Friday, February 10, 2012

Apple #569: Your Own Helicopter

The other day, a friend of mine was going to the airport and jokingly asked if I needed anything. Returning the joke, I said, "Yeah, pick me up a helicopter, would you?"

If you had your own helicopter, you could fly around places like this any time you wanted.
(Photo from Helicopter License Center)

But then I started thinking about actually owning a helicopter. In my fantasy-land it would be very convenient. I could take off and chopper the few hundred miles to visit my friends who are scattered around the country any time I wanted to. That would be pretty handy. The more I thought about it, the more appealing it seemed.

I'm sure it's way out of my budget ever to buy my own helicopter, but just for the fun of it, how much would it cost?

Since I'm assuming you might be interested in owning your own helicopter too, let's say we pool our money and go in on this together.

Purchase Price
  • First, we'd have to buy the thing.
  • Corporate Helicopters has a used 2009 Robinson R44 Raven II for sale. It's blue with gray leather interior. "No damage history," that's good. Air conditioning, gyroscope, GPS, compass, all good things to have. It's wired for Bose headsets, but the headsets themselves aren't actually included.
  • Price tag: $409,000.

This 2009 Robinson R44 Raven II could be ours for only $409K.
(Photo from Corporate Helicopters)

  • There's a much cheaper helicopter, a Eurocopter AS 350 BA, going for only $1,150, but that one was made in 1990, it's had 3,303 hours of air time, and if I'm reading the maintenance record correctly, its engine was inspected when it reached the end of its life expectancy, but it has not yet been replaced. I think I'll pass on that one.
  • There's another used Eurocopter for sale, an AS 350 B2. That one was made in 2007, and it sold for £1.050m + tax (~$1.66M). Too rich for my blood.

Looks like Eurocopters have pointier noses than the Robinsons. I think I would want a round-nosed Robinson, only because the pointy noses remind me more of military purposes, and the round noses look friendlier. Though I suppose the round noses are less aerodynamic.
(Photo from Multiflight)

  • The same company also sold a 1998 Robinson R22 Beta II for £110,000 + tax (~$173,635). The price is better, but I think 1998 is probably too old to be reliable for our purposes. I mean, we don't want the thing breaking down every other time we take it out.
  • By the way, the helicopter that T.C. in Magnum P.I. flew (he called it "The Chopper) was a Hughes 500D, the civilian version of a military helicopter. According to the show, T.C. bought his helicopter in 1980. A 1980 Hughes 500D sold in 2011 for $98K.

TC's chopper from Magnum P.I. The paint scheme was not custom-designed but one of several standard designs available upon purchase.
(Photo from Magnum Mania!)

  • Well, I like the blue Robinson. It's newer which I think means it won't require as much service, it's a nice color blue, and Robinsons seem to be pretty prevalent in the States so I'm guessing they'd be cheaper and easier to service. So let's buy that one for $409K.
  • I'll assume it needs some adjustments and attention after I buy it, like new headsets, for example. And of course there's sales tax. So I'll tack on an extra 15% or so to account for all that and to give us a nice round number:
  • Total final cost: $470,000. Pfff. Chump change.

  • Next are the costs of keeping the thing, giving it a place to live. A boring expense to consider, but necessary.
  • We could have a hangar built for us, but I'm sure that would be incredibly expensive. And we'd have to have the land for it. I don't know about you, but my acreage is all tied up in swimming pools, my personal vineyard, my llama farm.

Helicopter in a custom-built insulated hangar on a private site near Manchester, England. This hangar had to be a bit wider than the norm to accommodate the longer blades on this particular model of helicopter. These builders can include all sorts of things in your custom hangar, such as additional crew and shower rooms.
(Photo from Black Bird Hangars of Central Europe)

  • So we'll keep our helicopter in a hangar at the airport. Costs vary a lot depending on what part of the U.S. we're in, how busy the airport is, etc. But we're all in this thing together, so I'm going to go with national averages here.
  • I'm also going to go with renting our hangar space rather than buying. The helicopter is all about mobility, man. Let's not chain ourselves to one hangar.
  • That said, it looks like people really want you to be on the hook for your hangar space. Some places will rent hangar space, but a lot of airports want you to sign a land lease deal. Some of them will charge by the month, others by the year, still others want you to sign a lease for 50 years. Sheesh.
  • But it looks like the average cost to rent a hangar is around $350 per month. Just to make sure we've got enough space for our helicopter, I'll go with a slightly larger unit which ups the price to about $500 per month.
  • That's only $6,660 per year. I think we should assume we'd have to pay a year's worth, given how the airports seem to like longer-term deals.

