Plane & Pilot
Monday, September 1, 2008

Robinson R44 Raven II Helicopter: Piston Chopper

With four seats, a 112-knot cruise and the lowest price in the class, Robinson’s R44 is perhaps the ultimate multitasker

In case all you fixed-wing pilots hadn’t noticed, Frank Robinson’s success in the light helicopter market has been nothing short of spectacular. Robinson Helicopter Company ( has sold some 8,500 helicopters in the last three decades.
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robinsonIn case all you fixed-wing pilots hadn’t noticed, Frank Robinson’s success in the light helicopter market has been nothing short of spectacular. Robinson Helicopter Company ( has sold some 8,500 helicopters in the last three decades.

As a fixed-wing aviator who came late to the rotary-wing party, I discovered helicopters 20 years ago in conjunction with a story for an ABC program, Wide World of Flying. I was a confirmed fixed-wing fan whose only exposure to choppers had been shooting photos out of the back of an occasional Bell JetRanger or Hughes 500. For my ABC video story, I took a cram course in a Robinson R22, somehow managed to pass my private checkride after 55 hours and immediately went on camera to inform the audience of the joys of flying without the benefit of a runway.

Teen Solos R44—Plus Six Fixed Wings

Robinson’s R22 is the company’s official rotary-wing trainer, but that’s not to suggest that the R44 can’t be used for teaching missions. Earlier this year, a Compton, Calif., teenager soloed an R44—along with six fixed-wing airplanes—from Compton/Woodley Airport. On March 16, 2008, Jonathan Strickland, a 16-year-old participant in Compton’s Tomorrow’s Aviation Museum ( project for inner-city kids, soloed an R44 helicopter along with a Cessna 172RG, a new glass-panel Cessna 172SP, a Cessna 152, a Piper Warrior, a StingSport LSA and a Remos LSA—all within six hours.

Founded by Celebrity Helicopters’ ( Chief Pilot Robin Petgrave, Tomorrow’s Aviation Museum offers subsidized flight training to underprivileged kids. Current participation includes some 800 youths who are willing to work around airplanes and are eager to learn everything they can about aviation. “If you see the lives of some of these kids,” says Petgrave, “the museum is really an opportunity for them to do something positive.”

In addition to a number of flight instructors who had assisted in his training, actor Michael Dorn of Star Trek and Major Levi H. Thornhill, one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, were there to cheer on Strickland.

The R22 was pure fun, definitely a challenge and more sensitive than anything I’d flown before, but still great fun. I didn’t rush right out and put my Mooney on the market, but I was nevertheless amazed at the incredible talent and adaptability of rotary-wing things.

Since then, I’ve made a half-dozen visits to Robinson’s factory, and it’s always something special for me. The company’s Torrance, Calif., plant is only 15 minutes from my home, so I’ve had a ringside seat to watch Robinson transition from a fledgling manufacturer of a single two-seat trainer to a world-class producer of a variety of four-seat utility machines and, soon, a turbine-powered model. The R66 will offer an R44 configuration with a turbine; it’s intended to compete head-to-head with such industry stalwarts as the Bell JetRanger and the Eurocopter EC120.

In the last 30 years, Robinson has emerged as the world’s top manufacturer of both helicopters and civilian aircraft. That’s fixed-wing or rotary-wing aircraft, by the way. According to GAMA, Robinson sold 823 new helicopters last year; compare that to a top fixed-wing production of 807 airplanes by Cessna and 710 by Cirrus.

One reason for the R44’s preeminence as the world’s most popular helicopter is that it’s quite simply the least-expensive machine on the market—by a factor of at least 60%. Operating costs also come in far lower than the competition, again making the R44 the most popular machine in or out of its class.

That’s not to subtract from the Robinson’s talents. Robinson helicopters are as fast as their turbine competition; additionally, they offer nearly three hours of endurance, a three-passenger payload with full fuel and a hover out of ground effect (HOGE) of 4,500 feet.

Today’s R44 comes in a variety of flavors, from standard four-seat transport to fully equipped news chopper and police helicopter. The company produces dedicated models for both of the latter mediums. The R44 Newscopter incorporates a complete broadcast Electronic News Gathering (ENG) equipment package with a fully gimbaled HD digital camera system, centralized monitoring workstation and your choice of analog, digital or HD microwave broadcast capability. The police models are configured with 20-million-candlepower, gimbaled searchlights, infrared camera, siren, microwave COM system and PA system.

If you operate over water on a regular basis, there’s also a float-equipped model. Alternatively, an emergency pop-out float option inflates in less than a second if you need to make an autorotation into the wet.

Such multi talents partially explain why the R44 is as popular overseas as it is here in the United States. Seventy percent of all Robinson helicopters are exported to 58 countries. In January, that garnered a visit from California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and President George W. Bush, both complimenting Frank Robinson and his employees for contributing to America’s balance of trade.


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