Heli-Expo Second Day Notes

Here are my notes from the second day of Heli-Expo… (plus the rest of the trip)

For about ten years we Robinson pilots have been hearing about a stability augmentation system (SAS) being developed for the R44. If you took your hands off the controls and/or flew an R44 without an attitude indicator into the clouds the SAS system could keep the machine from rolling upside down. It could also function as an airplane-style autopilot. A system like this is standard in big helicopters that fly through clouds and could save a lot of lives. There was some excitement a few years back when this system was sold to Cobham, a leader in avionics and equipment, mostly for larger helicopters and military aircraft. It was disappointing therefore to learn from the Cobham employees at Heli-Expo that they would not be delivering this completely working system for the R44, at least not here in the U.S. “The potential for liability outweighs the potential for profit,” they noted.

Spidertracks is interesting because an FAA-approved GPS costs $5-15,000 and an FAA-approved Iridium phone installation is about $30,000. The Spidertracks box includes one of each for $1000 plus $1.90 per flight hour for Iridium fees to send back position reports.

http://aircovers.com/ has a laminated fabric cover where the inner fabric is slippery silicone and supposedly will not scratch Plexi even in high wind situations. The company starts by laser-scanning aircraft and then fabricating covers from the resulting 3D model. They are supplying all of the foreign militaries that are occupying Afghanistan.

You might think that after decades of working within a planned economy, the Russians and Chinese would be equal to the challenge of dealing with the FAA, but both Russian Helicopters and their Chinese counterparts were at the show with impressive scale models of machines that lack FAA type certificates and are therefore not legal to operate in the U.S.

Enstrom has been revived to some extent by its new Chinese owners (since roughly December 2012). They are now making 30 helicopters per year from what is basically a 50-year-old design. Scott’s Bell 47 is not basically a 50-year-old design… it is actually a 70-year-old design that Bell discontinued (plus new blades and a new engine, albeit one without FADEC). It is scheduled to be available starting in 2017 with price under $800,000 (i.e., it will be cheaper than a Robinson R66 but the lack of a back seat means that it is mostly suitable for agricultural work).

The Guimbal Cabri is going to be imported to the U.S. by Precision Helicopters in Oregon. This $400,000 two-seater is theoretically cheaper to operate than a $350,000 Robinson R44 Raven I due to the fact that there are no life-limited components. The Robinson will definitely need a $200,000 overhaul after 12 years (or 2200 hours). So for personal ownership the Robinson might have a capital cost of $550,000 over 24 years compared to $400,000 for the two-seat Cabri. On the other hand, the lower hull values on the Robinson should be good for $3,000 less per year in insurance (though on the third hand the extra two seats cost more to insure because there are two more people who could be injured or killed). And the Cabri probably will have some components that fail over 24 years, beyond normal maintenance items. Let’s budget $100,000 for Cabri components. That plus any insurance savings could bring the total cost to a comparable number. The Robinson burns a little more gas but it flies faster so against a headwind the fuel economy might be the same. People at the show were very excited about the Cabri, but I can’t convince myself with numbers that it is exciting.

After Heli-Expo I went up to San Francisco to catch up with family and friends as well as work with some patent litigators. I looked over my host’s shoulder one evening to see what he was watching for entertainment. It turned out to be YouTube re-runs of CNN’s coverage of the 2012 Presidential election returns. Aside from re-celebrating Obama’s victory, this married (to a woman) father of two had recently developed a passion for letting people know that “1 in 100 people are born as hermaphrodites” and that the traditional male/female gender dichotomy is the result of prejudice against intersex people. During the Oscars this led to the question of whether a bigendered person could win both Best Actor and Best Actress awards for the same performance in a single movie. Separately, we watched the classic movie Funny Face, which opens with a group of young women talking about how they were looking forward to their wedding day. A poll of the assembled young Bay Area women, ages 10-16, revealed that none of them were looking forward to a potential wedding day. Academics and careers seemed to be more on their mind. A 16-year-old talked about her interest in going to college to study “women’s history”. A 27-year-old said that she wished she could have “had a baby at age 15 and then frozen it until I was done building my business.”

[I didn’t do a careful political poll but generally people in the Bay Area who worked for the government or large companies were likely to be happy with the general direction of state and federal laws and regulations while those who worked for themselves or for small companies were likely to express unhappiness and disappointment with government.]

Prices throughout California seemed high and were exacerbated by the 9.25% sales tax. For example, two small tacos and a drink from a truck in Anaheim cost $12 plus $1 in tax. Art museum admission in San Francisco was $29 per person plus $28 for parking. You’ll pay another $7 per person to go to the Japanese garden next door, then another $7 to go to the botanical garden across the street and then another $7 to visit the greenhouse. Add $30 more per person to visit the science museum (previous post).

It was not until this trip that I realized that the most painful consequence of spending our tax dollars to bail out GM and Chrysler is… having to drive GM and Chrysler products. In Los Angeles Hertz rented us a 2014 Chevrolet Impala (that’s what the manual said, but it did not look like the “new 2014 Impala”) that had switches and displays that looked as though they had been kept in inventory since the 1980s. What stops GM from putting an Android tablet or iPad dock in the middle of the dashboard and letting that be the core of the interface? My Hertz Gold reservation for a “full-size car” turned into a 2012 Jeep Liberty SUV at SFO. It had nearly 60,000 miles on the odometer and was noisy and unstable on a rain-soaked highway.

I flew back and forth on United, where passengers are now herded into boarding lanes by number. There are first class citizens in Lane 1 (frequent flyers, first class passengers, etc.). I was in Lane 2 because I have a United credit card. That enabled me to get some of the precious overhead space and I should have felt great because I wasn’t stuck in lanes 3,4,5, or 6. But somehow I felt more like part of a cattle herd than when I travel on JetBlue.

It was 18 degrees Fahrenheit on the ground at Logan Airport and dirty piles of snow lingered on the sides of streets in Cambridge. Maybe that $13 taco snack eaten outdoors in Anaheim was well worth it after all…



  1. Jim Howard

    March 4, 2014 @ 2:34 pm


    What does that SpiderTrack device do that a Spot Gen 3 tracker can do a fraction of the price?

    Nothing that I can see.

  2. Jack Crossfire

    March 4, 2014 @ 9:36 pm


    Watching people sliding on the ice is a good reminder of why it’s very expensive to live in Calif*.

  3. Luke McCarthy

    March 6, 2014 @ 7:58 pm


    Hi Jim,

    Firstly, a disclosure that I am from spidertracks but will answer your question as best as possible.

    The Spot device is a very good device for what it is primarily designed for, personnel tracking. One of the main differences, as noted, is that spidertracks uses Iridium satellites compared to Spot using Global Star. With the low earth orbit satellites of Iridium you will not get any black spots or delays in transmitting, and messages can be sent two-way.

    This increases reliability and allows for features such as Automated Alerting when a signal drops out, two way messaging, and ensures certification with the likes of the US Forest Service.

    The other main difference is that spidertracks is designed for aviation, to increase the safety and operational efficiency of aviation businesses and their people. We do everything with aviation in mind, and we look forward to doing a number of releases with our aviation specific website / hardware in the near future.

    Thank you!

    Customer Experience Manager

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