paid for the wrong tire. Then they put it in a big plastic bag and loaded it into the back of my Jeep.

I drove to the local garden shop and bought eight lilac bushes that barely fit in back of the Jeep with the tire and drove home.

I did a bunch of stuff, then got around to putting the tire on. It was heavy. I rolled it over to the trailer, got the trailer jacked up a little more, and put the tire in place. Or I tried to. No matter how I positioned the jack, I couldn’t get the lugs lined up with the tire. I worked on it for at least 20 minutes, struggling with the weight of the damn thing.

The Correct Tire
I took a picture of the matching tire in case I had to show it to the guys at Discount Tire.

And that’s when I got the bright idea to look at the other tire.

And that’s when I realized that the wheels didn’t match.

Discount Tire had given me someone else’s trailer tire.

Fixing the Right Flat

I called them up and reported the problem. More confusion. They had to investigate. I gave them the make, model, and tire size of the right tire — I’d bought the two tires at the same time so they were a matched pair. They said they’d call back and they did about 20 minutes later. They’d found my tire, which had not been fixed. Again, I authorized the replacement and I told them I’d be back the next day.

On Tuesday, I went down into town with my little trailer and the mystery tire. I bought another 30 pavers and six bags of mulch at Lowes. Then I made the tire swap. I made them show me the tire before I settled up with them — it was the right one. This one, however, cost me $90. When I complained gently about it taking me three trips, they gave me a $30 off coupon for my next tire purchase. (Since all of my vehicles currently have new tires, I’ll likely never use it.)

Putting on the New Tire

I got home, parked the little trailer, and set about putting on the new tire. It’s amazing how easy the job is when you’ve got the wheel that lines up with the lugs. (Duh.)

I used my impact driver/socket setup to tighten up the lug nuts, then gave them an extra bit of tightening with Bob’s socket wrench. Then I lowered the jack and moved it out of the way.

I hooked up the big trailer to the Jeep and rolled it out my driveway and down the road. My bee yard is very close to the road down there. I found a spot clear of sagebrush and backed it into position. Then I disconnected it, lowered the front end to level it, and locked the hitch.

It only took six days to get the job done.

Home Repair 101: Replacing a Thermostat

Not nearly as difficult as I expected it to be.

In hindsight, I should have realized that the upstairs thermostat was on its way out. What else could explain the way it cycled on and off so frequently? But I didn’t really think about it. Sure, it was annoying, but it wasn’t my problem.

Until it became my problem.

The programmable thermostat in my bedroom. Setting it to 72° in a 65° room should have triggered it to go on.

I turned the heat down to 60°F in both zones when I went to Parker on Friday afternoon. I’d be gone overnight and couldn’t see heating the house while I was away. But when I got home on Saturday and turned the heat back up to 70°, only the downstairs heat pump turned on. Upstairs remained stubbornly off, despite the fact the room temperature was a chilly 65 in the afternoon sun.

I tried the on/off switch. No joy. I tried switching the Fan from Auto to Manual. The fan came on but it soon became apparent that it wasn’t blowing heat. I flicked the Electric Heat switch on the side (not visible in the photo) that I’m pretty sure kicks in some sort of electric heating element. Still no heat.

Clearly, something was broken. Was it the thermostat or the heat pump?

Logic says to repair/replace the cheapest thing first. So as I put an extra blanket on the bed that night, I planned to replace the thermostat the next day.

In the morning, the bedroom was 59°F. It was tough getting out of my cozy bed. Meanwhile, the heat downstairs was working overtime, sending warm air up while the cool air dropped down. I figured that if I couldn’t get the heat going that day, I’d get a fire going to help warm the house. (I still have quite a bit of firewood to burn.)

I took Penny with me to Wickenburg Airport for the Sunday morning coffee and donuts gathering. I’d started the ritual back when I managed the fuel concession at the airport in 2002-2004 and was very happy to see that more than 10 years later others were carrying on the tradition for me. It was great to meet up and chat with the other pilots.

I pulled Jason aside and queried him on the thermostat replacement. He assured me that I’d have no trouble doing it. He recommended that I take a photo of the wiring setup before pulling everything apart — just in case I had to put it all together again.

After picking up my toolbox from my hangar, Penny and I went to the hardware store. They didn’t offer many options. I wasn’t interested in making a big investment in this home repair since I didn’t expect to be living in the house much longer. But I did want a unit that was compatible with my system. A Honeywell device looked about right at $35, so I bought it.

