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.”
Finishing a helicopter both completes a challenge and begins another. Let’s assume that the new two-seater is rigged and balanced perfectly. Assume also that a certified flight instructor is on hand. Even so, the first days of practice are likely to be frustrating—even scary—because it takes time to develop the reflexes and multi-tasking skills unique to helicopter piloting. Once skids depart ground, pilots must make constant, small corrections on the controls without delay. Early kit-built rotorcraft had such a high crash rate that an FAA inspector in a July 1970 Popular Science article called them “the most dangerous type of experimental aircraft in use today,” and warned that 95 percent of the crashes happen at low speeds near the ground. It was a sobering change in tone from that found in earlier magazine articles. One reason for trouble among novices is the phenomenon called dynamic rollover. If a helicopter pivots around a landing gear during liftoff or one landing gear makes inadvertent contact with the ground while sliding sideways, the thrust of the main rotor will flip the machine on its side, requiring thousands of dollars in repairs.
The major brands of kit helicopters share the layout of Igor Sikorsky’s classic VS-300 prototype of 1941, which combined a single main rotor for lift with a small, vertically mounted rotor on a tailboom to offset the main rotor’s torque. Flight controls on kit-built helicopters mimic those on their production counterparts. Two “anti-torque” foot pedals control the pitch of the tail rotor and point the nose left or right; a collective lever connects to the main rotor and urges the machine up or down; and a joystick at knee level called a cyclic adjusts the main rotor to tilt the helicopter so it flutters off in the desired direction.
Orv Neisingh is an independent Missouri-based expert who has been training pilots on RotorWay helicopters for 10 years, and now holds an airframe-and-powerplant license that allows him to sign off on repair work during his field visits. That elevates him to one of an elite corps of consultants. Liability concerns, the small size of the kit-copter market, and the inclination among builders to perform their own repairs keep the number of licensed mechanics who deal with kit-built helicopters low. Neisingh’s service comes with a wise skepticism. Before scheduling work where he would fly another’s kit helicopter for training or testing, he requires the new customer to fill out a long and sobering checklist.
RotorWay customers can also go straight to the factory. RotorWay runs its flight school out of Stellar Airpark in Chandler, Arizona, in three sets, or phases, of classes. Each phase takes up to a week. Phase 1 is mainly for hover practice, which alternates with school on documentation, maintenance, and rigging. According to Robin Wactler, director of the flight school, the best time to come for Phase 1 training is near the end of construction, but before the main rotor is complete.