Do You Want to Build or Buy?

I have just returned from a flight instructing trip in California where I was with two new Rotorway Helicopter owners. The first owner built his helicopter from the factory kit and did all of the construction work himself. The second owner purchased his previously built kit on Ebay.

The fellow who purchased his kit new spent several years building it. He took a great deal of pride constructing his helicopter. He called me during the process and we spoke several times about proper methods and procedures to incorporate in the construction process to insure an airworthy helicopter when the project was complete. He then hired me to travel to his location to inspect his work. Following that inspection I provided a list of items that needed attention prior to having the FAA do his airworthiness inspection.

When I arrived at the airport along the coast of central California, Dave took me to his hangar where his pride and joy was awaiting my inspection. His hangar was neat and clean with plenty of work room and every tool that we would need for the tasks that we would be performing. It was the middle of December when we were working on the helicopter so being inside a snug hangar and out of the cold wind was a necessity. Good lighting made the process that much more enjoyable.

Together we did the static balance and lead-lag adjustments on the main rotor system, we rigged all of the flight controls, tracked and rigged the tail rotor, and adjusted numerous other items. I then left him to get his airworthiness inspection, operating limitations, and registration so that the helicopter would be legal to fly on my return trip.

The second owner who I visited hired me to inspect his new Ebay purchase and to assist him in determining what was needed prior to scheduling his flight instruction. When I arrived at his home in central California, also in December, Larry took me outside into his side yard where his helicopter was parked. He had a fabric car cover draped over the entire helicopter to keep the moisture off. We removed the cover and began inspection of Larry’s new Rotorway.

I noticed that much of the workmanship was poorly done and in need of redoing. Most of the static adjustments were incorrect and the quality of construction along with attention to detail was blatantly absent. Working on the helicopter was less than pleasant due to the cold damp wind blowing through his yard, lack of sufficient light, and his owning very few tools.

We made a trip to Home Depot and purchased some of the basic hand tools that he would need to rebuild and maintain his helicopter. He needed several sets of wrenches, screwdrivers, socket sets, etc. With new tools in hand we began checking out the various systems on the helicopter to insure that it was ready to see if the engine would start. By the end of the day we had the engine running, and the drive train spinning. I also made a long list of items that needed work prior to our being able to start Larry’s flight training.

When reviewing the paperwork that Larry received with the helicopter I noticed that it had been purchased from a fellow named Ron who I have known for some years.

I first met Ron when he purchased an Ultrasport 496 kit helicopter for $50,000.00 from a fellow who built it in Minnesota. This helicopter had never flown and did not have an engine. He told me that he was going to purchase the Hirth H30 engine that the Ultrasport company recommended and asked if I would give him flight training in his new machine once he had the engine installed.

I informed Ron that the engine that he was planning on installing would only last a matter of hours, not even tens of hours before failing in this application (personal experience). With more research he realized that he had purchased a helicopter that would never fly so he sold it on Ebay for $15,000.00, taking a $35,000.00 loss. He called me once the helicopter was sold and asked me if there was any way that he could get a helicopter at a reasonable price, he really wanted to learn how to fly.

I told him about the Rotorway kits and he decided to look for one. I knew of one for sale in Arkansas. This helicopter had been purchased by Steve after being flown for 296 hours by the original owner. Steve had hired me to give him his flight training in this Exec 90. The original owner paid an A&P mechanic/Rotorway reseller to build and maintain it. During Steve’s hover training, actually during the first 30 minutes, the engine experienced a catastrophic failure due to a stuck valve going through a cylinder.

Steve had purchased this helicopter with a fresh annual inspection signed by the A&P, with all maintenance logs completed including all valve adjustments logged. We pulled the engine and sent it to Rotorway for overhaul. They determined that the valves had not been adjusted in over 100 hours of operation for them to be in such bad shape. When the engine was rebuilt for Steve at the factory and shipped back, it was installed and we completed Steve’s hover training. We had started his altitude training but had to cut it short due to Steve developing a very painful hernia that prevented him from continuing. We had not yet done any autos.

When Steve had recovered from the hernia surgery he called to reschedule some more flight instruction. My wife was in the hospital when he called so I told him it would be at least a few weeks before I would be able to continue his flight training. A few days later, while my wife was in the operating room undergoing a heart transplant my cell phone rang. I thought that it would be someone lending moral support, it was Steve. He told me that he had some good news and some bad news. The good news was that he walked away from the wreckage with only 2 broken ribs, the bad news was that he had crashed his Rotorway.

