Build-It-Yourself Helicopters

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

Bell has built a Scorpion Too and an Executive, complete with trailer. (Joe Loxterkamp)
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Nearing the end of their build, Helicycle owners are required to spend a week with an Eagle R&D representative like Doug Schwochert of Burlington, Wisconsin. Schwochert’s house call comes at an extra charge but it isn’t optional, since he brings a crucial pair of main-rotor bearings available only from the factory. (After B.J. Schramm liquidated his interest in RotorWay and founded Eagle R&D, it was Schwochert who convinced him that a turbine instead of a piston engine should be the Helicycle’s standard powerplant.) Schwochert inspects each part before lighting off the turbine, followed by a series of adjustments before test flights begin.

A refurbished Solar T62 gas turbine once used in generators is the standard engine, accounting for a quarter of the kit’s $39,800 price. Its power section spins at 62,000 rpm, more than 1,000 times a second. Gearboxes bring this down by a factor of 20 to suit the tail rotor, and still further for the main rotor. Though the Solar is rated for 160 shaft horsepower, Eagle has cut fuel flow, holding it to 90 shaft hp for longer life.

IT’S JUST AFTER LUNCH in the RotorWay school hangar, and the talk is of grease: the red variety, in a big shiny grease gun, and where to point it. A RotorWay 162F Executive (superseded by the A600 Talon in 2007) has grease points under the main rotor and around the tail rotor drives. Explains Robert Preston, the company’s factory instructor pilot, owners will be wielding the gun every 25 hours of routine operation, and will be checking air and fuel filters, changing oil, and tightening the chain drive and the three rubber belts that drive the tail rotor.

When explaining how to tighten bolts, Preston advises student Don Pool: “Remember, this is an aluminum block and steel wins every time, so don’t apply more torque on the bolts than necessary—no monkey strength allowed!” With time out for flight training, Preston spends the week shouldering through a long list of RotorWay-specific techniques.

Pool is a high-time corporate jet pilot (and licensed airframe-and-powerplant mechanic) who seems content with setting aside time and money to learn the hobby—up to a point: He wants to earn his hover endorsement this week, rather than having to come back later to finish Phase 1. Preston warns him that most students need to come back for an additional week of training before moving on to Phases 2 and 3. In all, someone new to helicoptering could require four trips to Chandler, but at the end he or she will have a gilt-edged rotorcraft license.

Patience and good workmanship is key, says Al Behuncik. “The helicopter is a wonderful machine, but if it’s not built correctly it can and will kill you. There’s no excuse for anyone building a shoddy machine, because the instructional books and videos show you exactly how to do it.”

What do people do with their helicopters upon completion, besides attend fly-ins? As these are experimental craft, commercial use is prohibited. Rod Harms plans on using his Talon for two-hour jaunts to Chicago, packing luggage in a cargo compartment that fits under the cabin. Joe Goetz uses his Helicycle as a volunteer eye in the sky for the sheriff’s department in Maricopa County, Arizona; he enjoys the sense of mission and the fact that when on duty he can land at places otherwise off-limits to helicopters, like downtown parking ramps. Norm St. Peter and his wife use their float-equipped Hummingbird to fly from Florida to northern Maine, where they fish remote lakes.

Checking back with Don Pool at the end of his week at RotorWay, I learn he has beaten the odds and won his hovering endorsement. This opens the way for training at home, followed by more work at Chandler to finish his rating. Then he plans to load his Executive on a trailer and haul it out west behind an RV. Where the pavement stops and the desert begins, he’ll climb in and head for the hills.

James R. Chiles is the author of The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, The Story of the Helicopter (Bantam Dell, 2007).


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