The New Rotary Club

Helicopters are the latest must-have accessory. Getting your hands on one is easier said than done, reports Evan McGlinn.

About a year and a half ago, John Fitzpatrick was headed to Dromoland Castle in southwest Ireland for a weekend of relaxation. The 45-year-old president of the Fitz­patrick Hotel Group North America hopped into his Bell 206L LongRanger helicopter and flew the 130 nautical miles from Dublin. Instead of a tedious three-hour car ride, it was a leisurely 45 minutes. Fitzpatrick got his helicopter license in 1987 and he bought his Bell 206L two years later, after growing frustrated with his fixed-wing craft. "Most of my flights are short distances—a hundred and fifty to two hundred miles—from one hotel to another," he says. "With a chopper I can go straight from point A to point B and avoid airports and the traffic that comes with them." And doesn’t everyone know helicopters are ideal for Ireland’s temperamental weather? "I would never fly out in bad weather, but God forbid I should run into a rough patch or an emergency situation, I could put it down right in a field," he adds.

As Fitzpatrick approached the helipad, he noticed he was not the only one who had decided to arrive via helicopter—four others had already landed. Once inside the castle, he commented to the manager that he’d had a little trouble find­ing a parking spot. "Oh, that’s nothing," she responded. "Last weekend we had ten of them here for a wedding." Since that time Fitzpatrick, whose company runs eponymous hotels in Midtown Manhattan, including one at Grand Central Station, as well as Dublin’s Beacon Hotel, says that Ireland seems to be overrun with helicopters. "One week I ran into a group of golfers traveling by helicopter," he says. "They even had an extra one just for their clubs."

The increased popularity of these aircraft has become a global phenomenon. The skies over Mexico City are teeming as well-heeled residents and business executives use them to escape not only the traffic but also the kidnappers. The news is the same in São Paulo, where it is estimated that there are more than 900 helicopters in use. And sky congestion between New York City and the Hamptons has become such a problem, local legislators are trying to pass ordinances limiting air traffic and begging the Federal Aviation Administration for help.

Buying a helicopter, however, is not easy. It’s not like picking out an SUV. Supply is low and major manufacturers like Bell and Sikorsky are stretched thin, filling orders from the military. The current wait time for a new chopper from those companies—as well as from Eurocopter and AgustaWestland—can be anywhere from two to three years. The private owner is also up against corporations that place large orders to go toward endeavors such as offshore oil and gas exploration.

"We’re in a boom cycle," says Mike Reyno, the editor in chief of Vertical Magazine, a trade publication that covers the North American market. "And there’s no end in sight. Every single company is breaking records in sales."

While the wait may be long for a new chopper, secondhand ones are more easily had if you’re in a hurry. Ron Bower of Austin, Texas’s Bower Helicopter (bowerhelicopter.com) is a former employee of IBM. He holds the world speed record for flying a Bell 430 around the globe: 17 days, six hours, and 14 minutes. Bower used his computer skills to assemble a proprietary database of every whirlybird on the planet. "I know where all the helicopters are," he says. "And more important, I know where they have been." That’s key because many Third World countries are not exactly sticklers on maintenance. "You can make a $300,000 mistake in the blink of an eye," Bower adds.

Take the popular Bell 206 JetRanger. "It has fifty parts with limited lifespans that need to be continually replaced or overhauled," Bower says. The engine must be reworked every 3,500 hours at $125,000 to $150,000 a pop. Rotor blades are good for 5,000 hours and then they need replacing—to the tune of $70,000 a pair. Bower and his team are skilled at evaluating the ins and outs of a helicopter’s condition and can negotiate a better price if some crucial (and expensive) part needs to be replaced. As he’s fond of saying, "You don’t make money when you sell a helicopter. You make money when you buy one."

Bower works closely with clients to meet and discuss what they’re going to use the helicopter for. Some treat them like a pickup truck; others want luxury. And then there are all the bells and whistles. What about floats? A good idea if you plan to fly to your weekend house in Nantucket or any other place that requires you to cross over water. For a field or ranch, regular skids are fine. But if you’re landing at an airport, you’ll want wheels to make taxiing smoother. Leaving Denver for your chalet in Aspen? You’ll need oxygen and a copter with a high "service ceiling" to allow flight at high altitudes. Should you plan to land in tight spots, you might consider a shrouded tail rotor, which has a casing to shield it from bushes (and bodies). The EC 130 by Eurocopter—Block­buster Video and Waste Management founder Wayne Huizenga has owned three—has what the company calls a Fenestron tail rotor, which runs quieter than standard models.

Another consideration is a piston versus a turbine engine. Turbines weigh less, provide more power, and are the norm on high-performance helicopters. Piston-powered choppers are less expensive and the direct operating cost is much lower per hour than that of a turbine model. The piston-powered Enstrom 280FX is approximately $155 an hour to fly, whereas the company’s turbine version, the 480B, will run about $255. Buyers also need to be aware that in some regions, particularly India, Africa, and much of Latin America, it can be hard to find the avgas needed for piston engines. The Jet A fuel used in turbine helicopters is more common in developing nations, where there are fewer of the small planes that run on avgas.

Once you’ve defined what you need, Bower starts his hunt. Many brokers typically take a commission equal to 2 percent to 5 percent of the selling price; Bower charges a flat fee of $27,000, payable in three installments. This figure increases to $35,000 for bigger, more exotic helicopters such as the Sikorsky S-76, which can seat up to ten people and is currently the bird of choice for whisking traffic-averse Manhattanites to the Hamp­tons for the weekend. We asked Bower to fire up his laptop and give us examples of current worldwide inventories for some popular models. Of the 4,600 Bell JetRangers produced since 1967, approximately 87 are presently on the market. The Sikorsky S-76 went into production in 1976 and 448 of them are now flying the skies worldwide; fewer than a dozen are for sale. What about the Bell 430? Just five.