Steve had been impatient and had decided to take the helicopter up into the pattern to practice the approaches that we had been working on. While in the pattern his water pump belt, which was new, lost a six inch piece of rubber leaving only the backing. It fell off the water pump causing the engine to overheat and seize. Steve had read about autos so he knew to lower the collective and then flare at the bottom. He actually did a good job considering that he walked away from an engine failure at altitude with no auto experience or training.

I told Ron that Steve was rebuilding his helicopter and would probably sell it for a reasonable price as he had told me that he was considering replacing it with a certified ship. Ron drove down to Missouri, picked me up, and we drove to meet Steve in Arkansas. I voiced my concern to Steve and Ron that the engine would most likely need a factory overhaul after seizing due to overheating. Steve’s A&P mechanic said that he had checked the engine out, bore-scoped it, ran it, and found that it was just fine. Steve did state that if there was a problem with the engine, he would make it right.

Ron decided to purchase the partially rebuilt Exec 90 so a deal was made. Ron pulled it home and he found an “Expert builder’s helper” to rebuild the helicopter. In several subsequent conversations with Ron I learned that the engine would not run once the helicopter was completely rebuilt. I told him to call Steve, which he did. Steve paid for the engine to be shipped to Rotorway and for it to be completely overhauled. Now that is the mark of a man with integrity! He had given Ron his word, and when asked to stand by his word, he did so without hesitation. Steve Foster is now a helicopter flight instructor who runs his own helicopter and fixed wing school in Searcy Arkansas. He is also the Designated Pilot Examiner that I send my Rotorway students to for their private pilot practical tests (check rides).

Under the GRADUATES area of this web site you can see a photo of Steve in front of the Blue R22 next to me standing in front of Tweety Bird, my yellow R22 trainer during our rice pollinating together in Arkansas last year.

After many thousands of dollars paid to the “builder’s helper” and several years of time lost during the rebuild, Ron developed a heart condition and lost his medical. He placed his Rotorway on Ebay and it was Larry who had the winning bid. For around $27,000 Larry got an Exec 90 with a new main and tail rotor system, new secondary drive, rebuilt engine, Al’s cog belt and clutch system. New skids,tail boom, and wind screen essentially made this a new helicopter. It would have been a perfect deal if the Expert Builder's Helper had done even a decent job of putting the helicopter back together, but he had not.

To summarize this story, the first owner purchased a new kit and paid someone to build it and maintain it for him. He then had this A&P sell it for him but the maintenance had not been performed as stated in the log books (per Rotorway Factory’s assessment). Due improper valve clearances, the engine failed within 30 minutes of the new owners’ flight training. He had the engine rebuilt and around 40 hours later had a new v-belt delaminate. He was not watching his coolant temp so the engine seized from excessive heat. He had not received any auto training, nor was he endorsed for altitude, but he flew the helicopter to altitude anyway.

Steve then sold it to Ron who paid another “expert” to rebuild it. Once it was finished he lost his medical and sold it to Larry. Larry got a helicopter with mostly all new components, just sloppy workmanship in the overhaul. Larry will now completely rebuild the helicopter to proper airworthy standards, receive his flight training from me, and enjoy his helicopter for years to come. (I spoke with Larry now a year after I wrote this article and he has decided to sell the helicopter as he is not interested in rebuilding it with his limited mechanical skills. He actually thought that it could be flown in and out of his back yard in a congested residential area of a large metropolitan city).

The quality of the build is such an important factor in purchasing a pre-built kit helicopter. Most new owners do not know what to look for so they end up getting taken. I see this all too often. It is best to have someone who is very familiar with the model of helicopter you are considering purchasing, inspect it prior to laying out your hard earned $$.

Following working with Larry, I again traveled to Dave’s hangar. His helicopter passed the FAA airworthiness inspection, all paper work was in order, and we began his flight training. There is a photo of Dave in his first solo hover in his new Rotorway 162F in the GRADUATES area of this web site.

If you build your own Experimental helicopter, build it like a certified ship. Take no shortcuts, have it inspected as you build. If you purchase a previously built ship, have some one check it out first so that you will know what you are actually buying and how much work it will take to make it airworthy.

Orv Neisingh