RotorWay Exec 162F Helicopter
This $60,000 two-place kit-built helicopter has come a long, long way in its two decades of evolutionary improvement. We visited the RotorWay factory in Arizona with modest expectations, but came away mightily impressed with both the company and its latest-and-greatest flying machine.
As the America West Boeing 737 made its lazy final approach into Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, I wondered to myself how I was going to be able to make a fair evaluation of a two-person kit-built helicopter when almost all of my rotary wing flying time had been accumulated in large, military, jet-powered machines: HH-1Hs and HH-3Es plus a smattering of experience in OH-58s and its civilian cousin, the Bell Jet Ranger. Out of curiosity, I had gotten myself checked out in a similar-size production helicopter (guess which?)…and frankly I was not overly impressed. Nevertheless, here I was in Phoenix to visit the RotorWay helicopter factory in neighboring Chandler, Arizona, with the assigned task of making a fair evaluation of the new RotorWay 162F helicopter. In the name of objective journalism, I just made up my mind to ignore any preconceived prejudices that I may have brought with me and simply make the fairest evaluation that I possibly could.
The editorial staff at AVweb had decided that the time had come to expand our coverage of experimental aircraft area, one of the fastest growing segments of the newly-revitalized general aviation industry. What better way than to go out and do a series of review flights on some of the more popular kit-builts available on the market today. RotorWay was selected rather serendipitously: at Oshkosh '96, the RotorWay exhibit tent was right next the Cessna Pilots Association tent, which wound up being AVweb's base of operations at the fly-in. Naturally, we got to talking to the RotorWay folks, the subject of our plans came up, and we were immediately invited to visit Chandler.
As it happened, the only person with any rotary wing experience on the AVweb staff was me. So there I was, 1500+ hours of USAF Air Rescue experience, headed to Arizona to try to find out what this homebuilt rotary wing phenomenon was all about.
As my taxicab pulled up to the RotorWay factory I guess was little surprised to find it to be such an ultra-new and modern facility. For some reason I had imagined that a "homebuilt" factory would be much less impressive than, say, the Piper plant that I had visited once. I imagined wrong. RotorWay's 37,000 sq. ft. facility houses all of the company's manufacturing, sales and training conveniently under one large roof. While not as large as Piper's plant, it was every bit as "for real" as any I had ever seen. It even has its own in-house flight training department-complete with helipads-so that new RotorWay owners can get up to speed and checked out in rotary-winged flight and the operation and maintenance of their new helicopter right here under the watchful of RotorWay's own professional staff of in-house instructors and inspectors. (Tuition for this in-depth training program is a $3,500.00 option.)
My guided tour of the complex was conducted by Suzy Bell, RotorWay's public relations specialist, and RotorWay general manager Brent Marshall. Their pride in their new facility was both obvious and justified. I found the facilities neat, orderly and spotless, with hallways lined with framed pictures of RotorWay owners standing proudly next to their completed flying machines. The whole atmosphere speaks very clearly to the concept of a company that takes their position as an aircraft manufacturer very seriously.
I had the impression that kit aircraft manufacturers obtained most of their components and subassemblies from multiple outside subcontractors, and that their primary function was simply to make sure that all of the right pieces were included in each kit. Wrong again! I was really surprised to find out that every part of the RotorWay kit was manufactured right on site, even the rotor blades and the engine.
My background includes some experience in quality management systems, so naturally I asked Brent Marshall to see what methods RotorWay had implemented to accomplish this critically important function. I was gratified to learn that the company had long ago implemented a fully-functional QC program complete with well-documented standards and managers with clearly-drawn lines of authority and responsibility. I was getting more and more impressed by the minute.
I was also struck by the technology that went in to these helicopters. One of the more remarkable elements of this entire package is the electronic engine control and monitoring system which RotorWay developed itself. They call it a FADEC, an acronym for "Fully Automated Digital Electronic Control." The latest RotorWay model 162F utilizes the latest in fuel injection, electronic ignition and computer monitoring. The FADEC processing unit provides the RotorWay-built powerplant with the correct fuel/air ratio for optimum performance and fuel economy. In addition, this remarkable system lets the pilot monitor all vital engine performance parameters via warning lights and a cockpit-mounted digital display. It incorporates extensive operational redundancy: even in the event of total failure of the electronic control unit, a backup system engages automatically for uninterrupted operation. This is the sort of technology you'd expect to find in just a handful of advanced military and transport aircraft, and frankly I was amazed to find it being used on a two-place piston-powered kit-built helicopter.