  • Another boring expense, but very necessary.
  • Maintenance will be tricky to estimate because a lot will depend on our particular helicopter, its age, any glitches the model is prone to, what kind of wear & tear it experienced before we got it, etc. So this will be very guessy.

Crew doing maintenance on a couple helicopters at Corporate Helicopters in San Diego. We would probably have to find a crew like this to do our maintenance for us.
(Photo from Corporate Helicopters)

  • They've got the costs all figured out for insurance, maintenance that's both scheduled and unexpected, inspections, oil, gas, the works. Some of their data is per year, but most of it is per hour of use. I've already got a bunch of my calculations started below, for a 2-hour trip that I found, so I'll calculate the per-hour costs for our 2-hour trip and everything else per year. I know that we'll probably fly our lovely helicopter more than 2 hours in a year, but just to keep things simple, I'll keep all the units the same 2 hours.
  • OK, so, for insurance (the biggest cost here), overhaul maintenance and labor, direct operating costs like fuel and inspections and unscheduled maintenance and labor, plus fixed costs per flight hour, the total comes to $12,080.02.

Actually Flying the Thing
  • All right, now, let's see what it costs to use the thing once we have it. This is where it gets fun.
  • I'm going to assume that we're flying our helicopter ourselves. What's the point of having a helicopter if you can't fly it? I mean, it seems like that would be fun.
  • Costs to learn to fly a helicopter can vary a lot, depending on what kind of helicopter you need to learn, how quickly you learn and therefore how much or how little practice you need, how many times it takes you to pass the exam, etc. But a very rough estimate of how much it cost to learn to fly a Robinson helicopter for private use is about $23,000.

This is Dan, and this picture was taken after he got his private helicopter certificate from the East Coast Aero Club. I presume that's his helicopter too. Looks like another Robinson R44.
(Photo from the East Coast Aero Club)

  • We just dropped $470K on our helicopter without batting an eyelash, so $23K is a pittance by comparison. But I'd rather spend our extra money on something more exciting, like actual trips. So let's see how much it costs to hire someone to fly our helicopter for us.
  • The data is a little confusing, but it looks like you can hire a licensed helicopter pilot for an average of $45 per hour. That's a little easier to swallow.
  • OK, now we've got to calculate fuel. That depends on the particulars of each trip, so let's make one up. Or rather, I'll go with a trip that has data readily available online.

I found this chart of chartered helicopter flight times. Based on this map, I chose what seemed like an interesting trip, going from the center of the map, which happens to be Leeds, to Paris.
(Map from Multiflight)

  • If we've got a twin-engine helicopter, we can fly from Leeds to Paris in 2 hours. (Our Raven II does not have a twin engine, it has a fuel-injected single engine, but I'm going with this flight time for ease of calculation.)
  • At this point, I got interested in comparing flying by helicopter and driving, and then private helicopter vs. commercial airplane. So here follows some calculations that get me to that comparison. People who like data, read the parts in Arial italics. People who don't, skip down to where the default font resumes.

This photo may be sufficient evidence to convince you that, in many ways, helicopters are superior to cars.
(Photo seems to be from Executive HeliShares; sourced from LAWeekly)

