Pilot Project

TRAVERSE CITY – Shares in private jets, you've heard of. But fractional ownership in helicopters? The quiet contender is gaining altitude in professional circles. According to Kevin Nelson, founder and president of Nelson AerodynamiX, there's good reason for that.

While owning a private jet might prove useful for companies and professionals who frequently travel cross-country, it isn't typically cost-effective for frequent but shorter trips within state lines or a particular region. Likewise, commuting by car isn't quick enough. And even if booking a ticket on a large carrier is priced right, the time spent and schedules available aren't always a perfect fit.

"Time is, after all, our most precious commodity," says Nelson. "The desire to save time, make key people more productive, and run businesses properly are the primary reasons most businesses have traditionally invested in private aviation."

Shared or not, helicopter ownership eliminates a lot of the drawbacks of private jets, commercial carriers and cars, says Nelson. First and foremost, the experience is truly "turn-key." The owner – or shareholder – can simply book the trip and show up to fly. For a businessperson, the time management, efficiency and productivity benefits of helicopter transportation makes for a convincing argument when you have to be in several different cities in a short period of time, says Nelson.

But is it affordable?

It certainly isn't cheap. But the increased demand for helicopter usage spurred by Nelson AerodynamiX's shared-ownership program – one of the few in Michigan – indicates that it is a price more and more professionals are finding worthwhile to pay.

Shared ownership works like this: You and seven partners purchase a share in a four-seater helicopter. (Larger versions are available, says Nelson.) On average, a new four-seater copter – a Robinson R44, for example – costs between $400,000 and $500,00.

Then, figure in the costs to maintain, service and support the usage: Helicopters are routinely serviced every 100 hours at a variable cost of approximately $4,000, depending on the service needs, and are then overhauled every 2,200 hours at a cost that can be as high as $190,000.

There are also the fixed costs, which cover insurance, pilots, hanger fees and variable costs such as fuel. Each individual's share of the annual total, including purchase price, would average between $45,000 and $50,000 a year. Not only is the initial capital cost dispersed, so are the expenses, says Nelson, noting that some clients make different arrangements based on how much each partner uses the vehicle.

One of Nelson's clients is Grand Rapids-based Eric Swanson. Swanson has set up his own helicopter-sharing program, Easy Rotor Helicopter. Swanson shares Nelson's enthusiasm for the machine and the benefits it brings to on-the-go business professionals.

He considers shared or solo ownership of a helicopter to be more an investment than an expense. He says the overhaul process often makes a helicopter appreciate in value. "As the overhaul happens either every 2,200 hours or 12 years, the result is essentially a 'new' helicopter," he says.

Nelson agrees, adding that making an informed purchase at the beginning can ensure the copter is a "very wise investment" – whether you retain ownership or sell.

He admits that even fractional ownership isn't for everyone. If you regularly fly long-distance, using a helicopter doesn't make sense; it's not designed for that type of usage. If you're only going to need it a couple times a year, again, probably not the most cost-efficient means of travel.

However, if a yearly fee of $50,000 balanced against the cost of time spent on the road and the delays inherent in commercial air travel add up for you, it may bear a closer look. "Modern aviation generally has become very intrusive," says Nelson. "When you compare that with hassle-free travel that's safe and secure and allows you to exploit more opportunities, people can enjoy a better balance between their business and personal lives." BN