I should mention here that several of my Twitter and Facebook friends were following my dilemma and were recommending that I buy a Nest thermostat. I’d heard all kinds of good things about Nest and really wanted one. But I certainly was not going to buy a $250 thermostat for a house I hoped to be out of by June. Instead, I’d buy one for my new home when it was built. Besides, I needed a solution quickly and I wouldn’t be able to get my hands on anything as nice as a Nest in Wickenburg. And there was always the chance that the problem wasn’t the thermostat at all — it could be the 15-year-old heat pump unit.

Inside the old Thermostat
Inside the old thermostat were cobwebs and a tangle of wires.

I went home, made myself a cup of hot cocoa, and got to work. The instructions that came with the Honeywell unit were extremely easy to follow, with a full page in the little booklet for every step. I discovered when I removed the main plate for the thermostat that the wires were not color-coded but letter-coded: each wire went into a different lettered slot. There were also two jumper wires. And, of course, the switch that had been added for the electric heat. The Honeywell unit had come with a little sheet full of lettered stickers. The instructions said to label each wire as I removed it. So that’s what I did. I found that I also had to customize one of the labels for one of the jumper wires since one letter was used twice.

The Wires
I admit that I began to have doubts about my ability to complete this little project when I was faced with this mess.

That done, I removed the back plate of the old thermostat, leaving the wires hanging out of the wall.

I should mention here that the Honeywell unit had no way to hook up that little switch. The old thermostat had been cut and customized to accommodate it. I was not prepared to do that. Or interested in taking the extra effort to try. This was a temporary fix that might not even work. So I decided to ignore it — except for the one labeled wire that I knew I’d have to connect to the new thermostat.

I screwed the back plate of the new thermostat on the wall and pulled the wires through it, leaving that silly little switch behind the plate. I then began matching the wires to the labeled slots.

And that’s when I realized I had a problem: one wire was labeled RH but there was no slot labeled RH.

Understand that I have never done anything like this before in my life. I had no idea what might happen if I did it wrong. I certainly didn’t want to short out an otherwise functioning heat pump. Or cause a fire.

So I paged through the instruction manual and found the toll-free help number. It was midday on a Sunday and I didn’t have much hope of reaching a real person to help me, but I picked up the phone and dialed anyway. After navigating through a brief menu system, a man answered. I gave him my name and phone number per his request and read the model number off the thermostat’s packaging. I then told him about the RH wire. He asked if there was a wire labeled R. When I told him there wasn’t, he told me to put the RH wire in the R slot. Easy as that.

While I had him on the phone, I confirmed something that I had already suspected: that there was a jumper wire running between the R and RC slots in the Honeywell unit. He confirmed that there was. I told him that my old thermostat had a jumper wire in the same slots and asked him to confirm that I wouldn’t need to insert them in the new thermostat. He told me I was correct. He then assured me that I’d have no problem completing the installation, but if I did, I should call back.

Great customer service from Honeywell!

Thermostat installation
It wasn’t easy, but I got all the wires tightly fastened in the right slots.

With some effort, I managed to get all the wires into the right places. I have medium sized hands and struggled with the tight space — I can’t imagine how a man with large hands could do this at all. Maybe with tiny needle-nosed pliers? I got the wires in place and screwed them in tightly.

Then I pulled the batteries out of the old thermostat and put them in the new one’s control box. I fastened the box onto the wall plate. It lit up with the temperature.

The completed installation.

I flicked the switch to Heat and left the Fan switch set to Auto. I tapped the temperature up button a few times to set it to 70°. The heat came on immediately.

Looking good so far!

I cleaned up my workspace and finished my cocoa.

It didn’t take long to realize that the heat was now working. The temperature crept up, one degree at a time, over the next hour or so. Soon the upstairs was as toasty as downstairs.

I pulled the extra blanket off the bed. I wouldn’t be needing it that night.

One final note: The guys reading this might be thinking that I’m making a big deal out of nothing. After all, you guys probably replace thermostats or do similar tasks all the time. But while this might be nothing to you, to me, its a real achievement — more proof that I can take care of myself. I’ve done all kinds of minor home repairs in my house, the rental properties I used to own, my camping cabin in Williams, and even my RVs. Everything from drywall and toilet repair to installation of hardware cloth to keep mice out. These are things that most women are never taught to do and never even attempt to do. But women living alone have two choices: they can either ask a man for help — and possibly have to pay for his services — or they can do it themselves. Which do you think is better for us in the long run?

The Real Cost of Helicopter Ownership

Don’t believe what they tell you.

My first helicopter, a Robinson R22.

N630MLMy R44, parked out in the desert at a rides event.

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.

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.

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.

Congratulations! You’ve made it to the end of yet another lengthy blog post here on An Eclectic Mind. If you got this far, you must have gotten something out of what you read. And isn’t it nice to read Web content that isn’t full of annoying ads?

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