Government: Admin Costs are Zero for Citizens

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A friend posted the following on Facebook today:

I have to purchase private health insurance for my family. It’s bad enough that I have to do this with after tax dollars unlike people who get it through their employer, but now I am forced to deal with the incompetence of our government as well. I had a very good plan, not the “sub-standard plans” Obama speaks of, because I already live in a state where health insurance is mandatory and those types of plans are not offered. But my Romneycare wasn’t good enough for Obamacare. I was told months ago that our family’s plan would be cancelled on March 31st. In fact they called me approximately 3 times a day for 3 months to remind me of this. And not because it wasn’t good enough, but because they needed to charge me about $150 more per month for the exact same plan. I would have to re-enroll for the privilege of paying more money. What choice do I have? NONE- it’s the law. I got the bill for my April premium and was ready to pay it, when [Massachusetts General Hospital] called to say that an appointment on Wednesday for my daughter [to see why she is waking up screaming at night] wouldn’t be covered because the people working for our government had cancelled my plan as of March 1st – not March 31st as they had told me on a daily basis. So, now I’m left with no insurance for the month of March, and when I called their answer was “hmm..I’ve never seen this before, but sadly there is nothing we can do.” I’ve tried multiple times to call another department of the Health Connector [Massachusetts version of healthcare.gov] and apply for a waiver to get coverage for March, but the line is always busy. So, thank you Mr. President and everyone in Congress who voted for this legislation. You’ve wasted my entire morning dealing with this and left me without coverage. Could you please be the ones to wake up with my five-month-old daughter 10 times a night until I can get an appointment when I have insurance?

[slightly edited by me]

I’m wondering if the explanation for all of this is that people routinely underestimate administration costs. I have done this in our helicopter business. I would price Groupons so that we would break even when customers showed up to take an introductory ground school and flying lesson. Then we would lose money because customers would call the front desk to reschedule, ask questions, etc. We could tell how much money we were losing because we had to pay the front desk workers.

With most government programs there is no mechanism for recording the hours wasted by citizens complying with laws and regulations. As far as government workers are concerned, the admin cost on the citizen side might be zero. So that makes it possible for bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. to be celebrating the success of a program while citizens in Massachusetts are experiencing a reduced quality of life.

[In the case of my friend, her quality of life is definitely reduced by the existence of health insurance. Her family of four is large enough that costs will be smoothed out to some extent. She and her husband have sufficient savings and extended family support to absorb even the expenses for a catastrophic illness or accident. So she would be much better off swiping her credit card every time she consumes medical services, the same way that she pays for groceries and restaurant meals. But she can't do that because (a) she has already been forced to pay for health insurance (about $20,000 per year for a family of four), and (b) providers would charge her 2-10X as much if she were paying individually.]

 

If there is a Russian in your life…

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… I recommend reading Little Failure: A Memoir (I’m halfway through).

A family vacation in which the decision to emigrate was made:

Over a bowl of tomato soup, a stout Siberian woman told my mother of the senseless beating her eighteen-year-old son had endured after his conscription by the Red Army, a beating that had cost him a kidney. The woman took out a photo of her boy. He resembled a moose of great stature crossbred with an equally colossal ox. My mother took one look at this fallen giant and then at her tiny, wheezing son, and soon enough we were on a plane bound for Queens.

Here’s the Soviet emigre engineer encountering an American college:

On his first visit to Oberlin my father stood on a giant vagina painted in the middle of the quad by the campus lesbian, gay, and bisexual organization, oblivious to the rising tide of hissing and camp around him, as he enumerated to me the differences between laser-jet and ink-jet printers, specifically the price points of the cartridges. If I’m not mistaken, he thought he was standing on a peach.

Soviet health care in the 1970s:

[the author as an infant is] revived, but the next day I start sneezing. My anxious mother (let us count the number of times “anxious” and “mother” appear in close proximity throughout the rest of this book) calls the local poly-clinic and demands a nurse. The Soviet economy is one-fourth the size of the American one, but doctors and nurses still make house calls. A beefy woman appears at our door. “My son is sneezing, what do I do?” my mother hyperventilates. “You should say, ‘Bless you,’ ” the nurse instructs.

