So, You Think You Want a Helicopter
As a successful business leader your time is valuable. Driving from your office on the north side of San Diego to a business meeting at the aerospace manufacturing complex near LAX can face a considerable obstacle: traffic on the infamous 405 highway. At any hour of the day you are likely to get stuck in a standstill traffic jam. Sitting in that traffic is a waste of your valuable time.
The wise commuter in urban areas like the LA Basin will allot a safety margin for their planned commute time, but if your meeting begins at 10 a.m. you will be driving up the 405 during the worst of the morning commute, requiring you to leave exceptionally early. In the business world, time is money. Being stuck in traffic is additional time lost that is essentially costing you money that you can’t buy back. It is time that you could be using to do important work for your business, or be with your family, or doing a fun recreational activity.
Being punctual for a business meeting is a reflection on your business skills and acumen. While showing up late at an important meeting might be met with empathetic reactions when you charge into the meeting claiming, “Sorry…traffic on the 405 was completely backed up,” the stress you endured while stuck in standstill traffic is unproductive.
Perhaps while sitting impatiently in these traffic jams you have considered, “If only I had a helicopter, I could zoom right over this traffic and go straight to the meeting location.” This is the situation faced by business executives in Brazil’s money capital of São Paulo. Its 20 million occupants utilize 5 million cars, 42,000 buses, 160,000 trucks and 875,000 motorbikes on its roads, leading to world-class gridlock. During the afternoon commute the estimated speed is less than 10 mph. Daily traffic congestion is so bad that the city has 193 heliports and 420 registered helicopters, according to the Brazilian Association of Helicopter Pilots. It is estimated that roughly 500 helicopter flights occur on a daily basis.
There are other reasons why helicopters can be a valuable asset to your company. They can land you closer to your destination, for example. If you have a business meeting in Lower Manhattan you can land at the Downtown Manhattan Heliport. If you jet into London’s Oxford Airport for a series of meetings, a helicopter can quickly whisk you to the London Heliport in 22 min., putting you in the heart of the Imperial Wharf section of London.
Maybe you have visions of buying a helicopter to take you to a friend’s Malibu mountainside estate or a private ranch in the Idaho backcountry, or to grab some powder snow “first runs” from alpine crests. Before your imagination runs away with these dreams, it is necessary to come back to earth and talk about the realities of helicopter operations.
The lure of saving time comes at a cost, literally. Helicopters are mechanically complex machines, more so than fixed-wing aircraft. How much is a helicopter going to cost? This is a topic where you need an expert in helicopter cost accounting to come up with accurate estimates. Your operating costs will vary considerably from estimates provided online due to the specifics of your operation. Are you considering a new or used helicopter? Will it require two pilots or one pilot? Is it your intention to fly the helicopter yourself, or will you hire a pilot(s)? Do you want an IFR-capable helicopter? If so, then the budget needs to increase for IFR proficiency training, as well as the complexity of maintaining the instruments for IFR flight.
The buying process should carefully consider your potential needs, including performance, weather capabilities and cabin size. A sampling of some online sales websites reveals that single-engine turbine helicopters manufactured by Airbus, Bell, Leonardo and McDonnell Douglas range from $350,000 to $2 million. Newer VFR-only versions of these helicopters sell for $3million to $4 million. Airbus, Bell, Leonardo and Sikorsky manufacture twin-engine helicopters with extra cabin seating, faster speed, more cargo and IFR capability, but they require proficient IFR pilots, service center support and a substantial budget.
Mike Chase, who has four decades of experience managing corporate aviation departments, specializes in compiling data for AvBuyer. He did a side-by-side comparison of two popular, used single-turbine helicopters--the Airbus AS350, known popularly in the U.S. as the AStar, and the Bell 206L-4 LongRanger. The AS350 has a max payload of 1,647 lb. and a range of 292 nm, while the LongRanger has a 1,479-lb. max payload and 246-nm range. The long-range speed is 122 kt. in the AS350 vs. 110 kt. in the LongRanger. The AS350 burns 45 gal./hr. while the LongRanger uses 37 gal./hr. Total variable costs including fuel, maintenance labor, parts and miscellaneous run $743/hr. in the AS350 and $661 in the LongRanger.
Aircraft that are owned and operated by businesses may utilize the Modified Accelerated Cost Recovery System for depreciation, which allows a business to take a greater percentage of deductions in the first few years. This table varies depending on whether the aircraft is operated under FAR Part 91 or 135. Knowledgeable accountants will warn aircraft owners that utilizing a company’s aircraft on non-business flights may impact the allowable depreciation deductions.
There are other options to full ownership. Leasing policies can be written to allow a fixed number of flight hours. Leasing fees typically cover fuel, pilot and insurance. One of the advantages of a lease is that you can budget a definitive cost. This option can make sense if you don’t need a helicopter for instant on-demand or everyday usage.
Every rotorcraft needs plenty of routine maintenance. The complexity and number of moving parts in a helicopter are impressive. YouTube features several slow-motion videos of the motion of a rotor blade during a revolution. You can see that for each revolution the rotor blade bends up and down, changes its pitch angle and “leads/lags” (forward and backward). The rotor system goes through these changes about 400 times a minute (i.e., 400 rpm in the main rotor). That means that each individual component endures vibrations that create wear. These components need frequent attention to operate in near-perfect balance with adjacent components.
As a general rule, helicopters require about three times more maintenance than a jet or turboprop. They require expert maintenance that utilizes specialized maintenance tools to perform vital tasks such as blade balancing. Blade balancing is necessary because a slight imbalance in the track of rotor blades can create destructive vibrations within the rotor system.
If you already own a hangar with sufficient room to store your helicopter, you still need a method to move it inside and out. Skid-equipped helicopters of modest size and larger can be landed on a portable platform that is moved by a small tractor. This method looks deceivingly simple, but landing on these platforms requires the ability to “land on a dime,” and being off center by a couple of inches can risk a condition called “dynamic rollover” if a skid catches on a protuberance from the surface of the platform.
Are you hoping to fly the helicopter yourself because you are already fixed-wing rated and assume that getting the add-on rating will allow you to do that? Merely complying with the FARs to earn the helicopter rating isn’t going to equate to qualifying for insurance. Be prepared for stiff insurance rates. As a general rule, aviation insurers specifically consider your time in rotorcraft and, in particular, “time in type.” There are plenty of online posts from businessmen who were rich enough to buy a nice Hughes 300 but couldn’t get insurance until they had “x” hours in type. Or they assumed they could do flight training in their helicopter to earn their rating, only to discover that most insurance companies won’t cover this. These individuals resorted to operating their helicopters without insurance, which is an eye-raising risky option.
Editor’s Note: The second piece of this feature will examine flying helicopters and the training required.