EXCELSIOR SPRINGS, Missouri — Revolution Helicopter Corp. Inc. (RHCI) unexpectedly closed its doors last month after taking deposits from an unknown number of customers for helicopters the company never delivered.
RHCI manufactured the controversial single-seat Mini-500 kitbuilt helicopter and was developing a two-place version called the Voyager-500.
At least 60 customers — perhaps more — are believed to have made deposits on Voyager-500s over the past 18 months — some putting down full-price payments of more than $40,000 to reserve a kit.
The money — which could total more than $1 million — is all gone, according to RHCI President Dennis Fetters.
“At this point, there is no money available for a refund, nor to finish producing any aircraft,” Fetters advised Voyager customers in an Oct. 26 letter announcing the shutdown of his company.
Fetters claimed that RHCI has “full intentions of making good on the orders received for the Voyager-500,” but said that will only happen if he can find an investor to buy into the company.
And he warned customers not to sue him.
“First, if someone did (file suit against RHCI) there is no money for them to win, and all of the assets are already pledged,” he wrote. “A suit would only force RHCI into bankruptcy,” he added, “and then we all would lose.
“Please give us the time to resolve this situation in the only way possible, and we all will win,” Fetters pleaded. “Sometimes companies have troubles like we now have, but if we’re given the chance, we will pull through.”
Efforts by the Flyer to reach Fetters for an accounting of customer deposits, and answers to numerous other questions, were unsuccessful. He did not respond to our E-mail message, or to an interview request relayed through his general manager.
RHCI General Manager Jerry Heitman refused to disclose where Fetters now lives, or how he could be contacted. According to local press reports, Fetters recently sold his home in Excelsior Springs after changing his name to Mohammed Al Faris.
The RHCI Web site is still up, but the company’s phones have been disconnected.
Fetters sent out two versions of his going-out-of-business announcement, one to Mini-500 owners and another to customers who had put down deposits on Voyager-500s.
Both versions of the “Dear valued customers” letter said RHCI was being forced to close its doors “until further notice” because of “ruthless attacks” from a small group of detractors.
Both letters also said the company had halted all technical support and service for the Mini-500, and had stopped all development work on the Voyager-500.
And both versions assured customers that Fetters was now working “fulltime” to find an investor who could “give us the capital we need to continue Mini-500 support, and bring the Voyager to market.”
But the letter sent to Mini-500 customers had a different closing paragraph than the version sent to Voyager-500 customers.
In the Mini-500 version, Fetters closed with the following: “If we live up to our past history, we will find the way to reopen our doors. If not, then we thank all of our loyal customers for your patronage and wish you the best of luck.”
The last paragraph of the letter sent to Voyager-500 customers has the following wording: “If we live up to our past history, we will find the way to reopen our doors as soon as possible, and continue to be a leader in the kitbuilt market place.”
In his letter to Mini-500 owners, Fetters also said parts for the single-engine chopper could still be ordered by mail or E-mail, but only parts in stock would be delivered.
At least one RHCI customer, a man named “Ted,” was not reassured by the letter he received.
Ted (who didn’t want his last name used in this story), said he wrote RHCI a check for $43,500 last January — the discounted full price of a Voyager-500 kit at that time — and signed a contract for delivery of kit number 60.
Ted said the contract did not direct that his money be deposited in escrow, where it would be safe should anything happen to the company.
“Most of the contract covered Fetters’ ass, not mine,” he said. “I think my money is gone, and I’ll never see the helicopter I bought, either. My guess is that he (Fetters) is not going to do anything to put this company back into operation.”
Ted said the letter announcing RHCI’s closing came as a “big surprise” to him. “According to their last newsletter (mailed to customers in August) they said they were getting ready to ship kits,” he said.
“There was absolutely no sign that there was a problem with this company,” he said.
Former employees tell a different story. They said the Voyager was nowhere ready to ship, and that RHCI had not even completed production tooling for the helicopter.
The employees, who requested anonymity, said the prototype Voyager displayed by Fetters this year at both the Sun ’n Fun and Oshkosh fly-ins had operated only about three hours, and had never flown out of hover.
“In my opinion, Dennis Fetters is one of the biggest cons that’s ever hit the kit industry,” said Bill Phillips, who heads up the International Experimental Helicopter Association, a builders group for Mini-500 owners.
Phillips is one of five outspoken RHCI critics blamed by Fetters for forcing the company to shut down.
“The detractor group . . . had successfully stifled our sales, and cast enough doubt on the Mini-500 to stop many of our owners from flying,” Fetters complained in his letter.
In addition to Phillips, Fetters blamed his troubles on Jim Campbell, publisher of US Aviator magazine, former RHCI dealer Fred Stewart, and former employees Lee Sarouhan and Rick Stitt.
Campbell has been a persistent critic of the Mini-500, calling on builders to voluntarily ground their aircraft until concerns about them could be fully addressed.
He also helped organize a two-day meeting of Mini-500 owners earlier this year in Florida to discuss problems with the helicopter and explore possible solutions.
“I find this really sad,” Campbell told the Flyer. “Nobody wanted to see him succeed more than we did, but the problem here is that there have been hundreds of failures, dozens of accidents and nine fatalities among 100 flying helicopters.”
Fetters claims to have sold more than 500 Mini-500s, and says that more than 400 of them are flying.
But Campbell and others claim no more than 100 are flying, and they have been involved in more than 40 incidents or accidents that have killed nine pilots and raised serious questions about the safety and reliability of the machine.
Its detractors claim the Mini-500, powered by the 65-horsepower Rotax 582, is woefully underpowered and subject to excessive engine and rotor vibrations that lead to cracked frames and other component failures.
“You can tell it is junk just by looking at it,” said Phillips, who owns a Mini-500 but refuses to fly it.
Fetters hotly defends the machine, pointing to NTSB data listing pilot error as a contributing factor in every Mini-500 crash to date, and attributing most mechanical failures to improper maintenance and the failure of builders to properly balance and rig their Minis.
Nevertheless, Fetters developed a series of modifications last year to address builder complaints. They include a tuned exhaust system to boost engine power, hardened transmission gears, and a mast support kit to dampen vibrations.
“We at RHCI do not blame ourselves for the need to close our business,” Fetters told his customers. “On the contrary, we credit ourselves for not only surviving these ruthless attacks, but for beating the odds of even starting a helicopter manufacturing factory.
“We took it farther than anyone could have expected under the circumstances.”