Russian grandmothers:

Behind every great Russian child, there is a Russian grandmother who acts as chef de cuisine, bodyguard, personal shopper, and PR agent. You can see her in action in the quiet, leafy neighborhood of Rego Park, Queens, running after her thick-limbed grandson with a dish of buckwheat, fruit, or farmer’s cheese—“Sasha, come back, my treasure! I have plums for you!”

An immigrant trying to understand American TV:

The Brady Bunch: Why are Mr. and Mrs. Brady always so happy even though Mrs. Brady has clearly already had a razvod with her previous husband and now they are both raising children who are not theirs? Also, what is the origin of their white slave Alice? Three’s Company: What does it mean, “gay”? Why does everyone think the blond girl is so pretty, when it is clearly the brunette who is beautiful? Gilligan’s Island: Is it really possible that a country as powerful as the United States would not be able to locate two of its best citizens lost at sea, to wit, the millionaire and his wife? Also, Gilligan is comical and bumbling like an immigrant, but people seem to like him. Make notes for further study? Emulate? Planet of the Apes: If Charlton Heston is a Republican, are the monkeys Soviet?

Dreams in the new country:

There are three things I want to do…: go to Florida, where I understand that our nation’s best and brightest had built themselves a sandy, vice-filled paradise; have a girl tell me that she likes me in some way; and eat all my meals at McDonald’s.

More: read the book

American reaction to Crimea situation is based on principle or expediency?

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I’m still bewildered by the news coverage of the situation in Crimea and our politicians speaking confidently about the situation over there. Now it seems that the Crimeans (about as many as live in Pittsburgh, Denver, or Baltimore) will vote on whether or not they wish to secede from Ukraine (nytimes). If they do vote to secede, does American have a principled reaction ready or will we decide whom to support based on expediency or something else?

Let’s review where we’ve stood on issues of secession…

  • 1776: British subjects in 13 colonies decided to secede from the British Empire. We were for it.
  • 1830s: A majority of people in Texas wanted to secede from Mexico. We were for it.
  • 1940-present: People in Taiwan wanted to secede from China. We were for it but lately our support has wavered.
  • 1861: Southerners decided to secede from the U.S. We were against it.
  • 1974: Some people in Northern Cyprus wanted to secede from Cyprus. We are against it (official State Department page).
  • 1990s: Albanians in Kosovo wanted to secede from Serbia. We were for it.
  • 2010s: A majority of people in South Sudan wanted to secede from Sudan. We were for it.

Are we decided to be for or against these secessions based on a single high principle, based on competing principles, or based on expediency and self-interest?

Crimean troubles show why Wikipedia is better than newspapers

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I don’t know enough about Ukraine, Russia, or Crimea to comment intelligently on the current conflict. What I can say is that reading news coverage about Crimea has not been helpful for learning more. The Wikipedia article on Crimea, on the other hand, shows and explains a lot better why this territory of 2.5 million people (fewer than the Boston metro area) has become the subject of a dispute. Unlike news media coverage, Wikipedia explains that this territory was part of Russia until its 1954 transfer to Ukraine (then a Soviet Republic) and then in 1991 was “upgraded” to an “Autonomous Soviety Socialist Republic” shortly before the Soviet Union collapsed. Since the Soviet Union broke up there seems to have been a dispute regarding governance that was never fully resolved and that few in the West were aware of.

My only criticism of the Wikipedia article is that it says that Crimea is about 10,000 square miles in size but does not compare that to a U.S. state or a European country. It turns out that this is roughly the same area as Massachusetts or Vermont and about 15 percent smaller than Belgium.

Can anyone come up with an article from a mainstream newspaper that includes the above facts for context?

[And separately does this conflict show that we are over-investing in our military? Our president has asked Russia to withdraw her troops from Crimea but the Russians are not complying. For about ten years we have tried to get the Afghanis and Iraqis to do what we said and they did not comply. I suppose that it is always possible to argue that it could have been worse without the investment, e.g., "The Mexicans and Canadians would have invaded if we didn't spend so much." (see these charts from the Washington Post) But that reasoning would also support a military budget of 50 or even 80 percent of GDP ("you can never be too safe" and "would you really risk your freedom just so that you could buy a new Honda Accord or move your family from an apartment into a house?"). Wikipedia (my source for everything now!) says that there are about 2.2 million Americans in the military, either active duty or reserve. Compared to the other countries that actually isn't too crazy huge (sortable table in Wikipedia), but it is crazy expensive and it is tough to think of a situation where we'd want to send 2.2 million Americans somewhere to fight a war.]

