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 (www.robinsonheli.com) has sold some 8,500 helicopters in the last three decades.
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On the R44, the magic numbers are 50 knots at 150 feet in order to execute a successful autorotation. If you’re flying slower or lower, you’re not likely to manage an autorotation without damage. If you’re established in a high hover at zero airspeed, you should be above 550 feet to have any chance of a successful autorotation in the event of an engine failure.

Yes, we’ve all seen video of police action, floods or other news events that looked as if they were shot from a very low level. Chances are, the news copters were hovering at high altitude and using a long lens with a gyro-stabilized camera.

Such realities are one reason engine reliability is even more critical in a helicopter than in a fixed-wing airplane. It’s also a motivation to use a large engine, such as Robinson’s Lycoming IO-540, and derate it dramatically for minimum maintenance and the best possible TBO.

Under more normal circumstances, you can concentrate on flying the R44 inside the standard envelope, and that’s a relatively simple process. It’s important to remember, however, that helicopter operators have different attitudes about performance than do fixed-wing pilots. That’s because the mission is totally different. Where you can go and how much you can carry are more important than how fast you can get there. In many places, local operating restrictions now limit where helicopters can land, but in areas free of such regulations, they usually have the flexibility of setting down wherever the rotor will fit.

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The flight deck of the R44 photographed for this article featured the Garmin GNS 430 (top). Pilots are prevented from inadvertantly pulling the mixture control by the mixture control guard (left). The helicopter’s primary flight control, the cyclic (right), as flown from the right seat.
Climb rate from sea level flirts with 1,000 fpm at the airplane’s 55-knot climb speed. If you’re primarily schooled in fixed-wing machines, the R44’s climb seems almost elevator-like, ascending at what appears a ridiculous rate because of the low forward velocity. Fortunately, you don’t normally need to climb for long. Helicopter missions are typically short-range and low-altitude, often flown at 2,000 feet or less.

Leveled for cruise, a standard R44 turns in an indicated 110 to 115 knots, and if need be, it can manage that speed for nearly three hours, covering almost 350 nm in the process. Again, however, helicopter missions rarely operate over such distances. Helicopters typically fly out-and-back stage lengths rarely exceeding 100 to 150 nm.

Utility is the helicopter’s byword, and Frank Robinson has succeeded in tapping into a market most people didn’t even know was there a generation ago. With the record-setting sales of the R22, and the pending introduction of the turbine-powered R66, Robinson Helicopter is accelerating straight up.



Building The World’s Most Popular Helicopters
During a previous visit to Robinson Helicopter, Frank Robinson took me on a tour of the plant and pointed out the features that make his company one of the most efficient in the business. It’s a huge facility, consuming a major portion of Zamperini Field/Torrance Airport’s south ramp. In total, the Robinson buildings account for 480,000 square feet, counting the 2003 addition of the 220,000-square-foot west building.

As a new facility, you might expect to find modern equipment and techniques, and you wouldn’t be disappointed. For one thing, the view from above suggests that much of the lighting is natural with the help of skylights and Southern California’s 330 days of sunshine yearly. Though my tour was in daylight, it never occurred to me to look up. Indeed, a glance at the ceiling revealed that there were essentially no overhead lights illuminated. Robinson works two shifts, so the lights come on when the sun goes down, but Robinson saves a fortune in lighting costs by using solar illumination during the day.

Robinson also incorporates extensive use of CNC (computer numerically controlled) machining centers and two dynamometer test cells for engine testing. Robinson Helicopters was one of the first to be awarded ISO 9001 manufacturing certification for the design, manufacturing and certification of helicopters. The company prefers to perform most manufacturing functions—welding, machining, assembly, painting, flight-testing—in house rather than farm them out to subcontractors.

The current production rate is 20 helicopters weekly, produced by a work force of 1,300 employees. Fully a quarter of those folks have been with the company for 10 years or more.

SPECS: 2008 Robinson R44 Raven II




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