In this month’s Aircraft Comparison, Mike Chase provides information on two popular twin-turbine light helicopters for sale for the purpose of valuing the MD Explorer (MD900/902).
Over the following paragraphs, we’ll analyse the performance of the MD Explorer and the AgustaWestland A109C to see how they compare within the market. We’ll consider productivity parameters (payload, range, speed and cabin size), and give consideration to the current market values.
In January 1989, McDonnell Douglas Helicopters officially launched the development of the Explorer, initially referred to as the MDX. The first flight of the Explorer took place in December 1992 and FAA certification for the Explorer was granted two years later in December 1994, with JAA certification following shortly after.
The MD Explorer is a twin-turbine light helicopter that is still in production today. The initial MD Explorers, also known as MD900s, were equipped with Pratt & Whitney PW206A engines. Later MD Explorers, commonly known as MD902, were equipped with Pratt & Whitney PW206E engines (later replaced by more powerful Pratt & Whitney PW207E engines).
Serial numbers 900-00077 and up were factory-produced with the Pratt & Whitney PW207E engines. Earlier serial numbers can replace their engines with these.
The MD Explorer also uses the graphite composites NOTAR (No Tail Rotor) anti-torque system, which reduces noise and overall helicopter vibrations and eliminates tail rotor strikes. It uses the flow of fan-driven low-pressure air through two tail boom slots and a direct-jet thruster in conjunction with two vertical stabilizers to provide required anti-torque and directional control.
Today, 111 MD Explorers are operational worldwide (per JETNET data), three are in production and 22 have retired of a total 136 aircraft built. The fleet percentage currently ‘For Sale’ is 8.1%, with 56% of those aircraft under an exclusive broker agreement. The average days on the market before an MD Explorer sells is currently 666 days, according to JETNET.
By continent, Europe holds the largest fleet percentage (53%) for the MD Explorer, followed by Asia (21%) and North America (20%) accounting for a combined total of 94% of the world’s fleet.
Specifically, Chart A shows the 10 countries worldwide that operate the most MD Explorers. The UK accounts for 20% of all operators worldwide. Additionally, 15 operators own 68 (61%) of the MD Explorer that are in Fleet Ownership (companies that own two or more helicopters). The largest single fleet owner is UK-based Specialist Aviation Services, Ltd. with 14 MD Explorer helicopters that operate from Gloucestershire airport.
Status of ADS-B Out Equipage
Of the 111 MD Explorer helicopters in operation, 27 (24%) have ADS-B Out installed, leaving 76% of the fleet yet to comply. The FAA has mandated that all US-operated helicopters must comply with this new requirement by January 1, 2020.
Payload & Range
The data contained in Table A are sourced from Conklin & de Decker. A potential operator should focus on payload capability as a key factor, and the MD Explorer’s ‘Available Payload with Maximum Fuel’ (1,555 lbs) is three times more than that offered by the A109C (515 lbs).
According to Conklin & de Decker, the MD Explorer cabin volume measures 113 cubic feet. The A109C has more cabin volume (125 cubic feet). Chart B, courtesy of UPCAST JETBOOK, offers a cabin cross-section comparison, showing the MD Explorer has slightly more width (4.75 ft. vs 4.7 ft.) but less height (4.08 ft. vs 4.25 ft.) than the A/W A109C cabin. However, the cabin length of the MD Explorer is greater (6.25 ft. vs 5.35 ft.).
As depicted by Chart C using Gloucestershire, UK as the origin point, the MD Explorer (205nm) shows more range coverage than the A/W A109C (146 nm), according to Conklin & de Decker.
Note: Helicopters 'seats full range' represents the maximum IFR range of the aircraft long range cruise with all passenger seats occupied. This does not include winds aloft or any other weather-related obstacles.
The MD Explorer is powered by twin Pratt & Whitney Canada PW207E turbine engines offering 621shp, while the A109C is powered by twin Rolls Royce 250-C20R1 turbine engines with 450shp. (The transmission rating is a limiting factor in the total rated and usable engine power output.)
Total Variable Cost
The ‘Total Variable Cost’ illustrated in Chart D is defined as the Cost of Fuel Expense, Maintenance Labor Expense, Scheduled Parts Expense and Miscellaneous Trip Expense. The Total Variable Cost for the MD Explorer computes at $985 per hour, which is $175 or 15% lower than the AW109C ($1,160 per hour), as sourced from Conklin & de Decker.