Autorotations: The Bible is Wrong

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The most important thing that I learned about at Heli-Expo wasn’t on the show floor and I decided that it merited its own posting. I attended a two-hour seminar on autorotations. It seems that the stress on lowering the collective in the event of an engine failure is misplaced and that this emphasis starts in the FAA’s Rotorcraft Flying Handbook, i.e., the Bible as far as Private helicopter students are concerned.

Flying a helicopter may well be the most dangerous job in the U.S. (TIME magazine puts “pilots” in at third most dangerous but they are lumping in scheduled airline pilots, whose jobs are not hazardous at all, with helicopter pilots and Alaskan bush pilots) A real-world emergency in which an autorotation becomes necessary is not common but being prepared may mean the difference between life and death.

I decided to write an article on how to teach autorotations, incorporating the best ideas from the seminar.

Heli-Expo Second Day Notes

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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…

 

Medium Format Emperor Has No Clothes (Leica S reviewed by DxOMark)

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Have you been wondering what it would be like it you had $50,000 to spend on a serious professional camera system and could give your consumer-grade Nikon to a teenager? DxOMark delivers an unsentimental review of the Leica S. The Leica turns up such bad numbers that one is forced to ask if the people buying and using the Leica S are all suffering from Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome or if the things that DxOMark are measuring are not well correlated with perceived image quality.

Related:

Helicopter Pilot Job Market

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Based on discussions with employers at Heli-Expo, the helicopter pilot job market is stable right now. Recruiters are working frantically to fill maintenance jobs with qualified mechanics, but pilots are fairly easy to find.

It is difficult for flight instructors to find jobs and the pay is minimal, reflecting the fact that this is for most people an on-the-job training position in preparation for one of the “real jobs” below.

Instructors in piston helicopters can get jobs flying sightseeing turbine machines in the Grand Canyon or Alaska as soon as they meet the 1000-hour minimum that these operators require under their voluntary safety programs. Turbine time is not necessary but a congenial personality is important. Pay works out to about $20 per hour, much of which will be spent on food and housing at the seasonal locale.

Once a pilot has an ATP certificate and 500-1000 hours of turbine time (presumably from 1-2 years flying with a sightseeing operator) he or she is ready for the emergency medical service operators (“EMS” or “HEMS”) or the offshore (to the oil and gas rigs) operators. These jobs tend to pay about $60,000 per year for VFR pilots and $70,000 per year for pilots in IFR operators (where you fly through clouds), with higher pay for those willing to live in an Arab or African country. In other words, when the rescue helicopter is called in by the fire department, the person who flies the $4-6 million machine through the dark cloudy night is earning about one third as much as the firefighter who made the phone call (LA firefighters were paid an average of $142,000 in 2013 (LA Times) but pension and other benefits are probably worth at least another $100,000 given that retirement age is 50 and benefits are 90 percent of pay).

The highest-paid helicopter flying jobs in the U.S., considering the value of pensions and other benefits, are with government employers, especially state and local agencies such as police departments. These jobs also have the best working hours. However, these jobs often cannot be obtained by virtue of having flying skills and experience. One must first become a police officer and then get trained, at the local government’s expense, to be a pilot. The Massachusetts State Police is probably one of the best places for a young person to get started. Airbus Helicopters looked through all 50 states for the most lavishly equipped Airbus/Eurocopter that they could display at the show. They found their machine in a Massachusetts State Police hangar. The EC135 was flown to Los Angeles for the show and will be flown back at the end of this week. Here are some photos:

[Look at the data plate on the helicopter. If you're a Massachusetts resident make sure to put two extra stamps on your state income tax return this year. Remember that the money is going all the way to Germany.]

Related: Government Accounting Office report on “Current and Future Availability of Airline Pilots” (February 28, 2014).

Interesting helicopter stuff (First Day of Heli-Expo)

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Here are some impressions from the first day of Heli-Expo…

If you tend to carry an iPad with you on helicopter flights, the Gyronimo weight and balance performance app is a thing of real beauty and practicality.

