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Winnebago’s ‘Heli-Campers’ give insight into the future of RV design

Given that many, many RV owners still think an electricity-powered RV is the stuff of science fiction, it’s perhaps surprising that a decidedly more outlandish concept was dropped into a panel on the subject last week without any comment.

The speaker was Ashis Bhattacharya, Winnebago Industries’ senior vice president for business development, strategy and advanced technology, so no slouch about technological development in the RVing world—even if he was off by a couple of decades. Speaking at an RV Industry Association webinar on the development of EV-RVs, Bhattacharya asserted Winnebago’s innovation chops by mentioning that the company had introduced a helicopter RV perhaps 25 years ago.

The comment apparently flew over everyone’s head. But if a first-tier manufacturer could add wings (okay, rotors) to the RVing concept, surely switching from a gas-driven technology to an electrified one can’t be too much of a stretch?

An ad for Winnebagos's Heli-Camper

Building the Heli-Camper and what went inside

Not that Winnebago actually built its “Heli-Campers”—later changed to “Heli-Homes”— from the ground up, any more than it builds RVs from scratch today. But it did partner with Orlando Helicopter Airways, which in the early to mid-1970s was buying surplus military Sikorsky S-55s and S-58s for various civilian purposes. Half a dozen or so were furnished by Winnebago with a full galley with stove and refrigerator, twin water heaters, air conditioning and a furnace, a bathroom with holding tanks and shower, and sleeping arrangements (in the larger of two models) for six. Also included were a color TV and an eight-track tape deck (because, remember, the mid-’70s), a mini-bar, full carpeting and sound-proofing, a generator, an awning and, for a few extra dollars, pontoons for landing on water.

Weight and price

Heli-Camper performance numbers were more than competitive with today’s rolling homes: with a dry weight of 9,200 pounds, the flying Winnebagos could carry up to 3,000 pounds, had a cruising speed of 110 mph and a range of more than 300 miles. Plus, of course, the whirlybirds could access the most remote and trackless wilderness, outdoing even the gnarliest four-wheel drive RVs in search of boondocking heaven.

Only two stumbling blocks prevented the Heli-Camper from becoming a ubiquitous overhead annoyance in the backcountry. One was the price tag, which ranged from $185,000 for the base model up to $300,000—or between $1 million and $1.65 million in 2022 dollars. Even in a world of luxury Class As starting at more than half a million, that’s a lot of dollars.

Then there’s the little matter of knowing how to, you know, actually fly a helicopter. Winnebago tried to finesse that issue by creating a rental option for campers who wanted to hire a pilot, but even that was a pricey alternative, at $10,000 a week plus the pilot’s fees and cost of fuel. And then, of course, there was the whole sticky issue of what to do with that pilot once you reached your week-long retreat far from civilization. Perhaps it’s not surprising that neither sales nor rentals really took off, so to speak.

Innovation

Still, if Winnebago was willing to take a shot at flying Heli-Camper RVs, perhaps it’s only to be expected that today it would be at the forefront of the EV-RV ramp-up. At least with EVs the customer base is considerably larger, the cost per unit is a lot more within the public’s means, and there’s every reason to think that the technology will see constant improvement even as costs get driven down.

And then there’s this: Those quiet and exhaust-less RVs will be a whole lot easier on the landscape than fleets of transport helicopters would have been, descending on whatever paradise you’d found. There’s good innovation, and then there’s the other kind.

 PREVIOUSLY FROM ANDY… 

Andy Zipser is the author of Renting Dirt, the story of his family’s experiences owning and operating a Virginia RV park, and of Turning Dirt, a step-by-step guide for finding, buying and operating an RV park and campground. Both books are available through bookstores or at Amazon.com.

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Ember
1 month ago

40 years ago I had the creative idea of turning a CH-47 Chinook helicopter into a flying RV… that would have been a lot of fun! Expensive – but a lot of fun!

Chuck
1 month ago

Andy xxxx. Bringing EVRVs into the conversation with a demographic of grown ups will always be a tricky task. Whether it is to contrast heli-RVs as ingenious, so why not EVRVs, or take it a little further and voila, maybe electric aircrafts? Aircrafts of any type as a green alternative with the grown up crowd will never go well. Moving 2000 lb car, with 500 lbs of batteries 300 miles is one thing. Moving a 50,000 vehicle, with 10,000 lbs of batteries, 5 miles would be impressive. No room left for a refer or bed but impressive non the less. Extrapolate battery requirements to get a 747 taxied for take off. Not off the ground, just to the end of a runway. 100,000 lbs of batteries? Maybe more? Grown ups just know better and the RV demo of the same are not buying into the EV trend unless they are in our golf carts.