Table B contains the used prices from Vref Pricing Guide for each helicopter for 1996 (the last year that the A109C was built). The average speed, cabin volume and maximum payload values are from Conklin & de Decker, while the number of aircraft in-operation and percentage ‘For Sale’ are as reported by JETNET.
The MD Explorer has 8.1% of its fleet currently ‘For Sale’ and the A109C has 35.9% ‘For Sale’. The average number of used aircraft transactions (sold) per month for the MD Explorer is 1.25 units compared with one unit sold per month for the A109C.
Maximum Scheduled Maintenance Equity
Chart E, courtesy of Asset Insight, displays the MD Explorer 900 and depicts the Maximum Maintenance Equity available, based on its age.
Helicopters that are owned and operated by businesses are often depreciable for income tax purposes under the Modified Accelerated Cost Recovery System (MACRS). Under MACRS, taxpayers are allowed to accelerate the depreciation of assets by taking a greater percentage of the deductions during the first few years of the applicable recovery period (see Table C).
In certain cases, helicopters may not qualify under the MACRS system and must be depreciated under the less favorable Alternative Depreciation System (ADS) where depreciation is based on a straight-line method, meaning that equal deductions are taken during each year of the applicable recovery period. In most cases, recovery periods under ADS are longer than recovery periods available under MACRS.
There are a variety of factors that taxpayers must consider in determining if an aircraft may be depreciated, and if so, the correct depreciation method and recovery period that should be utilized. For example, helicopters used in charter service (i.e. Part 135) are normally depreciated under MACRS over a seven-year recovery period or under ADS using a twelve-year recovery period.
Helicopters used for qualified business purposes, such as Part 91 business use flights, are generally depreciated under MACRS over a period of five years or by using ADS with a six-year recovery period. There are certain uses of the helicopter, such as non-business flights, that may have an impact on the allowable depreciation deduction available in a given year.
The US enacted the 2017 Tax Cuts & Jobs Act into law on December 22, 2017. Under the new Act, taxpayers may be able to deduct up to 100 percent of the cost of a new or used helicopter purchased after September 27, 2017 and placed in service before January 1, 2023.
This 100% expensing provision is a huge bonus for helicopter owners and operators. After December 31, 2022 the Act decreases the percentage available each year by 20 percent to depreciate qualified helicopters until December 31, 2026.
Table D depicts an example of using the MACRS schedule for a 2017 year model MD Explorer helicopter in private (Part 91) and charter (Part 135) operations over five- and seven-year periods, assuming a new 2017 retail price of $6.825m, per Vref Pricing guide.
Asking Prices & Quantity
The current used helicopter market for the MD Explorer shows a total of nine aircraft ‘For Sale’ with six displaying an asking price ranging from $900k to $5.2m. We also reviewed the 23 used A109C helicopters ‘For Sale’, which displayed 12 asking prices ranging from $450k to $1.230m.
While each serial number is unique, the Airframe (AFTT) hours and age/condition will cause great variations in price. Of course, the final negotiated price remains to be decided between the seller and buyer before the sale of an aircraft is completed.
The points in Chart E are centered on the same helicopters. Pricing used in the vertical axis is as published in the Vref Pricing Guide for the model year 1996. The productivity index requires further discussion in that the factors used can be somewhat arbitrary. Productivity can be defined (and it is here) as the multiple of three factors:
Others may choose different parameters, but serious helicopter buyers are usually impressed with Price, Range, Speed and Cabin Size. After consideration of the Price, Range, Speed and Cabin Size, we can conclude that the MD Explorer displays a high level of productivity.
The MD Explorer shows a higher used retail price, but greater productivity compared to the A109C. The A109C offers a larger cabin volume, higher variable operating cost and less seats full range advantage, but the MD Explorer has significantly greater ‘Payload with Full Fuel’ capability.
The MD Explorer averaging 1.25 units sold per month and is still a popular model on the helicopter sales market today. Operators should evaluate their mission requirements precisely when picking which option is the best for them.
Within the preceding paragraphs we have touched upon several of the attributes that helicopter operators value. However, there are other qualities that also might factor in a buying decision.
The MD Explorer continues to be popular today. Those operators in the market should find the preceding comparison useful. Our expectations are that the MD Explorer will continue to do well on the used helicopter market for the foreseeable future. Of course, if the MD Explorer helicopter for sale is not outfitted with ADS-B Out it cannot be placed in operation in the US after December 31, 2019 as mandated by the FAA.