If you’re wondering “What could be dumber than putting someone who doesn’t know how to fly a helicopter into a real helicopter?” then http://www.heliflighttrainer.com/ (site seems to be down right now) is for you. This is a standard industrial robot holding a Robinson R22 cabin with two people inside. Thus did essentially one person, Andreas Margreiter of Austria, manage to build a full-motion flight simulator. It costs in the neighborhood of $1.5 million, which is a lot more than an airworthy R22 ($150,000 average) but a lot less than a standard full-motion sim.

In an industry that is notorious for its lack of innovation, the Marenco SKYe SH09 (they could use some help from an American naming consultant) is inspiring. Some crazy Swiss people decided to go head to head with Airbus’s EC145, one of the world’s most popular helicopter. The SKYe SH09 has an all-composite body, fantastic visibility, and a single Honeywell engine (made in Canada currently but with additional production scheduled for Switzerland). It holds 8 people, including the pilot and has big doors in the back plus a safe fenestron tail rotor. So it should be ideal for medevac flights but will cost a little over $3 million instead of the nearly $6 million that people are paying for the EC145. Due to the ease of collaborating with the relatively nimble Swiss aviation authorities, the company expects European certification in 2015 with FAA certification taking an additional year (a flight school owner at the convention said “Everyone time I have to deal with the FAA I want to just take out a gun and shoot myself.”) The company has already sold 56 machines and will be profitable if it can deliver the machines ordered thus far. They are targeting production of 90 helicopters per year.

If you’re not happy with the results from sticking your smart phone up against the bubble, the designer of the Cineflex gimbal mount has come out of retirement in New Zealand with the the Shotover F1. For $350,000 plus a 4K camera and a $50,000 cinema lens, you too can make some very stable home movies from the helicopter. Don’t forget that you’ll need an A Star plus a mount to go with it; the ball is sadly much too large to fit on a Robinson (entrepreneurs: there should be a good market opportunity for a stabilized ball that can be mounted on a Robinson R44, which is much cheaper to operate per hour than turbine ships; acceptable 4K results should be obtainable with a compact camera such as the Blackmagic or maybe even some of the mirrorless systems).

Avidyne was there with some new avionics that can compete with Garmin’s GPS, radios, transponders, and audio panels. I’m not sure who is going to buy these because they are priced roughly the same as Garmin’s industry-standard products.

Pilatus was there despite the fact that they have nothing to do with helicopters. Pilatus is the world leader in turboprops, a position formerly occupied by the American company Beechcraft with its King Air (twin-engine) and single-engine military trainers. Pilatus introduced the PC-12 in the mid-1990s, which can handle the King Air’s job with just one engine. Beech decided not to invest in updating its design and slowly lost market share. Pilatus also leapfrogged Beech in making single-engine military trainer airplanes. The U.S. military couldn’t bear the idea of using an American design but they also couldn’t admit that they were going to import all of their planes from Switzerland. The solution turned out to be that Beech would assemble the Pilatus design here in the U.S. and give it the name of “Texan II”. This wasn’t enough to keep the company solvent and they went bankrupt in 2012. Now Pilatus is out to destroy what remains of the U.S. jet manufacturing business (Embraer has already out-competed U.S. companies in many categories) with their PC-24 design, due to be delivered starting in 2017. This is a 17,750 lb. twin turbojet that can operate from 2700′ runways (in theory) and operate from dirt/grass runways. It holds up to 10 people, including the two front seats, and is certified for single-pilot operation. About $9 million.

The job fair for pilots was mostly medevac operators looking for high-time pilots. Thanks to insurance companies and Medicare willing to pay $20,000 for a 15-minute flight, there are a lot of pilots getting paid to surf the Web for 12-hour shifts. (I have heard that the state of Kentucky has more medevac helicopters than the entire country of Canada, for example.) A sightseeing operator reported that it was getting tougher to find qualified candidates: “It isn’t hard to find people with 1000 hours of experience, but once you get beyond the monkey skills of manipulating the controls the average person we interview is less qualified every year. We need people who can show up prepared for an interview, who will show up to work reliably, who can interact with customers. Those are getting fewer and farther between.” (This echoed a manufacturer’s technical support manager that I talked to previously. He said that every year the mechanics who show up to be trained are less conscientious and he therefore thinks that is becoming less safe to fly in American-maintained aircraft.)

