Mini-500 Kit Copter Controversy

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SPECIAL REPORT. Everyone seems to agree there were problems with the original Mini-500 kit helicopter. Kit manufacturer Revolution Helicopter Corp. has come out with an improved "Bravo" model, and has issued a bunch of "ADs" against the earlier aircraft. Some owners are angry, contending RHC should pay to upgrade their Alpha models. RHC says that's unreasonable, and says it's already making the upgraded components available at cost. We examine both sides of the controversy.

EXCELSIOR SPRINGS, Missouri — From where Dennis Fetters sits, it's frustrating to try to deliver a low-cost, relatively simple kit helicopter only to have people get upset when problems arise, as they have been wont to do this year on the Mini-500 helicopter kits his company, Revolution Helicopter Corp., manufactures. "We work hard to put together the most-affordable helicopter kit possible and we strive to pick parts that have a long, 2,000-hour life expectancy," an upset Fetters said recently.

Dennis FettersBut from the PIC seat that Fred Stewart occupies as head of Mid-American Helicopters outside St. Louis, Fetters' largest dealer, the kit company hasn't made good on claims Stewart says Revolution makes in its literature. "The 2,000-hour thing is a joke," Stewart said. "Everybody I know has had cracks develop in their Alphas (the first Mini-500 airframes) in just a few hours — even the factory prototype," Stewart explained. "Transmission failures and clutch problems, rotor-head problems, airframe cracks. It's gotten to be too much."

The catalyst for the outcry of Stewart and several other Mini-500 owners: four must-comply service bulletins — RHC calls them ADs — from Aug. 19 to Sept. 3, 1997, three of them on consecutive days starting Aug. 19. "And we're told now the solution is to spend thousands to upgrade to the Bravo components Dennis is marketing now in the new airframe."

Fetters counters that RHC met the conditions of its contracts with all of its approximately 400 customers — including Stewart and the others. "They all have to sign the same contract that outlines what the warranty is, the work involved, their responsibilities as builders and mine as the kit supplier," Fetters explained. He stressed that RHC tries to help out customers with problems on the Mini-500s, even when the ship usually is out of warranty. "Then some them come back at you when things don't work out — and it's almost always an avoidable problem, something of their own making," he said. "Like failing to properly balance the rotor and transmission systems. That's what caused many of the problems people are complaining about now."

Mini-500 AlphaThere are other complaints sounded by Stewart and echoed by other builders, complaints about bad transmissions with too-soft gears that broke, correlator-linkage breakage, cracked and broken transmission mounts. And a review or the various in-house AD letters and service bulletins does seem to indicate that the company has struggled with problems born of poor design, substandard components from vendors, and others that have helped keep Fetters and company busy correcting. Or at least trying to correct.

Both Fetters and his detractors claim the ships fly well, as promised. RHC supplied AVweb with a variety of endorsements from flight-test articles and owners. But this much is conceded by both sides: making a safe, sturdy, inexpensive helicopter out of Revolution's $25,000 kit is more involved than it appears on the surface. And there has been a pot of problems, a stew of builders' and of vendors' making, and even of Revolution's making.

Corrective commerce…

Where the opposing parties part company is in their view of whether Fetters has done enough, quickly enough, to help his builders as painlessly as possible.

Mini-500 BravoFor example, Fetters concedes that numerous problems have surfaced that prompted changes, including problems with the main transmissions. Fetters contends it was a vendor problem — and a builder problem. The vendor supplied incorrect gears; the builders didn't adjust and balance the mounting correctly. Fetters did what he could about the vendor problem and found another; he also upgraded the parts on the Bravo model and offered Alpha owners the option of upgrading their clutches and transmissions and rotor parts. It's a set of options that totals more than $3,000. And those are special prices RHC offered its customers on a "while-supplies-last" basis. The costs would be even higher later. "I couldn't keep my prices low enough for people to afford these kits if I gave away parts," Fetters explained.

Said Stewart and a number of builders, "We shouldn't have to pay for mistakes of Revolution's vendors. "I paid for those parts once," said builder Chuck Van Thomme, whose Mini-500 suffered from the transmission problem. Van Thomme had an expensive transmission problem — the gears failed, because, he said, Rockwell tests found the gear material too soft.

Fetters maintains Van Thomme didn't follow the instructions for adjusting the "prep-assembled" main transmission and clutch assembly. Regardless, Van Thomme was offered the special price for replacement parts, Fetters maintains, even through the kit was out of warranty.

Similar dissatisfaction surrounds the admonition that the solution for some problems is the Bravo components upgrade. "We were told this was a 2,000-hour product, other than the engine," Stewart said. "I don't know anybody whose Mini-500 got to 100 hours without the airframe cracking — even the company prototype."

Fetters concedes the RHC prototype also developed cracks that had to be repaired. But he disputes that 2,000-hour expectation of people who remember the advertising literature but not terms of the purchase contract.

"We don't guarantee the airframe or any of the parts for 2,000 hours," Fetters said. "We say the individual parts, except for the engine, are designed to last 2,000 hours. "How well the parts hold up depends on the quality and attention to detail of the builder, and we've had all sorts of problems with people who deviated from the plans or the builder's manual, call for help and not tell us about how they deviated from the plans."

