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.
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
Founded by Celebrity Helicopters’ (www.celebheli.com) 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.
Certainly, a major attraction of the R44 is the type’s operating economy. Part of that’s a function of the aircraft’s relative simplicity, but another major factor is the choice of powerplant. Robinson is one of only two helicopter manufacturers employing piston engines (the other is Schweizer). The Torrance-based company has opted for the tried and tested Lycoming IO-540 engine, normally rated for as much as 350 hp in other applications, but asked to deliver only 245 hp for five minutes and 205 hp maximum except take off (METO) power continuously on the R44. TBO is 2,200 hours for helicopters operated regularly and maintained to Robinson’s strict standards.
Back in the late ’80s, when I was training in a succession of R22s, instructor Tim Tucker used to joke that if I could learn to fly the little Robinson, I could probably handle any other civilian light helicopter on the market. The controls of the R22 and R44 are the most sensitive in the industry, one reason the types make excellent transition machines to something bigger, though many pilots may never feel the need to step up. Hydraulic boost eliminates cyclic stick shake and makes in-flight control a fingertip process. Standard equipment also includes an RPM governor that automatically controls engine rpm during normal operation.
|The Robinson R44 (above) hovers over Sea Launch Commander, the world's only ocean-based space launch company, in Long Beach, Calif. Below, the R44 flies an approach to a Holiday Inn rooftop in Torrance, Calif.|
The new R44 I flew was Frank Robinson’s personal aircraft, and as you might expect, it was outfitted with practically every option, the pop-out floats, a Garmin 500 GPS and TIS uplink. I spent two hours renewing acquaintances with the R44, relearning the delicate sensitivity necessary to hover and fly the machine.
Robinson test pilot and instructor Markus Turnow put up with my amateurish attempts at remembering how to hover, but it all started coming together as I remembered the secret of flying a “Robby”—understatement. If you don’t fly an R44 for a year, you’re almost guaranteed to over-control for the first half-hour or so, regardless of whether you’ve been flying any other helicopter.
The cyclic control, essentially the equivalent of the stick on an airplane, controls roll and pitch, and it responds to the gentlest inputs. For takeoffs and landings, the usual advice is to use your fingertips with your right arm balanced on your knee, keeping your eyes on the horizon rather than the ground below during landings—you’ll be surprised by how quickly the R44 becomes friendly.
Still, helicopters operate to very different parameters than fixed-wing airplanes. The overhead rotor serves as the equivalent of a wing, and maintaining rotor speed is critical. Losing rotor speed is somewhat analogous to stalling an aircraft wing.
For that reason, helicopters must fly in strict compliance with the height/velocity diagram, sometimes better known as the “dead man’s curve.” In order to operate the aircraft safely, you need to maintain either a minimum altitude, a minimum airspeed or a combination of both. In other words, you must maintain a height/velocity profile outside the shaded area of the curve.
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.
|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