  • If we were driving, that same trip on the ground would be about 470 miles and it would take about 8 and a half hours, including time on the ferry across the Channel.
  • The best cruise speed for a Robinson R44 Raven II (like the one pictured above), is 100 knots or 115 miles per hour. It burns about 15 gallons per hour of flight time, which works out to a fuel efficiency of about 7.6 miles per gallon.
  • So that trip from Leeds to Paris by helicopter would burn about 30 gallons of gas.
  • Actually, it's more than that because one site says that to account for any variables like strong winds or difficulties with landing or take-off, you should add on an extra 15% to the total gallons per hour. We said our helicopter would use 30 gallons of gas on our trip, so with that extra 15%, that makes 34.5 gallons total.
  • [Note: I read in the FAA regulations that we would be required to have an additional 30 minutes' worth of fuel on board in case any difficulties crop up and it takes us longer to land than expected. I'm not sure if that extra 15% includes the extra 30 minutes' worth of fuel or not, but for the sake of this very hypothetical situation, I'm going to assume that it does.]
  • Cars have an average fuel economy of about 22 miles per gallon. So by car, that trip from Leeds to Paris would burn about 20 gallons of gas (I'm assuming you wouldn't burn any gas during the time you're on the ferry).
  • Currently a gallon of gas for a car costs about $3.50. So car gas for our Leeds to Paris trip would cost $70.
  • Helicopters use one of two different kinds of fuel, 100 Avgas or Jet A. I'll assume our helicopter uses the more expensive kind, which is the Avgas. Average price for a gallon of that fuel at the moment is $5.74 per gallon. So the cost for flying our helicopter from Leeds to Paris is $198.03.
  • A bit pricier than driving. But of course when you travel 4 times faster, you'd have to expect to pay more for that. I'd like to point out, by the way, that our helicopter fuel cost is less than 4 times higher than our car fuel cost.
  • OK, now, just for funsies, let's compare the cost of flying our helicopter to the cost of flying on a regular old passenger airplane.
  • I searched Priceline, and to keep the price somewhat normal, I said I was going to fly a month from now, that I would travel in the middle of the week, and that I'd come back a couple days later.
  • Best price for round trip: $402.
  • Our helicopter is much cheaper than that, and we can fly it whenever we want to. We wouldn't have to wait a month to get on our helicopter and go.

Here's another way in which helicopters win: helicopters can tow airplanes.
(Photo from EnglishRussia)


All right, let's tally up all our costs and see what we've got. This is roughly how much it would cost to buy a decent helicopter, store it and maintain it properly, and fly it once on a 2-hour trip.
  • helicopter with tax and upgrades: $470,000
  • hangar rental, 1 year: $6,660
  • insurance and maintenance: $12,080.02
  • hire a pilot for 2 hours: $90
  • fuel for the trip to Paris: $198.03
  • TOTAL COST: $489,028.05
  • Wowsers.
  • Admittedly, my estimate is on the high side. I've got some duplication of costs in my line items. The 15% I added to the purchase price to allow for initial upgrades and maintenance might also be included in to our annual maintenance $12K line. And the fuel for our trip to Paris might also be covered by our fixed costs which are within the maintenance line. But I think overestimating the necessary budget is probably better than underestimating, don't you?
  • All I can say is, we'd better get cracking if we're going to raise that $490K for our trip to Paris.
  • Uh-oh. I discovered a tiny little wrinkle. Our Raven II has a range of 350 miles. The flight distance from Leeds/Bradford airport to Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris is 381 miles. Crap.
  • We're either going to have to take a different trip or buy a different helicopter.

Still. It would be pretty cool to do something like this whenever you wanted. This chartered helicopter is flying over the Great Ocean Road coastline near the Kennet River in Australia.
(Photo and chartered flight available from heli experiences)

One Last Note: About Flight Plans for Helicopters
  • Helicopters do have to file flight plans before they take off. But they do not have to follow the same flight patterns as aircraft. They are allowed to fly at lower altitudes (because they can) and in fact, they are required to "avoid the flow of fixed-wing aircraft."
  • So the route you fly is pretty much up to you. The main requirement is that you to tell somebody where you're going so that a) they know to expect you and b) so they can help you out if the weather changes unexpectedly.

Ooh, I'm going here, on this helicopter tour of Maui. Circle above the island in just under an hour for $192. I'll meet you there.
(Photo from Sightseeing World)

Corporate Helicopters, Helicopters for Sale
Robinson Helicopter Company, R44 Raven/Clipper Series Helicopters
Eurocopter, Pre-Owned Aircraft
Magnum Mania! T.C.'s Chopper
City Government Tops $3 Million in Surplus Sales Including helicopter,, December 1, 2011
Bristow Academy, Tuition and Fees, Salaries, Wages, and Pay, Helicopter Jobs
Hangar, Hangars for Rent
Multiflight, charter helicopter flight times
Conklin & de Decker, Aircraft Variable Costs
Project America, Average Miles per Gallon for Cars, Trucks, and SUVs, 2009
zFacts, Current Gas Prices and Gas History
AirNav Fuel Price Report
Paris Airport Guide, Charles De Gaulle to Leeds
Darren Smith, CFII/MEI, Helicopter Rules That Differ From Airplanes
14 CFR Part 91, Aeronautics and Space General Operating and Flight Rules

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