Best Practices for Acquiring a Private Helicopter in the COVID-19 Era

Private buyers seeking to purchase a pre-owned turbine helicopter in the COVID-19 era can find it to be a challenge to select the right one, notes Mark V. Clancy. Following are top best practices for landing the ideal private rotorcraft for you…

Airline travel is not always possible or desirable these days making private aircraft transportation appealing.  Initial visions for helicopter ownership may include room for a pilot, family, luggage for a big trip, and perhaps pets. High-value decisions and long-term commitments like these can be daunting.

If you’ve never purchased a helicopter before there’s much to understand. If you currently own one and are seeking to upgrade, you may be facing similar challenges. Here are some best practices to ensure you get the value you want from the helicopter you purchase.

1. Decide Whether a Single or Twin-Engine Meets your Interest, Needs and Budget

Determine which helicopter makes/models offer the cabin size, performance, and weather capabilities that best meet your interests and needs.  Information is available from OEM’s, Helicopter Association International, helicopter agents, and helicopter data organizations.

As certain helicopter sectors have come to a screeching halt in the last six months, sellers maybe eager to make deals with buyers.  A range of attractive visual-flight-rule (VFR) pre-owned Airbus, Bell, Leonardo and MD single-engine turbine powered helicopters ($500,000-$2,500,000) are available versus new ($2,800,000-$3,500,000).  These helicopters may prove to be interesting to private buyers wanting to avoid commercial flights and minimize having to use of PPE while traveling with families and friends.

You might consider acquiring and reconfiguring available pre-owned helicopters from affected tour, utility, offshore, or law enforcement sectors that could have higher total times than previously owned private helicopters.  These machines may also have good component value remaining although may require some level of MRO, refurbishment, reconfiguration, and avionics updates.  It may be a challenge to envision converting a former commercial or government helicopter for private use, but great deals are often available on late model and legacy commercial helicopters especially as so many are parked or not flying very much.

Airbus, Bell, Leonardo and Sikorsky twin-engine helicopters offer a larger cabin seating, are faster, carry more cargo, and can fly under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) or in adverse meteorological conditions.  They require a seasoned IFR capable pilot, maintenance service center support, and a budget substantially more than single-engine turbine helicopters.  OEM’s maybe under pressure and motivated to sell existing inventory that are sitting in a hangar.  Prices range from $5,000,000 to $10,000,000 and some OEMs’ offer larger discounts or other incentives than others.

There are a variety of late model and legacy corporate configured twin-engine helicopter models available from operators, government or private entities at a lower price ($500,000-$3,000,000).  These machines may require varying degrees of customizing. refurbishment, maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO), and/or avionics updates ($100,000-$1,500,000).  Once complete, the helicopter will enter a “second life” custom configured ready to provide years comfortable, safe and reliable service.

Doing a thorough analysis of your options will take some effort.  We recommend that you retain the assistance of an experienced helicopter sales agent and service center to help you weigh the advantages and disadvantages before deciding on the right helicopter.

2. Consider Model Year, Hours, Optional Equipment, Maintenance Status, History, Condition, Location and Price

Once you’ve selected your ideal make and model, you can begin your search of available helicopters for sale.  They will be advertised in various industry publications and aircraft sales web sites.  Traditional domestic and international helicopter trade shows are not likely an option in the near-term.

Gather initial helicopter specifications including a list of installed optional equipment, maintenance status summary and current photos, and current operational status.  Determine if there has been any damage history and, if so, who performed the repair and returned the aircraft to service.

Some helicopters appear to be on the market for long periods of time as some sellers are hoping to secure above market prices. This time-on-market information will help you narrow the field of prospective helicopters.

3. Make Equitable Value Comparisons

Some private buyers are unaware of how to make equitable comparisons. The devil of helicopter value is in the component details, and buyers are advised to develop an analytical assessment of major component values.

Buyers should request the full maintenance tracking and identify anticipated maintenance.  Substantial value may be excluded from your consideration if you only utilize the summary of component value.

There are also maintenance cost software programs available to assist in understanding your direct maintenance costs.  In addition, future component costs can be projected in your spreadsheet analysis based on anticipated hourly/annual utilization.

4. Hire a MRO with Desired Make/Model Helicopter Experience

Selecting the right helicopter maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) service center or mechanic/engineer is one of the most important aspects of purchasing a helicopter.

A trusted service center mechanic experienced in maintaining the particular helicopter make/model you intend to purchase will assist you in identifying issues during a pre-purchase inspection, provide estimates for any MRO, refurbishment, reconfiguration, service bulletins or airworthiness directives, avionics updates and ensure continuous helicopter airworthiness on your behalf.  Create an itemized budget for these categories and consider how an anticipated work scope schedule coordinates with the commencement of your flight operations.

5. International Acquisitions are Challenging but may offer Greater Opportunities

Helicopters purchased domestically, or regionally within one airworthiness authority, are less complicated and easier to relocate, but do not always provide the best acquisition opportunity.  Sometimes, the most favorable helicopter acquisitions are located oceans away, where governmental airworthiness authority bi-lateral agreements may not exist, and where installed optional equipment may not have Supplemental Type Certificates (STCs), thus requiring removal prior to obtaining airworthiness approval in your country.

