Building A Kit Built Rotorway Helicopter
Part 1 of 8: How I got into this
It was the spring of 1986, just a few months before I graduated from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Somehow after seeing a 1-inch ad in the back of Popular Mechanics and getting hooked on what seemed like a really cool idea, I skipped classes for the day, took a quick Southwest Airlines flight from Austin to Phoenix, and was now sitting on a RotorWay pad in a little two-seat helicopter that had, in huge letters, the word experimental stenciled on it.
Some guy named “Stretch” was rambling through a well-rehearsed speech, extolling his company’s flying home-made contraption, and I just sat there wondering if I’d left anything in my apartment that would make my mother ashamed of me when she and Dad gathered my things after I’d been killed in a helicopter crash in Arizona. I’d been in a couple of Jet Rangers on 10-minute tour flights in New York City and had messed with radio controlled helicopters for a while. But nothing like this.
The factory tour was impressive and all the people were very nice, but what the hell was I thinking? Look at the warning placard right in front of me! “this aircraft is amateur built and does not comply with federal safety regulations for standard aircraft.” I’m a complete idiot. Should I get out before this guy starts this thing? A fire could engulf us before I even got my seat belt off.
Stretch finished what he was talking about and cranked the engine. Hmmm. It runs pretty smooth, I thought to myself. After warmup, we were in a hover. Oh! This is kind of cool. He then let me take the stick and try a hover. Very cool. I guess Stretch isn’t ready to die yet either, so maybe this won’t be so bad, I thought. Then he eased the cyclic forward, the nose dipped, and the ground began to melt away.
It was like I was a kid and had just jumped off the high-dive for the first time. I’d been in a two-seater airplane, but on takeoff you couldn’t see diddle ’cause the plane’s nose was high in the air. This was exactly the opposite. With our nose pitched down at 70 mph climbing at 800 fpm, the sensation of flying in this size aircraft with God’s panoramic view of the desert made me realize that this was flying the way it was meant to be.
This was what man had dreamed of for eons. And here I was, within the first generation of people who could actually achieve vertical flight. I’ll never forget the feelings and sensations that first afternoon. “I see the powerline in front of us,” Stretch said. I guess that was to brag that he didn’t need glasses – but as it turns out, powerlines are enemy number one!
The feelings didn’t go away. I went back home, watched the promotional video tape some more, studied the helicopter’s building plans, and for only a few days debated whether I should spend that much dough on a hobby. But when I finally decided to go through with it, I drove by my bank three times before I actually went in and wired the money to RotorWay. Eight months later I did my first solo autorotation in a RotorWay Exec that I had built all by myself. Very very cool….
So what’s up a decade later? I consider Stretch to be a good friend, and RotorWay has continued to progress after going through a couple of shake-ups and an ownership change. Founding visionary B.J. Schramm’s machine has evolved from the Javelin, to the Scorpion and Scorpion Too to the Exec and Exec 90, and now finally, to the Exec 162F.
Changes and improvements have made the 162F the most advanced piston powered machine on the market. This engine boasts 150 hp, 162 cubic inches, four cylinders, four-stroke, liquid-cooled, dual electronic ignition, electronic fuel injection, and the FADEC (fully automated digital electronic control) system, which monitors and controls all engine systems with two fully redundant and independent sets of electronics.
With a fully articulated elastomeric rotor hub that reduces vibrations, a wider and more spacious cabin than the Exec or the Exec 90, a lighter and more effective cooling system, the cabin comfort package (heating and cooling), removable doors, dual controls, a 95-mph cruising speed and 180-mile range, this helicopter is no puttering homebuilt.
Doing it Again
I have been a devout RotorWay customer and fan for more than 10 years now, regularly flying the heck out of two RotorWay ships, having also built an Exec 90 not long after its release in 1990. Because of the two helicopters, I’ve spent a lot of enjoyable and educational time at the shop and in the air. And now with the accolades of the 162F, I can’t stand the hype any longer.
