Twenty-three years ago, when the producers of the ABC-TV show Wide World of Flying came to me and proposed that I write and host a segment on transitioning from fixed wing to rotary wing, it took me all of three seconds to say yes.
The idea was to chronicle the entire rotary-wing learning process, from first hour of instruction through solo, and on to the private helicopter license; then, synthesize six months of flying and learning down to 20 minutes for television. Of course, my trainer was to be the world’s most popular two-place helicopter, the Robinson R22. As it happens, Robinson’s manufacturing facility at Torrance Airport in Southern California is only about 15 minutes from my home, so I would train in a succession of new Robinsons.
Just as with my preliminary fixed-wing education, I needed about 60 hours to finish the course, but when I was done, I was hooked on helicopters, just as I had become hooked on conventional airplanes a quarter-century earlier.
That show aired in 1989. Now, it’s 22 years later, and both Robinson and I are still flying high. (Okay, since they build helicopters, Robinson flies mostly low.) In 2008, Robinson delivered a total of 893 helicopters, compared to 733 Cessna piston products and 547 Cirrus aircraft.
Robinson Helicopters have consistently outpaced not just all helicopter manufacturers, but every other general aviation aircraft manufacturer, fixed or rotary wing, for several years. Today, Robinson builds more helicopters than all other manufacturers combined.
The Robinson story is another of those Hollywood-style “little guy takes on big guy and wins” scripts. Only in this case, it happens to be true. After Frank Robinson graduated from the University of Washington and did postgraduate work at the University of Wichita, he spent 17 years honing his skills at Cessna, Umbaugh, McCulloch, Kaman, Bell and Hughes Helicopters, where he gained a reputation as a tail-rotor expert.
Unable to rouse any interest from the majors in his concept for an inexpensive, two-seat helicopter, Frank resigned from Hughes in 1973 to start his own company. Working out of his home in Palos Verdes, Calif., the young engineer conceived and partially constructed the two-seat R22 in his garage. The new aircraft premiered in 1979, and quickly became the world’s best-selling helicopter.
But Frank had set his sights higher. Prior to 1993, the world’s most popular four-/five-seat helicopter was the Bell 206 Jet Ranger, an industry stalwart since the mid-’60s. With its Allison 250 turbine mill rated for 3,500 hours between overhauls, and a shaft horsepower of 317 to 420, the Jet Ranger seemed to have a lock on the market. The folks at Bell were confident little Robinson didn’t have the financial resources to produce and certify anything more than a two-seat utility/training helicopter.
In 1993, Bell and the rest of the industry learned otherwise. Robinson introduced the R44 Astro, a piston-powered chopper with four seats and a 1,000-pound useful load. It was, in most respects, an entry-level four-seater, powered by a carbureted, 205 hp Lycoming O-540, but, by far, the most significant difference between the R44 and the Bell 206 was the price. At just under $250,000, the new R44 cost barely a third of the tab for a new Jet Ranger.
It’s true, turbines are universally regarded as more reliable than piston powerplants, but even the biggest companies couldn’t ignore such hard, economic realities. To no one’s great surprise, the new R44 outsold the Jet Ranger from day one, no discredit to the Bell product, a simple function of price. It also didn’t hurt that the R44’s performance specs were very close to those of the Jet Ranger, while the Robinson’s operating costs were dramatically less.
If Bell truly believed Frank Robinson would stay out of the turbine business, they misjudged him again. After several years of development, Robinson certified the R66 in October of last year, utilizing essentially the same Rolls Royce 250 turbine engine employed on the Bell product. In fact, the continued economy of the piston-powered R44, and the threat of the upcoming turbine Robinson, contributed to Bell Aircraft cancelling Jet Ranger production altogether in late 2008.
I live a mere 15 minutes from the Robinson facility, so I’ve watched the company expand from a small plant on the north side of Torrance Airport to a larger building on the south side, and more recently, to a huge, 500,000-square-foot megafactory, generating $200 million in annual sales. If those numbers aren’t impressive enough, consider that Robinson recently rolled out its 9,000th helicopter.
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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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.”