You may also need to locate an independent designated airworthiness representative able to guide you and perform an acceptable aircraft inspection and issue a civil standard airworthiness certificate prior to the helicopter being exported or following import to your home country.

6. Buy for the Long-Term

In the COVID-19 era, helicopter values have declined to a degree and while it is difficult to predict the bottom of the market, most industry people believe the market will return over the next couple of years.  If you intend to operate your helicopter for several years, then buying right for the long-term is a good strategy.  Once you have collected data and completed your analytical assessment and costs, you’re ready to commence owner or owner agent negotiations.

The more informed and prepared you are, the more likely you will be able to negotiate a favorable price.  The next step is drafting the Helicopter Purchase Agreement (HPA) which can be complicated without a helicopter sales agent or broker and/or an aviation attorney to guide you as they are generally written by sellers.  Once a mutually acceptable HPA is approved you are on your way to the helicopter inspection and in closing your transaction.

7. Comprehensive Pre-Purchase Inspections Validate Helicopters

Typically, once a written agreement is reached with a seller and a refundable escrow deposit is placed in escrow, a helicopter Pre-Purchase Inspection (PPI) is performed with your experienced MRO mechanic and helicopter sales agent at the seller’s location.

A PPI typically requires one to two days depending if the helicopter is a single or twin-engine model and the age as older helicopters have more data to review. One day is typically spent reviewing and assessing the log books, records and documents and the second day is generally required to perform a physical aircraft inspection and flight test.

You may also want to perform an engine borescope inspection and may need to hire an engine service center with the correct equipment and training to complete the engine inspection properly and determine if there are any issues that are required to be addressed.

A flight test is performed with the seller’s pilot to verify helicopter functionality and engine performance as they need to meet OEM maintenance manual criteria.

Helicopters located overseas provide very good acquisition opportunities.  However, there are pre-purchase inspection hurdles that make acquisition more complicated today in the COVID-19 era.  Potential 14-day travel restrictions on each end would create an extended acquisition schedule; provided you are able to find an MRO mechanic willing to travel to the destination.  The cost to perform the pre-purchase inspection under these circumstances would be more so the helicopter acquisition would have to be a very good deal . Alternatively, you can hire an in-country MRO or mechanic to perform the pre-purchase inspection.  Your sales agent or MRO would be able to recommend one and you would have to be comfortable with that arrangement and the pre-purchase inspection findings prior to accepting the helicopter.

Upon conclusion of the PPI, there could be major or minor airworthiness issues that need addressing. Your service center mechanic will identify the important issues to be resolved by either you or the seller.

8. Relocate the Helicopter using Professional Freight Forwarders

Once you have completed the helicopter inspection and acceptance, it’s time to decide on how to relocate the helicopter from the seller’s location to your facility or service center.  If you will be relocating the helicopter over a substantial distance, you should consider engaging a professional ferry flight pilot experienced in air operations.  In this COVID-19 era, it may be nearly impossible to hire a pilot for international ferry flights since both of you would have to deal with all the travel restrictions in between countries.

The most practical alternative would be to arrange to ship the helicopter via ground, sea, or air-freight.  Obtain a quote from the seller’s service center to properly dismantle and prepare the helicopter for land/sea or air freight shipment. You will also need an experienced international freight-forwarder with good knowledge of the export/import process, and a helicopter mechanic/engineer to ensure proper loading and unloading of your helicopter.

9. Select a Professional Helicopter Agent to Maximize Your Opportunity

In an increasingly challenging market, and to assist you in selecting the right helicopter, you may wish to engage the services of an experienced helicopter sales agent committed solely to representing your acquisition interests.

The right professional helicopter buyer agent has:  In-depth knowledge of the various helicopter markets; unique knowledge of the makes and models being purchased; maintains fleet data, ‘for sale’, and historical sales transaction data points; is able to identify on- and off-market helicopters for sale; performs detailed valuations; can offer recent sales insight; prepares buyer-oriented HPA’s; is experienced with international transactions; and offers extensive experience for the clients’ exclusive benefit.

10. Enjoy the Buying Process

Buyers love to buy but hate to be sold to and this COVID-19 era is no exception. Buying your own private helicopter correctly is especially important. High-value assets like helicopters can be a challenge and complicated to acquire, especially internationally.

By identifying all helicopters available on the market, implementing an analytical comparative assessment and cost projection process, and by securing a trusted support team you are certain to identify, acquire, and begin enjoying the best value helicopter anywhere as smoothly as possible.

About the Author

Mark V. Clancy is an aerospace engineer and founder of HelicopterBuyer, Inc, a USA-based helicopter buyer and seller agent, inventory dealer, and support business with 34 years’ extensive expertise with helicopter and engine sales, valuations, MRO, reconfigurations, and operator support. Contact Mark at +1-763-753-3700 or via e-mail at  He welcomes your comments, suggestions, and/or perspectives.