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In recent months I have provided helicopter flight
instruction to a number of students who have recently purchased
Rotorway helicopters that have been constructed by other builders.
Some of these helicopters have been very well built machines and
others have become nightmares for the new owners. The intent of
this article is to give prospective buyers a heads up regarding
the Dream Machine that they intend on purchasing.
One of the most serious problems that I have encountered
is the falsification of the helicopter’s maintenance records. Most
ads for used ships state something to the effect of “all service
bulletins complied with”. It is very easy for someone who is less
than ethical to log the 25, 50, 75, 100 and so on hour maintenance
procedures in the appropriate log books for the prospective buyer
to view. After all, the builder is the FAA certified repairman for
that helicopter so that must make those log entries legitimate and
believable, shouldn’t it?
Lets go over the history of one builder’s purchase
and subsequent nightmare. Let’s call this particular builder Fred.
For years Fred had dreamed of owning and piloting his own helicopter.
Certified helicopters were out of reach financially so Fred began
investigating the kit aircraft market. He wanted a 2 place helicopter
so that he could take a passenger along on those long-planned adventures
so that limited him to three choices. There are really only three
kit helicopters on the market that are two place; the Rotorway,
the Safari, and the Ultrasport.
Looking into these kits he determined that the
Ultrasport was not an option. There are only a handful of them in
the US and none of them were presently flying. The problem is the
lack of a suitable engine for their 2 place 496. The only choice
from Ultrasport, Fred discovered, is the Hirth F30 that has a dismal
failure record when placed in this helicopter. Fred also remembered
that every major air show that he attended in which the Ultrasport
was flown, the 2 place model had experienced a catastrophic engine
failure after only a few flight hours and was grounded for the remainder
of the show. Engine failures in his new helicopter were not on Fred’s
list of desirable attributes so the Ultrasport was eliminated as
Fred next looked at a Safari and liked it. He especially
liked the fact that it used a certified Lycoming aircraft engine
for a power plant. The fact that there was not much information
from present owners to be found and that there are relatively few
Safari kits around the USA caused Fred to shy away from this helicopter
kit as well.
This left only one alternative, the Rotorway line
of helicopters. There are several to choose from: Scorpion 133’s
and 145’s (the Evinrude powered ones were not even considered),
Exec 145’s and 152’s, Exec 90’s, Single FADEC 162F’s and the most
recent dual FADEC 162F. Fred began perusing the web sites, Trade
a plane, and other publications in his search for the “perfect”
helicopter to meet his needs and fulfill his dreams.
Fred found an Exec 90 that had 369 hours on it
for sale and hired an A&P mechanic to travel with him for a
pre-purchase inspection. Now Fred is a high time fixed wing pilot
and knows that at 400 hours, an aircraft is just getting broken
in. Together Fred and his mechanic went through the aircraft logs
and maintenance records to determine that all required maintenance
was done and service bulletins were complied with. Everything was
in Order so the purchase decision was made and Fred had a beautiful
dream helicopter of his own.
After a second trip to the East coast to pick the
helicopter up and trailer it home to the Midwest, Fred now needed
to learn to fly his new toy. He looked in several of the older Rotorway-specific
publications and called the flight instructors listed. Most of them
no longer instructed in the Rotorway and only one of them(at that
time) would travel to Fred’s location to provide him with the training
he needed. An agreement was made and soon this CFI arrived at Fred’s
After a thorough inspection of the helicopter the
CFI strapped a 10 pound weight to each of the horizontal stabilizers
and another 10 pounds to the tail boom. This additional 30 pounds
was needed because the CFI that Fred had hired weighed well in Excess
of the 210 pound seat load limitation. The helicopter was severely
over gross weight, but Fred was relying on the expertise of this
The moment that Fred had dreamed of for so many
years had arrived. There he was, strapped into the seat of his own
helicopter with a CFI that was going to teach him how to fly it.
They fired up the engine, did the required warm up and Sprague check,
and then powered up for the liftoff. As collective pitch was applied
and throttle added the CFI lifted the helicopter into a 3” hover.
But there was a problem. As soon as they became airborne, the main
rotor RPM would decay to the point that the helicopter settled back
to the ground. After several attempts to pick up into a hover, the
CFI informed Fred that he needed to do some adjusting on the helicopter
and they would fly the following day.
The CFI arrived on Sunday, they attempted to fly
on Monday, then Tuesday—oops it needs more adjusting, let’s try
Wed----no good, a bit more adjusting and by Thursday they would
be flying. Well Thursday came and went and finally on Friday when
the CFI told Fred that he was pretty certain that he could have
it flying by Saturday, Fred terminated their agreement and was presented
with a bill in excess of $3,000.00. Fred wrote out the check and
decided that he had been through enough! If this is the way that
the Rotorway community operated, he wanted no part of it.
He had purchased a helicopter that would not fly
and then was ripped off by a professional flight instructor to the
tune of over $3,000.00 and had still not even gotten more than 6”
off the ground. The CFI did not mention that Fact that the helicopter
was severely over the maximum allowed gross weight by more than
60 pound of CFI and lead weight! Perhaps that had something to do
with the lack of performance on this machine.
