Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Robinson In The New Era

A new president and a new bird

New Bird
At Plane & Pilot, I've done most of the Robinson stories in the last 20 years, and I recently visited the factory again to fly the R66 and sit down with new president Kurt Robinson. Kurt took over the reins from his father when the elder Robinson retired in August 2009. (Eighty-year-old Frank Robinson still keeps his hand in at the company, but to everyone's surprise, he really is retired.)

Kurt now oversees a workforce of some 1,200 engineers and technicians, turning out something like 14 helicopters a week. These days, an increasing number of those 1,200 folks are working on delivering the first of the Robinson R66 helicopters.

In most respects, the R66 represents less of a change over the R44 than did the R44 over the R22. While the new aircraft does open up a whole new market for Robinson, it's primarily an expanded and powered-up version of the company's piston four-seater.

The most obvious change is to the powerplant. The R66 incorporates an Allison 300RR turbine engine developed by Rolls Royce specifically for Robinson. Though the new mill is based on one of the Allison 250 series turbines, similar to that used on the Jet Ranger, it's rated for only 300 shp rather than the 420 shp rating on the Bell 206. Even by turbine-engine standards, the RR300 is tiny and lightweight. It's also mounted 37 degrees down at the rear to make room for a good-sized baggage compartment behind the main cabin, a 300-pound capacity. The R66 retains the small cargo space beneath the seats, still rated for 50 pounds, but now smaller in cubes to accommodate the new, 26G front seats.

Turbines are well known for reliability, and that's especially important on helicopters, a type of aircraft that typically operates at low altitude and often over heavily congested areas. Any helicopter can autorotate to a safe landing in a very small space following an engine failure, but a turbine provides an extra measure of reliability. That's one reason the Jet Ranger was so popular.

Like most of the Allison-inspired turbines, the R66's RR300 engine is rated for 3,500 hours between overhauls. This compares to 2,200 hours for the dramatically derated, 205 hp Lycoming O-540 used on the R44. Despite the disparity, the Lycoming was universally admired by operators. It's significant that the TBO is the highest I know of for a piston engine of 200 hp or more.

The downside of turbines (besides price) has always been fuel burn, and it's true the R66 must carry 74 gallons to realize roughly the same range as the R44 with 50 gallons. The good news is that the tiny turbine's additional power allows gross weight to increase while empty weight actually decreases, every manufacturer's dream.

Specifically, gross weight jumps from 2,400 on the R44 to 2,700 pounds on the R66. In combination with the aforementioned empty-weight reduction of the diminutive Allison engine, the R66 winds up with a payload increase from 700 to 924 pounds. That means the new Robinson should easily be able to lift even five calorically enhanced souls.


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