Fetters has a point. Virtually every kitplane maker — and there are scores marketing more than 450 individual models — stresses that adherence to its plans is the only way a builder can be assured that the finished product's strength, integrity and performance match the company prototype. And that admonition applies to construction, balancing, ground and flight testing — the entire process the kit manufacturer outlined.

BalancingWhere the Mini-500 is concerned, Fetters explained, the most crucial aspect of construction comes after the helicopter is constructed and ready to break in and balance. Hours of ground operation and precise balancing steps are required to assure the smooth functioning of all rotating components. Otherwise, any remaining vibration is cause for concern, a breakage in waiting. "That's why we offer factory balancing to our customers," Fetters stressed. In fact, RHC's new post-assembly 90-day/40-hour warranty requires pre-inspection and preliminary balancing by an authorized RHC service center.

Stewart countered that this doesn't explain why Revolution itself continued to have problems with its prototype and demonstrator ship — or why Stewart's own demo helicopter continued to have problems after the factory balanced it.

Don't try this at home…

What may explain why some Mini-500s have had problems even at the hands of experienced, diligent builders: flying habits.

Many a spectator and prospect has been wowed by the impressive flight demonstrations factory and dealers' pilots fly at events like Oshkosh. But apparently what makes good impressions also makes for airframe damage, including the breakage of the main transmission mount on a ship performing radical demos at Oshkosh. Viewers likely left with the impression that the high-load maneuverings were no sweat for the Mini-500.

Not so, says Stewart on his dealership's Web page — a statement he wrote after talking to RHC staff. Now the Bravo airframe, with its improved powertrain components and heavier frame…

Still, high-load flying doesn't explain problems like the failed gears Van Thomme and others suffered, Van Thomme said. Both Stewart and Van Thomme claim they followed the book. Fetters says they couldn't have.

Worse, still, many builders said, is receiving the "airworthiness directives" RHC voluntarily delivers to its customers when a problem surfaces only to find out that parts aren't available — or that new parts are required, sometimes expensive, sometimes inexpensive, but otherwise unavailable.

But worst of all was receiving the letter offering the Bravo airframe upgrade touted as solving all the problems of the Alpha frame. "How would you feel if you spent all that money, had things break before it was out of test flight, and be told that a new airframe is recommended," said Van Thomme. Said Stewart, "I think it's unconscionable that we've spent all this money one a product that was supposed to last 2,000 hours and be told we have to spend more money because of things like bad gears that Dennis sold us."

Communications conflict…

Another complaint from Stewart and others is that RHC sometimes finds a problem long before builders are informed. Fetters responds that RHC goes farther than it has to — and farther than other kit makers — to keep its customers appraised of problems and improvements and upgrade options. The flurry of paperwork RHC laid on its customers this summer seems ample confirmation that Fetters takes safety information seriously.

RHC also informs builders of optional changes that can improve the Mini-500's flying qualities. In addition to the four "mandatory service bulletins RHC issued in August and September, the company also sent builders two notices of improvements to the cyclic linkage and collective hand grip.

But critics say some problems aren't communicated as quickly or completely as they should be. Stewart told a story about RHC's own prototype suffering a break in the correlator control during the EAA convention in Oshkosh back during the summer. "They had that piece welded and painted up before the crowds showed the next day but they didn't tell anyone," he said. "A few weeks later one of my customers had his correlator break in-flight and he had to make an emergency autorotation to land. Fortunately, the pilot had thousands of hours in helicopters.

Fetters confirmed the Oshkosh story and contended that no business in its right mind is going to broadcast information about a problem at the giant airshow. "I'm not suicidal," he said. Besides, Fetters contends, it's in the builders' best interests that RHC take time to get the big picture, to learn what caused a problem, determine whether it's likely to repeat in field-built ships, and craft a well-engineered fix before sending an AD.

"Otherwise, we'd be telling them we've found a problem but they've got to ground their ship until we have a fix," Fetters said. "And you don't see the big airplane companies doing that."

CQI at RHC?

RHC factoryFetters has been diligently working to solve all the Mini-500's problems and end some of the confusion that seems to exist among his builders, something of a "continuous quality improvement" effort which has already effected the upgraded Bravo model. Revolution recently added an optional warranty that doesn't begin until the FAA signs off the helicopter for flight tests to complement the 90-day warranty that starts when the buyer takes delivery of the kit.

The helicopter kit maker also has offered at-cost pricing on Bravo-level powertrain components as well as free and at-cost replacement parts needed to meet its in-house AD requirements. Unfortunately, there have been times when the only replacement parts available were the same type as ones targeted for replacement.

"I want people to succeed, to be happy with their Mini-500 and to enjoy it for years to come," Fetters said. "We've got hundreds of endorsements from satisfied builders and great endorsements from the magazines that have written about the Mini-500. We build the best product we can for the lowest price we can and that means a lot of the responsibility for the success rests with the builder's efforts and attention to our instructions."