WHY DIDN'T THE SMALL COMMUTER HELICOPTER PROMISED IN THE 50'S & 60'S EVER COME TO PASS?

If your focus has very little to do with aviation, your response to this question probably is, who cares!  However, if you are one of those folks who dreamed of flying as a child & always seemed to end up at an airport on weekends, this question might be one that you pondered for a long time.  Maybe you concluded that the market really didn't exist, or maybe it was too hard or expensive to learn to fly helicopters.  Maybe you thought that product liability was the problem or that government regulations were too stifling.  All of these are good reasons, however I would like to point you in another direction and then spend some time giving examples to support my conclusions.

I believe the answer is very simple, but equally difficult to explain.  In a word, it's cost, way to high cost!  When we look at the high tech electronic world, we see how costs keep coming down, but quality and performance increase constantly. How is it that mechanical problems, which are solved in the auto and big boys toy world, can't be resolved when it comes to the mechanism of the helicopter?  Surely a helicopter which sold complete for the price of even an expensive pickup, would have a sales volume of several thousand per year worldwide.  Okay, so you agree, so what's the problem?!  To gain some perspective, let's review what's actually happened with the helicopter commuter market since the 50's. 

The history of the helicopter in the U.S. pretty much begins with Igor Sikorsky.  Early on Sikorsky saw his helicopter as a commuter, however the military soon entered the picture and the private individual was forgotten.  Along came a man named Arthur Young.  He sold Larry Bell, an aerospace success story, on the idea of a simpler 2-bladed helicopter.  Bell also promptly got involved with Uncle Sam.  A bit later a good engineer named Charlie Kaman developed a two-bladed rotor that intermeshed.  He sold his ideas to the navy, but he really tried to exploit the commuter market.  The reason I know for sure is that in about 1964 Mr. Kaman saw my work and asked me to join him in making the commuter helicopter a reality.  I still don't understand why I turned him down.  Kaman Aerospace is a large multi-national company today.  (Mr. Kaman is now in his early eighties.)

Prior to the Korean War, another pioneer named Stanley Hiller, tried his hand at little helicopters.  He too turned to the military and Hillers became a serious presence ferrying wounded from the Korean battlefields.  About this same time, three other individuals who had the commuter market in sight, began their research.  Howard Hughes started out with a very big cargo helo idea, but eventually scaled back to a small two-place 3-bladed rotor, which turned into the popular Hughes 300.  (Now it's time to talk prices.)  The Hughes 269 model was my inspiration.  During my military induction from 1961-1963, I had a picture of it hung on the wall in my work section and I looked at it often.  As I remember the initial price for this machine was supposed to be $15,000.  It came out at around $25,000 and within two or three years worked its way up to $60,000 from where it continued up to $100,000 where it stayed for quite a long time.  We should point out that when this machine was introduced it sold for 3 or 4 times the cost of an automobile.  Mr. A. O. Brantly also thought a three bladed machine was the way to go and he actually succeeded in getting a type certificate on his machine around 1961 - 63.  He met the same fate as Hughes did cost wise.  The introductory price for the Brantly B2B was about $20,000 and it quickly rose from there.  R. J. Engstrom in Menomonee, Michigan got his neighbors and town folk to invest in his helicopter idea.  He began work on a 3-bladed machine as well.  He ran into some serious technical problems, however he finally got a qualified engineer by the name of Alb Ballauer to help him out.  Mr. Ballauer succeeded in certificating the helicopter while Mr. Engstrom kept the company solvent.

As you can guess, the Engstrom F-22 came out at a higher price than it should have and even though it sold pretty well for a few years, it was never able to outpace the Hughes machines.

It was 1967 when our first single place Scorpion kits was introduced.  The kit sold for $3,000 (less engine) making it just about the same price as the auto.  Within about three years, we had over 500 people at work on their backyard helicopters.  We'll come back to this story a bit later.

There is one commuter helicopter success story.  While all the previously mentioned certified manufacturers sold a few dozen or less per year, this machine is the one which really did take off, but it didn't get going until the 80's.  Frank Robinson spent the early part of his engineering career at Bell, Lockheed and I believe Hughes as well.  He learned everything he could about F.A.A. certification procedures.  He knew about the high cost problem and was determined to do something about it when his time came,

And he did!  The R-22 actually sold for about $30,000.00 when it came out and stayed under $60,000.00 for several years while the rest of the field cost three times as much.  The 80's saw Robinson dominate the 2-place training and commuter market.  Robinson made enough money to spend $3 - 4 million per year for 6 or 7 years toward building and certificating his 4-place, which is now dominating the light helicopter market place. Sad to say however, the price of the R-22 is now 5 times the price of an auto and its sales are tapering off. High purchase cost drives everything!!  Hull insurance becomes prohibitively expensive.  Per hour training cost rises dramatically.  Financing charges add up and spare parts prices, which are always higher individually, go through the roof.  Serious potential customers realize these pitfalls and back away in favor of a fixed wing or some other type of recreational vehicle.

