Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Robinson In The New Era

A new president and a new bird

We Asked You!

Aesthetically, the two aircraft are very similar, a veritable parts-bin buffet of components and subsystems. Both utilize Frank Robinson's patented T-bar cyclic control rather than separate sticks. Both employ essentially the same skids and presumably the same pop-out floats for overwater emergencies. Rotor diameter hasn't changed, though the R66's cabin is wider than the R44's.

Robinson has always been more interested in good engineering than sexy lines, so there was no attempt to separate the two aircraft aesthetically. An untrained eye might easily mistake an R66 for an R44. Though the R66 replaces the R44's shrouded cooling fan with a large exhaust stack at the rear, the basic configuration remains the same. The cabin features two fairly comfortable buckets up front, plus three semi-small, bench-style seats in back. Aft leg room is limited, and so is headroom, but the R66 should be able to carry a pilot and two couples, an ideal combination for tour operators, since clients typically come in pairs.

I flew with Robinson's chief pilot and director of flight test, Doug Tompkins. He did most of the test work on the new helicopter, and he probably knows the R66 better than anyone. I flew serial number 0003, a flight-test article. Robinson had just delivered the first customer R66 the previous week, serial number 0005. When the line is up and running at full speed, Robinson hopes to deliver three R66s a week.

The Rolls Royce engine doesn't employ FADEC, but hot starts are still unlikely. Defining specific start procedure and limitations is the job of the flight manual, but it's conventional for a turbine. With master and fuel on, you simply turn the igniter switch to "enable," hit the starter button on the collective, and introduce fuel as N1 climbs through 15%.

As it turned out, cruise performance didn't improve significantly with the turbine, but it didn't have to. Helicopters are more often judged by how much they can carry and where they can go, rather than how quickly they can get to their destination. The R44 was already fairly quick by helicopter standards. The new R66 boasts a 120-knots spec to the R44's 113-knots max cruise, fairly close. In contrast, the now discontinued Jet Ranger had book specs of 118 knots.

Robinson hadn't published a climb spec as we went to press, and my flight was well under gross, but climb is obviously where you would expect to see the greatest improvement with 50% more horsepower. With only two up front, the R66 climbs with great enthusiasm.

From a typical hover, you can twist in the power, lift the collective, drop the nose and feel the little Rolls Royce pull with the enthusiasm of a team of Clydesdales. Ascending out of the Robinson company pad at Torrance, I saw climb rates of 2,500 fpm, all the more impressive because climb speed is only 60 knots.

HIGE (Hover In Ground Effect) nearly doubled, from 6,100 feet to 11,000 feet, in the transition from piston to turbine, and I'd expect a similar improvement in service ceiling. The less significant HOGE (substitute "Out Of…") also improves to more than 8,000 feet.

A higher HOGE should help expand some markets not previously so favorable to Robinson. The company hopes the R66 will find happiness with ENG (Electronic News Gathering) and law-enforcement applications, where aircraft must sometimes hover for extended periods at several hundred feet AGL.

Frank Robinson completely redesigned the tail-rotor system to better accommodate the ENG/law-enforcement market. Those operators frequently are asked to fly the helicopter out of trim—read sideways. Flying sideways is a necessary evil for news and law-enforcement helicopters, and it's one reason the Jet Ranger and Eurocopter remain popular in those applications. The R66's larger tail rotor sidesteps the problem with a more effective, redesigned yaw control to handle the higher horsepower and torque.

Kurt Robinson says the R66 represents something of an ultimate for Robinson—for the time being. The company has no plans for a larger version of the R66 with greater seating capacity.

"We're very happy with the niche we've carved out of the helicopter marketplace," says Robinson. "We've done very well in every market we've addressed. We like to think the R66 will satisfy the need for turbine reliability and provide an additional level of performance."


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