Ned
1 month ago
Reply to  Chuck

“Grownups,” love the term. 130 years ago the “grownups” were complaining about those whippersnappers and their horseless carriages.

Chuck
1 month ago
Reply to  Ned

Nice mis-direction attempt. Those darn horseless carriages from 1901 derived no power assist from Unicorn farts either.

bill
1 month ago

With the oft reported build quality of today’s rvs how would you feel about getting in one that flys?

Mitzi Agnew Giles and Ed Giles
1 month ago
Reply to  bill

Yuppers!

captain gort
1 month ago

Electric RVs will not be cost effective or practical for the 95% of us for many decades to come. I’m talking about RVs used to TRAVEL- not sit parked in some trailer park as a mobile home.
…..That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Mitzi Agnew Giles and Ed Giles
1 month ago
Reply to  captain gort

Captain I beg 2 differ. I have an all electric interior RV, which I did deliberately as I had seen teenagers misuse every form of non electrric items under they sky. Gasoline, white gas, etc. I knew I would be getting older, and electric would be harder for me 2 misuse.

Spike
1 month ago

Not sure how 25 years turned $185K into $1M in 2022 $. According to USDinflation.com’s calculator, $185K in 1997 is equivalent to $325K today, under MSRP for most new DP’s! Andy must have applying the last two years’ inflation rate in his equation!!! I think he used 1975, which is when the aged surplus helicopters were being purchased by Orlando, not when the article states Winnebago introduced its product 25 years ago?

In any case, the entire premise that simply converting an old large helicopter into a flying RV by filling the space with some livability components is somehow as difficult as developing a new technology and it’s support structure is absurd. Com’on Andy, certainly you can do better than that.

Bob p
1 month ago

That idea didn’t fly either, pun intended. Electric RV’s may be feasible in the next 25 years, but today, no. The range is not conducive to RV travel, infrastructure is not there to support RV recharging nor do I see power companies scrambling to upgrade the grid. RV park owners are not upgrading their power grid, so no not anytime soon. Yes there will be a few who buy them just to be the first on their block to have one. When that happens someone needs to follow up on them to report the pros and cons. I can see this getting a toe hold sometime within the next generation. When you can drive 300-400 miles per day and recharge in 20 minutes then it will gain acceptance.

bill
1 month ago
Reply to  Bob p

I’d venture to say that those driving 6 or more hours a day to get your 300 to 400 mile range are in the minute minority. Out here in the West there are charging stations all over the place and state park campgrounds are installing them now. Also, most of the new electric powered semi’s already are above the 300 mile range and that is with a weight 2 to 3 times that of a dp.

Chuck
1 month ago
Reply to  bill

Can’t compare RVs to Semis Bill. RVs typically park overnight, plugged in if at a park. No issue charging. A diesel semi on the other hand currently has approx 2,000 miles of range. An electric semi has approx 500 miles at best. That’s 4 times as many stops for fuel than the current model. Just over 2,000,000 semi trucks on US roads. That’s 8,000,000 more stops in a day for fuel. Thats a heck of a lot of down time for any business model. Current mileage estimates are 140 billion per year for semi trucks total in the US. That’s an awful lot of coal fired power plants to power our transportation industry with coal. Maybe in a hundred years or so but not even in your children’s children’s lifetime is this a good idea.

Chuck
1 month ago
Reply to  Chuck

Self correction: 140 billion miles per day.

TIM MCRAE
1 month ago

Sorry, once again an article espousing the wonderment and efficacy of EVRV’s that misses completely. Then buries itself by comparing them (ERV’s) to another patently bad idea that failed because it met no need and was guaranteed to be a bust!

Dave
1 month ago
Reply to  TIM MCRAE

good thing electric RVs meet a huge need for Gen X and younger

captain gort
1 month ago
Reply to  Dave

Until they run out of “free money” and the “work from home” BS blows up and they actually have to go an office and work face to face. Oh- that’s starting to happen now.

Skip Gimbrone
1 month ago

Back in the late 80’s at the Redding Ca. RV show they had a Heli- Camper on display. It was truly a unique item.

Tommy Molnar
1 month ago

And you KNOW dealers couldn’t keep them in stock. “Flying off the shelves” is a term that comes to mind.

Mitzi Agnew Giles and Ed Giles
1 month ago
Reply to  Tommy Molnar

Imagine a smiley face, laffin so hard it brings tears to the eyes.

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