Flight schools affiliated with four-year universities are busy. A few years ago the federal government began offering veterans 100 percent payment for flight training as long as they were also getting a college degree. So instead of paying 40 percent of a low cost at an independent flight school the veteran would pay 0 percent of a much higher cost, plus have the government pay a four-year college’s tuition and his or her own housing and food expenses. One of the features of this program is that the veteran can fly in any machine operated by the school. So instead of learning instrument flying in a $250/hour Robinson R22 or $350/hour Robinson R44, the veteran might be learning in a $1000/hour Jet Ranger. I asked one school owner “Could you get a Gulfstream G-650 and rent it out for $10,000 per hour as the basic instrument trainer?” “Absolutely,” was the response. Bristow Academy in Florida is doing contract training for budget-minded foreign militaries around the world. The students learn the basics of helicopter flying in a combination of $300/hour Schweizer 300s and $1000/hour Jet Rangers before heading home to fly more complex machines. I asked how much the U.S. military spent to train beginners in Jet Rangers. It is apparently over $4000 per hour. I asked if Bristow had approached the U.S. Army offering to do for them what it was doing for the foreigners, cutting the cost to taxpayers by more than 75%. “They weren’t interested,” was the response.

Anaheim may not be considered the most attractive SoCal neighborhood by locals, but the palm trees are a welcome contrast to a Boston February. Our drive from LAX to Anaheim was painful. If anyone reading this Weblog contrives to become dictator of the U.S., please make it illegal for any phone navigation app provider not to highlight every In n Out Burger along a route. I’m staying in Disney’s flagship Grand Californian hotel (about $400 per night, including tax). Speakeasy says that my room’s wired Internet speed varies between 270 kbps and 900 kbps for download (the WiFi network is almost completely non-functional, with a staff member explaining that “Apple devices are too advanced for our network”). Here’s looking out the window from a room that Disney staff characterize as either a “garden view” or a “woods view”:

Whoever at Disney thought up the idea of calling this a “woods view” could probably come up with a much better name for that SKYe SH09 helicopter!

 

Bell is back in the light helicopter business

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One of the most interesting announcements at Heli-Expo was by Bell Helicopter. Texas-based Bell was an important innovator in the 1950s and 1960s with the Huey and Jet Ranger, two of the most-produced helicopters ever. The company lost its low-end civilian business to Robinson and much of its high-end civilian business to Eurocopter, but remained fat and happy with U.S. military contracts. When Eurocopter (now “Airbus Helicopter”) won a 2006 competition for the next generation of U.S. Army machines with the EC145 “Lakota”, Bell seemed destined to end up as a parts and service organization for a legacy fleet.

With the announcement of the Bell 505 Jet Ranger X at $1.07 million, Bell is back in the market. If you can live with four seats, the Robinson R44 remains a much better value, but the five-seat Bell 505 is very attractive compared to the five-seat Robinson R66, notably because the Bell incorporates an idiot-proof FADEC engine, which prevents owners/operators from doing $50,000 of damage with a shut-down or start-up.

The Bell 505 gets rid of the center column that breaks up the Jet Ranger cabin. It has a flat floor, a large baggage compartment, decent rear seat leg room (if you don’t mind passengers resting their feet on the collective pitch control), and an engine exhaust mounted on the top of the machine where soot won’t stain the tail boom as much as it does on the R66 and where a child cannot drop a marble into the engine. The engine gets overhauled after 3000 hours, an advantage compared to the RR300 in the R66, which must be overhauled every 2000 hours. There is a full Garmin G1000 glass cockpit included as standard equipment.

Is it a triumph of American engineering? Sort of. The rotor system and transmission are carried over from the old Long Ranger (206L), so that’s a triumph of American engineers who were working in the 1970s. The slickest piece of technology is the engine/FADEC combination, which are both entirely French. The fuselage is a conventional design with a steel tube frame and a mostly-aluminum skin. The product manager said that a composite fuselage would have raised costs by 20 percent and provided little performance benefit.

The machine is supposed to be certified in 2-3 years, so expect one in the hangar next to yours in 2016 if everything goes perfectly.

[On further reflection, the headline should possibly read "Louisiana taxpayers and Bell enter the light helicopter business." The state's taxpayers are paying for the factory and handing out some additional corporate welfare to Bell so that it will employ 115 people (source). I wonder how the family-owned Robinson company, stuck paying California's tax rates, feels about the public behemoth Textron getting a taxpayer-funded factory!]

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