With this article, we begin a series on the construction and flying of the RotorWay 162F. I’ll take you through RotorWay’s entire program, all the way from ordering the promo package, to building the machine, to flight school at RotorWay, to flying the ship once we get her rigged and ready to go. Also along the way, we’ll include input from a second builder, Mike Sherick, who has just finished construction of his own 162F.
He’ll give us first impressions of RotorWay and his experiences, and I’ll be able to view things from a veteran’s point of view. You’ll see pictures of both our ships throughout construction, and at the conclusion of these five or so articles, if all goes well, we’ll include air-to-air shots of and from both helicopters.
Before we pull out the tools, however, let’s do a quick overview of RotorWay. The original company, RotorWay Aircraft, was formed by B.J. Schramm, a designer, inventor and true visionary of vertical flight. He began selling kit helicopters in the late ’60s and piloted a slow yet very successful evolution of design that finally resulted in the fourth generation, much-acclaimed Exec helicopter.
It was first offered in 1983 and began the building and flying careers of many helicopter enthusiasts. In the late ’80s after insurmountable financial trouble, Schramm was forced out of business, and following a few weeks of minor panic from customers with half-built helicopters, the assets of RotorWay Aircraft were purchased from the bank by Englishman John Netherwood.
Our new hero moved himself and his family to the Colonies and formed the current RotorWay International. After rehiring most of the old RotorWay employees, he and his team redesigned the Exec. Since RotorWay employees could build and fabricate most of the components and parts in house, they could easily change the existing product.
They improved the engine with beef-ups and tweaks here and there, including a dual electronic ignition rather than the single distributor. Among other minor changes, they built a larger and taller main shaft for the helicopter; a stronger and better looking landing gear; and a cleaner, faster, and more gorgeous body.
They debuted the new machine at Oshkosh 1990, dubbing it the Exec 90 kit helicopter. Then at Oshkosh ’94, RotorWay International introduced the current 162F with even more improvements, which we’ll talk about in detail throughout these articles. For the past five years, despite a sagging world economy, RWI has consistently produced an average of two kits per week, and the company continues to update and improve its product through extensive design and flight testing.
Before most folks plunk down thousands of dollars for a kit, a smart move is to get a feel for the chosen company. Do you get more for your money than just a pile of parts that are supposed to fly when assembled? Will the company answer questions right away, and are replacement parts readily available? Do I have to be an aircraft engineer to interpret the instructions and build this thing? From recent personal experience, I can tell you that regarding RWI, the answers to each of these questions are confidence-building.
From RotorWay you get much more than parts. These kits are made to fly, and RotorWay wants you to get into the sky in the easiest and safest manner possible. Thanks to new, highly detailed building instructions, rarely should builders have questions. However, Customer Service guys at RotorWay are near the phone ready to help.
Stretch is now RotorWay’s president, as well as being the in-house FAA examiner. So besides making corporate business decisions, he continues to maintain hands-on experience working in helicopter development, giving flight demos and class instruction, and he still answers the ever-important phone-in builder questions.
Another guy who has been there for more than a decade is Tom Smith. I couldn’t have built either of my machines without his and Stretch’s phone help, and to this day I’m still amazed at their knowledge and patience answering highly technical and intuitive engineering and aviation questions as well as some pretty idiotic queries.
From my experience, they usually take calls immediately, or return them within a few minutes during regular business hours. And if you screw something up, new parts are usually out the door within a day or two. As for building instructions and the way the kit is organized, this in my opinion is where RotorWay shines brighter than just about any kit manufacturer in the world.
The 162F Kit
One of the most impressive aspects about RWI as a company is its attention to detail. When building the Exec 90, I lost count of how many people walked into the hangar and were amazed with the packaging of the kit. Most important: It’s all there. Builders of most fixed-wing kits know that they must plan on spending double or even triple the cost of the initial purchase to get the craft to fly–due mostly to the extra cost of the engine, propeller, avionics and instruments. Not so with RotorWay helicopter kits.