Fred was ready to put the helicopter up for sale.
It was Saturday and he had just explained to his wife where the
flight training money had gone with no training time logged. Low
was too high for how Fred felt. As he was sitting at his desk contemplating
the future of his helicopter dream, his first new issue of Rotorheads
arrived with the mail. He opened the magazine and found an article
that I had written.
After reading the article he realized that there
was anther CFI with a lot of Rotorway helicopter experience and
decided to give me a call. We talked for around 30 minutes and Fred
asked me if I could meet him at his hanger in the morning. Travel
arrangements were made and I arrived the next morning. Fred did
not tell me that he had just sent another CFI packing as he wanted
to see how I did with an unbiased opinion.
As with every helicopter that I fly, I first performed
an airworthiness inspection of Fred’s new ship. The log books revealed
that just 5 hours prior the annual inspection had been performed
and the aircraft had been deemed airworthy and returned to service.
The engine logs revealed that every 25 hours the valves had been
adjusted, lash cap clearances had been verified, and all belts,
hoses, fluids, and filters had been recently replaced with new.
The helicopter was a bit rough, quite a bit of
chipped paint on the frame, a number of wires that needed securing,
and 4 control rod ends with loose(backed off) jamb nuts. It took
a couple of hours to put the helicopter into airworthy condition,
after which Fred’s A&P mechanic made the required entries into
the aircraft logs. Fred is not the builder of this helicopter so
the maintenance is either done or checked by an A&P. After lunch
we wheeled the helicopter out onto the helipad, buckled ourselves
in, and fired up the engine. The engine started right away and after
I demonstrated the engine and drive train checks, we picked up into
a hover. Now Fred is no light weight. He weighs in right at 210
pounds. I weigh 185 and we had the tanks half full. The helicopter
seemed a bit under powered but we were able to maintain a 24” hover.
After I hovered the helicopter for several minutes
to get the feel of the controls (every one is different), we began
Fred’s hover training. Now Fred was excited! He told me that he
had been looking forward to this day for years and now he was actually
learning to fly his own helicopter. Fred was just getting the feel
of the anti-torque pedals when there was a loud bang and the engine
suddenly quit. I set the helicopter onto the taxiway in a hover
auto and there we sat for a minute wondering what had happened.
We had logged a total of 30 minutes flight time so far. We decided
that the safest thing to do was to pull the helicopter back to the
hanger at the other end of the airport and check it out.
We walked to the hanger, secured the ground handling
wheels, a length of rope, and Fred’s truck. Back at the helicopter
we rigged it so that Fred could pull it with his truck while I applied
some down force on the tail boom as I walked along side to keep
the ship centered on the wheels. It started out as planned but somewhere
about mid way down the runway Fred received a call on his cell phone
and was distracted by the call. He forgot that he had a 52 year
old flight instructor hanging onto the tail of his helicopter. The
speed of the truck steadily increased until I felt like a cartoon
character with my legs moving faster than they were capable of.
I did not dare let go of the tail or the helicopter would have gone
sliding off the side of the runway and into a ditch. Finally Fred
glanced into his rear view mirror and the scene behind him caused
him to slow down to a more reasonable pace.
When we removed the valve covers we found that
one of the intake valves had been pushed far down into the keepers
and all of the lash caps were mushroomed down onto the keepers of
all of the valves. It was apparent that the valves had not been
adjusted in many hours, finally causing an engine failure. The maintenance
records stated that the valves had been adjusted and lash cap clearances
checked every 25 hours. This obviously had not been done and the
records that the seller had provided the buyer had been doctored
to reflect all maintenance was completed.
Fred had a professional builder remove the engine
and it was shipped back to Rotorway for a complete overhaul. When
it was finished and shipped back, it was installed and we were back
flying, this time with power to spare and to date the power plant
has been working perfectly. We have put over 60 hours on it since
the engine failure. I need to add that due to the erroneous entries
in the maintenance logs, we decided that every maintenance item
was suspect and replaced all components, belts, hosed, elastomerics,
bearings, etc. that should have been replaced in the 369 hours since
the helicopter had been built. With all components now with actual
life times entered into the records, we know that the helicopter
is airworthy and we can now accurately track those component hours.
This past several days I was providing Fred with
phase II flight training. There was no wind, the sun was bright,
the sky was “severe clear”. We just had to take an hour break from
training to go exploring the countryside in Fred’s great-flying
Exec 90. There just isn’t anything that is more fun or enjoyable
as strapping your own helicopter onto your back and taking it out
for a scenic flight. Fred had surgery today so he won’t be flying
for a couple of weeks. As he is recovering he will be closing his
eyes and remembering that flight over the farms of Arkansas.
Be very careful if you purchase a pre-built helicopter.
You don’t want to fall into the same trap that Fred was caught in.
His great deal on his Exec 90 has now cost him over $58,000.00 to
insure that it is airworthy. With the help of a professional builder,
Rotorway, and some new parts from a Jet Exec builder, Fred is enjoying
flying his Exec 90 and is still glad that he joined this elite fraternity
of Rotorway helicopter owners
Until next time, fly safe and enjoy these wonderful
Rotorcraft/Helicopter Certified Flight Instructor