If you decide to hold out for a new heli­copter, be prepared to wait even longer to have it customized. Makers of less expensive choppers like Robinson and Schweizer come with basics—avionics, radio, and seats—but Bell and Sikorsky models don’t. Manufactured in Mirabel, Québec, near Montréal, Bells leave the factory unpainted with only a portable GPS, a basic radio and transponder, and one seat for the pilot. They are then flown to Bristol, Tennessee, to Edwards and Associates, for customizing and installation of interiors. It’s at this Bell-owned plant that the fun begins.

While car options tend to come from a preset menu, with helicopters "the sky is the limit," says Edwards and Associates’ Jim Fogle, who has helped design interiors for Time Warner’s corporate birds. He and his team sit with clients and determine what they want from their helicopters and then start crafting the cabin. Popular touches include liquor cabinets, coolers, DVD players, limousinelike retractable glass panels to separate the cabin from the cockpit, soundproofing, and even platinum trim.

Besides the interior, the basic gizmos needed just to fly the thing push the tab up quickly (a Wulfsberg Flexcom radio can be $80,000). While some people spend millions, the typical cost to customize a Bell 430, for example, is around $750,000. Wait time? Three to six months. Of course the bigger the model, the more time and money. At Coatesville, Penn­sylvania’s Keystone Helicopters, which specializes in bespoke interiors for Sikorsky, the wait can be a year. Small wonder. Keystone’s Ray Mazepink tells us that a "green" (meaning bare-bones) Sikorsky S-76 goes for $6 mil­lion or so and interiors with state-of-the-art amenities—like bird’s-eye maple paneling and elaborate soundproofing to avoid the need for headphones—can run as high as an additional $14 million.

Ah, and then there’s the question of who’s doing the piloting. Hiring a full-time private pilot will run you about $70,000 to $100,000 a year. Another option is to be your own captain and hire an instructor to ride along with you until you build the skills and confidence to go it alone. Industry insiders agree that the Bell Helicopter Customer Training Center in Fort Worth, Texas, is one of the best places to train—it’s where both John Fitzpatrick and actor Harrison Ford learned to fly from flight instructor Wayne Brown.

A private license takes about six weeks— and costs $60,000. Though many clients choose to stagger their training to accommodate busy work schedules, Brown says "we recommend that you do it in one full swoop." The course is broken up into two weeks of ground school, where you learn the fundamentals of aerodynamics, navigation, and federal airway regulations. Once you pass a physical, you are ready for about three to four weeks of flying with your instructor. Those taking certain medications—Prozac and Zoloft, to name two—are prohibited from taking the course. Then there is a three-hour written exam and an FAA flight test. Even after receiving a license, you only have VFR (visual flight rule) status, which means you cannot even think of flying in bad weather, like fog or heavy clouds. For that sort of flying you need to be IFR (instrument flight rule)-certified. That’s much more difficult and tacks on another $20,000 or so. "Many people hire a pilot," says Brown, "so they can use the helicopter while they learn."

Helicopters are trickier to fly than fixed-wing aircraft. "You have to use both of your feet and arms at the same time while talking on the radio," says Brown. "So you can be stretched a little thin." What’s the hardest thing to master when flying a helicopter? "Hovering," says Barbara Tweedt, who works for Schweizer Aircraft Corporation in Horseheads, New York, a Sikorsky subsidiary that makes small helicopters, which are perfect for beginners because of their size and simpler controls. "Hovering is like standing on a ball in midair," she says, "on one foot."

Sound difficult? Consider this little statistic: The average New York City commuter today spends approximately 49 hours a year stuck in traffic. That’s up from 18 hours in 1982, according to Secretary of Transportation Mary E. Peters in a 2007 New York Times article. Perhaps balancing on a ball in midair doesn’t sound so bad after all.

Bird Hunting

Which Chopper is right for you?

AgustaWestland

Model AW109 Power

Delivery More than 2 years

Max Passengers 7 plus pilot

Price (new) $3 million

Price (used) $2 million

Perfect for Short commutes. It’s a wonderful executive ship.

Bell

Model 407

Delivery 2 to 3 years

Max Passengers 6 plus pilot

Price (new) Approx. $2 million (before customization)

Price (used) $2.4 million

Perfect for Law enforcement. This is an eternally reliable craft.

Enstrom

Model 480B

Delivery 12 weeks

Max Passengers 4 plus pilot

Price (new) $900,000

Price (used) $550,000 to $750,000

Perfect for First-time buyers. The 480B is a small, light chopper.

Eurocopter

Model EC 130

Delivery 1 to 2 years

Max Passengers 7 plus pilot

Price (new) $2 million (green)

Price (used) $2.2 million (depending on interior)

Perfect for Comfort. Every seat is a good one.

MD

ModelMD Explorer

Delivery 12 months

Max Passengers 7 plus pilot

Price (new) $5.4 million

Price (used) $2.8 million to $3.2 million

Perfect for Enthusiasts. This is a craft designed by and for pilots.

Robinson

Model R44 Raven II

Delivery 16 weeks

Max Passengers 3 plus pilot

Price (new) $375,000

Price (used) $250,000 to $300,000

Perfect for Budget-conscious moguls-in-training

Schweizer

Model 300C

Delivery 24 weeks

Max Passengers 1 plus pilot

Price (new) $350,000

Price (used) $325,000

Perfect for Training. It has simple and very reliable controls.

Sikorsky

Model S-92

Delivery 3 years

Max Passengers Up to 19

Price (new) $28 million

Price (used) No copters available

Perfect for The biggest civilian helicopter can be customized to fit the most luxurious tastes.