You get everything from a fully built, ready-to-bolt-in, dynamometer-run and calibrated engine, down to the rubber trim for the skid pants. RWI even supplies items like Loc-Tite and Clecos with Cleco pliers, and all flight instruments including airspeed, altimeter, vertical speed and the compass.
And, for a competitive price, RWI offers an optional avionics package that includes a radio, transponder, encoder, intercom and headsets. The only things missing to get your ship in the air are paint and a few hundred hours of building time. Speaking of options, there are very few. If you want to spray crops, land on water, or carry too much luggage, these are extra kits.
But for the typical flying ship, there’s really nothing left to decide. The Quick Kit version used to be an option, but no longer. Some pretty major stuff is now finished for you. For $60,850USD, you get all components and parts including a fully built tail boom, main blades finished and ready to paint and balance, a complete wiring harness ready to hook up, rotor hub ready to fly, all metal subassemblies final welded, horizontal and vertical stabs, and tailrotor blades ready for end caps and mounting, as well as a fully welded airframe right off the RotorWay jig. There is no longer any welding to be done by the builder.
All fiberglass parts are already laid up with a nice gelcoat ready for final trimming and finishing. You do very little gooey work! RotorWay claims 300 hours total building time with the current 162F helicopter kit, but I question that. I built the Exec 90 helicopter (with no Quick Kit option) in 650 hours, and that was with prior experience. So I’ll keep a log on this one and we’ll also talk with Mike along the way to find out his actual hours.
As you can see in a picture, the packaging of the kit is flawless. Literally every little part down to each nut and washer is organized. Each step of the kit has its own series of numbers that correspond to parts and its own set of instructions within the manual.
For example, each part of the airframe has a painted part number that corresponds to the numbers on the large blueprint drawings of the frame assembly. To assemble these large parts, you must of course use small parts such as bolts and washers. So the airframe assembly includes three vacuum-packed cards with each of the airframe’s nuts, bolts, washers and unique parts hermetically sealed on these cards.
Within each part card under the transparent plastic, there is also a printed picture of every item, and everything has its own part number. It would be obvious if something was missing because there would be a picture but no part! Once you see one of these kits, its packaging, and its instructions, you’ll have a very high standard to judge by. Very few kits–either fixed-wing or rotorcraft–match the Exec 162F package.
The instructions are three highly detailed loose leaf notebooks along with full-size building prints, and they take you step by step through each assembly, making you concentrate only on the task at hand. The 162F helicopter is a perfect example of something being just the sum of its parts. If you look at this helicopter as a step-by-step procedure, anyone with a hint of mechanical ability can build one. Heck, when I started my first Exec, I got the engine and couldn’t even point to the carburetor. Ask Tom and Stretch. I’m sure they used to dread my phone calls.
Devotion to Duty
Despite all of these accolades, however, I must point out that this is an endeavor that requires great dedication. In fact, full focused obsession wouldn’t hurt either. This is not a kit you can throw together in a few weekends and hope to be flying after the final turn of a wrench. Inherently, rotorcraft are for the guys who like to tweak, and the Exec 162F will be no different.
There are a couple of areas in construction where one can fudge the tolerances a little, but for the most part, your opportunities to say “Close enough!” are very few. And if you’re expecting to fly an easy 300 hours a year in this craft without much maintenance, forget about it. For safety’s sake, thorough preflight and postflight checks are mandatory. The machine is only as good and as safe as its builder/pilot-in-command.
Obviously a correctly and well-built by-the-book craft will perform and last longer than a slapped-together piece of junk where the word experimental is an understatement. Apathy combined with a “Hell, it was fine 2 hours ago!” attitude can be a killer. The safety record for this aircraft is excellent, and this machine has the potential to be nothing but pure fun.
