Purchasing Pitfalls

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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 potential purchase.

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 hanger.

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 Rotorway-experienced professional.

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 helicopters.

Orv Neisingh
Rotorcraft/Helicopter Certified Flight Instructor