DIDN'T THE SMALL COMMUTER HELICOPTER
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
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
won't tell you exactly how we are accomplishing this, because 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.
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:
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.
Eagle RnD 2512 Caldwell Blvd. Nampa, Idaho USA 208-461-2567 Fax 208-454-3752