This brings us back to our major premise...a helicopter for the price of a pick-up!  It's easy to see that none of the past commercial attempts met these criteria.  The truth is that neither did our early single place Scorpion kit.  First it was just a kit and it wasn't a 1990's kit either.  There was a lot of complex machining & welding for the builder to complete.  In essence it was a set of plans and whole lot of raw materials.  Well, the rotor blades were pretty well assembled and the airframe was tack welded, but lacking brackets.  In addition, the completed machine was in no way comparable to a certificated helicopter.  With a chain for a main transmission and belts to drive the tail rotor, this was a great machine to play with and work on, but not a commuter to crank up and fly day after day.  You might counter that as the years went by we finished the welding and did 90% of the machining and even built the motor from scratch.  Yes, this is true, but the price went from $3,000 to $45,000 in the process.  Today, 2-place helicopter kits are $60,000.00 plus.  Twice the cost of a pick-up and still not sold complete!  If you add $20,000.00 for the time you'll spend building these kits, a used R-22 suddenly has a lot of appeal and it's type certificated to boot.

Opportunity knocks the loudest when the challenge seems impossible.  The prescription for success in helicopters is simple, just cut the price in half.  That means that if there are 1000 parts in your design you must figure out how to make each one for half price.  This is precisely what the HELICYCLEŠ program is all about.  It took Frank Robinson half a lifetime to learn how to certificate a helicopter and it's taken me equally as long to figure out how to do a Wal-Mart number to close tolerance gold nugget helicopter components.

We won't tell you exactly how we are accomplishing this, because the processes and the technology belong to the Eagle R & D partners.  I want to say however that I ask my Heavenly Father for wisdom in every problem and decision.

The dream of building performance and longevity for half price did not appear out of the ether.  It began in 1975 when my partner Bob Everts and I diversified into what we called Piston Powered Products.  Bob designed a small 30 cc 2-stroke engine to power small hand tools.  We sold very few tools, but about then the string trimmer came along and Bob found the perfect home for the little engine. 

Initially we used our 50-man sand foundry to make engine castings.  The product cost us over $120.00 at that time.  As orders increased to over 100,000 per year, we were able to employ more and more sophisticated production techniques.  Pretty soon the cost was cut by 25% then 50% and more.  Watching the process inspired me, the application to the helicopter was mouth watering, however at the time we were unable to make it happen. When I left Rotorway in 1990, I had a lot of time to contemplate the reasons why.  There were a lot of reasons and we're addressing them one by one with good success in our HELICYCLE program.  None of these reasons have an easy solution and unless you have been in this business for a while it would be hard to explain what some of them are.  I'll try to give a few concrete examples:

  1. By the time a helicopter design has achieved a certified quality Level it has grown into something very complex, with a lot of ultra precision pieces.  This is equally true for the HELICYCLE; for example you can compare the R-22 transmission and the HELICYCLE transmission part for part and prove this to yourself.

  2. The sheer magnitude of the parts is the first hurdle.  Material procurement, Scheduling and part tracibility add to the problem.

  3. Low volume material purchases don't speak economy and the word aircraft sends prices up further.

  4. It is impossible to have machining performed outside.  The cost of quality control on every part and the reject rate alone will force constant price increases.  To create a certified quality part outside means that a supplier must conform his procedures to your criteria and if he's willing, he will most definitely charge you for it.  It does take some doing to set up your own aerospace machine shop.

  5. Walk through the 300,000 square foot Robinson Helicopter plant and inspect each of the several hundred pieces of tooling it takes to build the R-22 , any certified quality helicopter requires this level of equipment to achieve a reasonable sales price. 

Complexity, magnitude of parts, in-house manufacturing, low volume and tooling requirements spell out high cost.  These are a few of the reasons why we have yet to see the truly low cost commuter helicopter.  Will the HELICYCLE finally break this barrier?  To be sure, it will take a few years to find out, but if you ask those in our first or second production runs, they will tell you it's true because theirs cost about the same as the proverbial pick-up.


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