But just like any helicopter, if something comes out of adjustment and is ignored, or if a key item isn’t maintained correctly, the results can be fatal. RotorWay’s maintenance manuals are excellent, and when followed correctly, they are well within commercial standards in regard to replacing parts long before fatigue or failure. So keep in mind that this is a homebuilt helicopter, and you have to enjoy turning a wrench just as much as you do buzzing a farm house. The two go hand in hand.
Go to Phoenix, Young Man
This brings up the last subject for this issue: Where does a guy learn how to do maintenance on the Exec 162F, much less fly the thing!? That gets to one of the best adventures in this whole endeavor! After you’re about 90% finished with your kit helicopter and before you mount the blades or fire it up, you head out to Phoenix and the RotorWay flight and maintenance school for a week of boot camp.
There you are treated to daily class instruction on how to set up, final rig and maintain these mechanical beasts. You also get 1.5 hours a day of flight instruction from one of RotorWay’s CFIs. Obviously 7.5 hours of instruction is not enough flight time to learn to fly, but for about 98% of RotorWay students, it’s enough for the all-important level of being a confident hoverer!
I started the school at RotorWay with absolutely no experience in general aviation as pilot or a passenger. I took a ride in a Bell 47 at the State Fair of Texas when I was four, but other than that, I couldn’t tell a Cessna from a Pitts or a Huey from a Bensen Gyrocopter.
Was RotorWay ready for a guy like me? I did have one significant advantage over most people, although some may scoff at this: As I mentioned earlier, I had been flying radio controlled helicopters for a few years. The mechanical workings, flight characteristics and even controls were almost mirrored in a smaller scale from a full-size helicopter, so helicopter knowledge, theory, and a little piloting skill were burned into my brain.
In fact, I might have known a little too much. From many a crunched model I knew what kind of disaster could instantly happen from one loose bolt or a miscalculated control input. And I still wanted to fly in one myself? Mom and Dad probably kick themselves for taking me to the fair that day.
At the first week of school I was fairly nervous. Here I’d spent a huge chunk of money buying this dumb kit, I’d spent hours upon hours building it, and I still didn’t know if I had what it took to fly one! But by Friday after 7.5 hours of putting my instructor through a boring painful hell, I was able to keep the ship a couple of feet off the ground and in one spot–or maybe two spots.
When you reach this point, you’re sent away with an endorsement in your logbook for Hover Only. You go home, final rig your own ship, and begin to flight test and hover. The student is encouraged to hover, hover, hover and get good at it before heading back to Arizona for Phase II.
The average hover-only pilot clocks somewhere around 25 to 30 hours before going back to Mecca. That may sound like a long time, but it’s the safest thing to do. Think about it: You’re a student and you’re a test pilot. If this is your first dealing with rotorcraft, you don’t have much experience in either area.
So while you’re improving your hovering skills, you’re also testing out your new helicopter and breaking it in. But you’re doing it from only a few inches off the ground! Can you test fly a fixed-wing at zero airspeed, 12 inches in the air.
Once you get the hover thing down, it’s back to Arizona for a week of climb-outs, forward flight, approaches, autorotations and emergency procedure training. Sound tough? Nope. If a guy can hover, he can do all the other stuff, and the view is better. (Most pilots claim that hovering is the most difficult skill in chopper flying.)
At the end of that week, you’re given another endorsement for all of the above. So far you have 15 hours of instruction. You need 5 more for check ride sign off, and this can be obtained during the third week at RotorWay with a company CFI prior to your final check ride. We’ll save details on this for later articles.
Come Back for More
I guess that’s enough for one issue. I hope that with this series we’ll grab some curious readers and maybe pique some untapped interest in experimental aircraft. Even if you have no desire to build a helicopter, I think you’ll find it a fascinating progression to see us start with boxes of parts and end up doing practice autorotations and air-to-air photography in the Southern California mountains!