If you have 700 hours to spare and can shim a rotor assembly to within .001 of an inch, here's a hobby for you.
- By James R. Chiles
- Photographs by Joe Loxterkamp
- Air & Space magazine, August 2010
(Page 2 of 4)
“Some people should only be building wheelbarrows,” says Al Behuncik, a RotorWay dealer in Alberta, Canada. “Their attitude is, ‘Well, it looks good enough to me!’ ” Behuncik spent 27,000 hours building and flying the four aircraft in his “copter barn,” coming up with improvements for the factory to adopt. Meticulous in his work, he has the gentle manner of a wrench-wielding Mr. Rogers, but his tone changes when discussing problems that are, in his view, easily avoidable. Behuncik says he sees two personalities that tend to get into trouble: “One is the person with no mechanical ability. The other is someone who just wants to get it done.”
While an old hand like Behuncik plans on spending 350 hours to bring a new A600 Talon from crate to flight, a newcomer is likely to spend twice that, or more. I heard tales of people for whom a decade of tinkering wasn’t enough. (Ads for the notorious Mini-500 single-seater kit from Revolution Helicopters claimed that owners could build one in 40 to 60 hours, but after a spate of well-publicized fatal crashes, hard landings, and hard feelings, Revolution folded in 1999.)
Five companies dominate the North American market. Three make kits in the United States—RotorWay sells the Talon; Eagle R&D, the Helicycle; and Vertical Aviation Technologies, the Hummingbird— and Canada has two brands, Safari and Mosquito. (B.J. Schramm founded RotorWay in 1961 and Eagle R&D in 1998; he died in 2004 in the crash of a Helicycle, but his wife heads his second company.) Kits with engines sell for about $28,000 for the entry-level, single-seat Mosquito to $200,000 for the four-seat Hummingbird, a kit version of the Sikorsky S-52. RotorWay dominates the field, having shipped its first kit helicopter, the Scorpion, in 1967.
HOMER BELL IS A HOSPITABLE soybean farmer who moonlights as a traveling troubleshooter for kit-helicopter owners; they know him by first name rather than last. Since Bell doesn’t hold an airframe-and-powerplant license, his official role is more mentor than mechanic.
Bell spent two and a half years on his two-seat RotorWay Scorpion Too, flying it at the 1975 Oshkosh show. B.J. Schramm had priced the Scorpion low enough to attract newcomers like Bell: $6,900 for the complete kit, including an Evinrude outboard motor. But Scorpion buyers opened the boxes to find raw material waiting to be cut, bent, and joined into a fuselage per the blueprints. Would-be pilots besieged Schramm’s RotorWay firm for help.
“He was taking calls 24/7 from customers,” recalls Bell, who was a technician for National Cash Register when Schramm invited him to be a dealer and earn commissions. “Pretty soon I was spending three to four hours a day on the phone, into the evening, and also working third shift,” Bell says. “I told B.J., ‘I’m spending too much time on this. Let me out of this dealer deal.’ ”
The solution: Bell would keep offering aid and comfort to kit builders but charge for it. In 1984 he began inviting fellow helicoptrians to his house in Waynesville, Ohio. After three years, the July “copter meet” outgrew the neighborhood, and Bell bought a 200-acre farm, where he lives today, raising corn and soybeans, and putting aside helicoptering for the harvest each fall.
In the first years, Bell’s fly-in was more of a drive-in, in which he hosted unflyable helicopters that arrived on trailers. Some of those that looked ready to go had owners who were reluctant to make the first flight without a nose-to-tail rotor inspection by Bell and other veterans. “It was more of a seminar back then,” Bell says. “They’d bring their machines and we’d critique ’em. We’d help on certain things, like building up blades.” Because today’s kit-builders have much more help available—online forums, factory checkouts, paid builder assistance, aftermarket parts, DVDs, shrink-wrapped parts—and more components like rotor blades are sold already fabricated, needing only attachments, few helicopters pull up at Bell’s door in dishabille anymore. “Every night the Helicycle guys go to their site on Yahoo,” says John Murphy, who owns a one-seat Eagle R&D Helicycle. “Minutes after somebody has a problem, it’s on the pilots’ site.” Users then respond with a solution or start a fix-it discussion. “So that gives you a warm fuzzy feeling.”