““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Robinson Helicopter's R66
Two days after the second turbine-powered Robinson R66 made its first flight in 2009, Robinson Helicopter CEO Frank Robinson still had little good to say about small turbine-powered helicopters.
“Fuel consumption is too…high and parts costs are too high,” said Robinson, as we sat in the lunchroom of his sprawling Torrance, Calif. plant. This has been his mantra since 1973, when he founded the company at his kitchen table to design and manufacture simple, relatively inexpensive piston-engine-powered helicopters. His first production model, the two-seat R22, was certified in 1979 and remains a staple of many civil helicopter schools worldwide. However, 70 percent of the company’s sales in recent years have gone to the export market, where avgas is increasingly scarce, expensive or both. So Robinson–who retired last year at age 80–felt he had no choice but to develop a helicopter that would run on jet-A.
He spent a long time trying to develop a diesel-powered machine that would use jet-A but ran into the same power-to-weight and durability problems that have retarded diesel applications for fixed-wing aircraft. “The technology just isn’t there,” Robinson said, although he doesn’t rule it out in the future.
A Rolls-Royce RR300 engine enables the $798,000 R66 to have a bigger cabin and heavier payload and to climb faster than the company’s four-seat, piston-powered R44. The R66’s main rotor chord is slightly wider than the R44’s, but the diameter is the same. Its fuel system meets current, more stringent crashworthiness standards. The 18-cubic-foot luggage hold can carry 300 pounds and is big enough for golf clubs. There is one extra seat in back–the helicopter holds five people–and legroom is capacious. The pilot seat is wider than the one on the R44 and the cabin is eight inches wider. Empty weight is 1,270 pounds and the useful load comes in at 1,300 pounds, 300 pounds more than the R44’s load.
However, due to the RR300’s 23 gallon-per-hour fuel burn, the R66 has capacity for 73.6-gallons of fuel, while the R44, which burns 15 gallons per hour, carries 47 gallons. The need to carry more fuel wipes out most of the payload advantage the R66 posts over the smaller R44.
Initially, all major R66 components, including the engine, will have a TBO (time between overhauls) of 2,000 hours, although that is likely to be extended to perhaps 2,200 hours. The R66 is designed so that R44, Bell 206 and MD500 pilots can easily transition into it. Both the R66 and R44 have Robinson’s T-bar flight controls. The RR300 has hydro-pneumatic engine controls, as opposed to full-authority digital engine controls, and the traditional “six-pack” steam gauges, rather than an integrated glass cockpit display. Robinson said that he is not necessarily averse to glass displays, but that avionics makers “haven’t done a good job of making [displays] readable and easy to understand.
“A number is not a good way to convey information to a pilot quickly and easily,” he added. “For that, it is kind of hard to beat old-fashioned steam gauges.”
Starting the R66 feels like a cross between starting the R44 and a JetRanger. But the process is easy and straightforward. Robinson said flying the R66 is similar to flying the R44. “Of course, there is a big power difference,” he commented. “Other than that, [the R66] is a hair smoother and a hair quieter, but it is nothing earthshaking.” Other pilots who have flown it are less subdued, claiming that the RR300 basically keeps the R66’s vertical speed indicator “pegged.”
Frank Robinson thinks that R66 production could eventually reach 150 to 200 aircraft annually and become the largest revenue component of his company. He believes that demand for the R44 “will always be there” due to its lower acquisition and operating costs.
The global economic decline has made the R66 the key to Robinson’s future export-driven growth and stability. “I’ve wanted to get the R66 to market for the past couple of years,” Robinson said. His dream of building simple, affordable helicopters has paid off. The company delivered its 8,000th helicopter in 2007, a record 893 in 2008 and 433 in recession-ravaged 2009. Last year, production fell to 162, the lowest level since 1987; however, this year production is already on the rebound and the company has booked orders for more than 130 R66s.
The manufacturer also recently completed a 132,000-square-foot plant expansion at its Torrance, Calif., site, bringing its total square footage under roof there to 617,000. “It allows us to increase our manufacturing capacity,” said Frank’s son Kurt, who took over the business when his father retired. The company will use the new space to expand its cabin fabrication and welding departments. Last year, the manufacturer anticipated making 300 helicopters in 2011. The total includes an estimated three R66s per month.
Kurt Robinson, who holds a commercial helicopter pilot rat and a law degree, said sales are exceeding that projection and that the company is making seven helicopters per week–one R22, four R44s and two R66s. He added that Robinson has already delivered 20 R66s and anticipates increasing the helicopter’s production rate to three or four per week shortly. The manufacturer has signed 51 dealers for the R66.
Robinson is working feverishly to certify a growing list of options for the R66. Earlier this year, it announced factory air conditioning as a $23,000 option. The 42-pound unit has a 17,000-BTU-per-hour cooling capacity. Air is distributed through an overhead console with vents for each seat. The system is controlled via a toggle switch with low and high fan settings and uses approximately three horsepower during operation. The evaporator and fan are mounted under the aft center seat, preserving all four under-seat baggage areas. The compressor engages when the fan is switched on and automatically disengages during autorotation entry to maximize glide performance.
Kurt Robinson said the company is evaluating glass-panel avionics for the R66, but that a decision would likely not be made until additional international markets certify the model and the company completes certification work on float, law-enforcement, cargo-hook and electronic-news-gathering packages. He said there are no plans to pursue IFR certification for the helicopter, but added that it is undergoing cold-weather and blowing-snow testing in Canada.
Meanwhile, it seems, Robinson has built just what its founder has long claimed the market didn’t have: an affordable turbine helicopter.
Mark Huber welcomes comments and suggestions at: email@example.com.