It was now time for the flight test itself. As I walked out to the helicopter with senior RotorWay instructor John O'Neil, who was to be my designated airborne escort for this flight, I couldn't help but wonder about whether this diminutive craft could accomdate the two of us comfortably, especially given that my beam is a bit broader than it was in my Air Force flying days.
Once again I was pleasantly surprised. As I climbed into the into the 162F, I found that there was more than ample room available for comfortable ingress and egress, with or without the doors attached, and the visibility was outstanding. RotorWay claims that their cabin can comfortably fit pilots up to six-foot-four, and from what I saw, I don't have any trouble believing it.
The walk-around inspection was straightforward, with no unusual quirks or surprises. I was comforted by the fact that most of the rotor hub assembly was easily visible for thorough inspection (any of you rotary-wing types will know what I mean if you've ever flown a machine where the rotorhead was inaccessible or shrouded from convenient inspection. (Any H3 drivers out there?)
I followed along as John went through the starting checklist, and before long we were ready to take to the air. The first thing that I noticed as the quiet 162F powerplant came to life and the rotor clutch was engaged was that the vibration level was as smooth as any two-bladed helicopter I had ever flown. I assume that the elastomeric bearing design of the rotor hub must have something to do with this.
Ah, but how will it fly? That answer was forthcoming very quickly as I took the controls and lifted the 162F to a three-foot hover. I honestly couldn't help thinking that this little machine had the feel, stability and control response of a much larger helicopter. With the standard design of its conveniently-located cyclic control stick, I found the RotorWay Exec 162F to be a total dream to handle in the hover, through the transition, and in cruising flight.
We did the normal cross-section of hovering maneuvers, turns and ground track exercises, all of which were accomplished with normal and straightforward control inputs. This is a surprisingly stable machine to hover, and exhibits no unfriendly tendencies at all. There was plenty of power available in the climb, even with two full-sized adults on board. The published rate of climb of 1000 FPM was not at all difficult to achieve at 26'' MP, and normal cruise settled down right around 95 mph as advertised. The typical two-per-rev vibration-common to some extent in all two bladed rotor systems-was very well-mannered in the 162F and, quite frankly, barely noticeable.
In addition, I really liked the way it stayed in trim throughout the flight and did not require any unusual control inputs to urge it to remain so all the way up to and including its maximum published top speed of 115 MPH. Steep turns in either direction required no unusual control inputs and were smooth throughout. And I was really impressed with the way that the RotorWay design was able to combine big helicopter control feel with small helicopter maneuverability and agility. This is really a fun machine to strap on.
Not much to say about the autorotation except to watch your left hand when you lower the collective. The amount of clearance between your hand and the bottom of the door frame is a little tight so you need to be a little careful to avoid a skinned knuckle, but the ship handled very nicely throughout the approach and flare. The power recovery (highly recommended for all of the obvious reasons, even for you former Army types) was easy to manage and presented no directional control challenges to speak of. Just remember to stay ahead of the maneuver (as in any helicopter) and you'll be OK, as long as you don't let your rotor speed get too low. As with all lightweight helicopters, the 162F has a low inertia rotor system, and is a little unforgiving of pilot neglect in this very critical area.
I'm pleased to say that my overall evaluation of the 162F was very positive. It is a very beautiful design that is combined with some truly outstanding systems and components that would be hard for many production helicopters to match.
Can I Build It?
But what about us all-thumbs, mechanically-challenged types that would love to build and fly our own helicopter, but find it a major challenge to replace a hinge on a bathroom door? Well, it appears that the folks at RotorWay thought of us as well when putting their program together. Along with each neatly bubble wrapped, carded and clearly indexed (mostly pre-fabricated) parts delivery package, you get a beautifully-done, professionally-produced video tape showing you every trick and detail involved in that particular phase of construction.
In addition, most of the hard stuff is already done for you at the factory. This includes all of the welding, which is factory-performed to quality-controlled production standards, a major safety advantage in my judgement. RotorWay claims that the entire build process for the 162F kit should take a homebuilder "with average construction skills" (whatever that means) about 300 hours. This translates to about 7.5 weeks if you were to work on it on a full-time basis (40 hours per week), which means that building this kit doesn't have to become a lifelong ordeal.
For all of us wannabe helicopter owners with limited budgets, the RotorWay Exec 162F could be the answer to our dreams. Financing of the $60,850 kit is available through Greentree, and that price includes everything except paint, avionics and training.
A full-color information package on the 162F is available from RotorWay for $15.00, and a video is also available for $15.00. (You can get both for $25.00. Add an extra $5.00 for overseas shipping.) You can order by email, and they take MasterCard and VISA.
If you would like to get in touch with the RotorWay folks in Chandler, here's how:
Phone: (602) 961-1001
FAX: (602) 961-1514