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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Turbine, Traditional

What did Robinson Helicopter Co. equip its new, five-place R66 Turbine with for avionics? You might say the company danced with the one who brought it

By Ernie Stephens

After years on the drawing board, the Robinson Helicopter Co. (RHC) R66 Turbine in October 2010 was granted FAA certification. The latest in Robinson’s phenomenally successful line of single-engine helicopters, it is the first non-piston offering from the Torrance, Calif.-based company.

Larger than its older brothers, the two-seat R22 and the four-seat R44, the five-place R66 seems poised to break all records for turbine helicopter sales.

In spite of being wider and sporting a more efficient, tapering main rotor blade than other RHC products, the outside of the R66 bears a striking resemblance to the R44, from the bottom of its spindly skids to the top of its shrouded main rotor mast. But to the continued amazement — and sometimes dismay — of many in the helicopter industry, that resemblance carries into Robinson’s signature T-handle cyclic, which has drawn as much praise for its weight-saving engineering as it has insults for looking like something out of a carnival ride.

It was that feature, however, along with dozens of other innovative designs, that propelled the R44 and the R22 into the record books as arguably the most successful civil helicopters in history, primarily because of their mix of affordability and performance. The R66 stands to continue that record.

Back in 2008, when spy photos of the R66 began surfacing in the aviation world, it was difficult to make out the details of the instrument panel. And while the masses in the general aviation community wondered if a fancy glass cockpit would grace the panel of the new helicopter, industry insiders dismissed that idea immediately. Company owner Frank Robinson was a died-in-the-wool steam gauge guy.

“I just don’t like those glass cockpits,” Robinson told me over dinner in Anaheim, Calif., back in 2009. “I’ve flown them before, and they’re too distracting.”

Robinson went on to say he believes pilots are safer in aircraft with analog instruments, because the pilot can scan them and get back outside much faster than with an electronic screen. And while at least one other company offers a two-screen instrument array with state-of-the-art multifunction displays (MFD) as an aftermarket upgrade for RHC aircraft, they were produced without Frank Robinson’s blessings, or RHC’s assistance.

So, with an MSRP of $770,000 for the base model the lowest price of any turbine helicopter in its class currently on the market — what did RHC equip the 1,280-pound R66 with? Well, you might say it danced with the one who brought it: effective, easy-to-use, analog instruments.

Kurt Robinson, who moved up from the vice president slot within RHC to president upon his father’s recent retirement, invited me to the company’s 480,000-square-foot factory at Zamperini Field (TOA) outside of Los Angeles to take the R66’s instruments, and the rest of the aircraft, for a demonstration flight. Having flown every variant of the R22 and R44 that RHC manufactures, I was eager to take him up on the offer.

At first glance, the mushroom-shaped instrument panel of the R66 looks almost exactly like the panels installed aboard the R22 and the R44, which were first sold in 1979 and 1993, respectively. But upon closer inspection, a few subtle changes were made to accommodate the different parameters the pilot of a turbine helicopter needs to monitor.

The most obvious changes to the instrument layout are found on the right side of the top and bottom rows of the upper portion of the pedestal.

In the piston-powered R22 and R44, the gauge on the far right of the top row is a dual engine and rotor tachometer. It has crisscrossing needles mounted on opposite sides of center-located markings that look like crossed swords when engine and rotor RPMs are spinning properly. In the last opening of the second row aboard the piston models is a manifold pressure gauge, which is graduated in inches of mercury (Hg).

In the R66, however, RHC swapped the engine tachometer for a power turbine (N2) monitor. In keeping with Frank Robinson’s desire to make gauges easy to interrogate, the N2 and rotor tachometer needles form a seemingly continuous white horizontal line when all is well. The large manifold pressure gauge of RHC’s piston line is replaced by an engine percent torque meter in the R66.

RHC also gathered up all of the caution lamps installed in three different places across the instrument panels of the R22 and R44, and relocated them behind tinted lenses in a double-row annunciator panel above the R66’s main gauges. It makes the entire panel cleaner, and puts the warning lights in a better place to be caught in the pilot’s scan.

The narrower “stem” portion of the instrument panel houses the remaining system-monitoring gauges. From left to right, and top to bottom, are a Davtron chronometer, oil temperature gauge, measured gas temperature (MGT) gauge, engine oil pressure gauge, ammeter, fuel quantity gauge, and compressor (N1) RPM gauge.

All instruments, with the exception of the fuel gauge, have green, yellow and red operating ranges clearly painted on their faces, and except for the vertical speed indicator and dual N2/R tachometer, are panel lit. (The VSI and dual tachometer have post-mounted lighting.)

While the R66 was not built with IFR certification in mind, RHC offers a nice mix of avionics to meet the needs of the purchaser. Standard in all R66s is a King KY197A communications transceiver with memory channel capability; a Garmin GTX327 transponder with Mode C altitude encoder; a stereo and music-compatible NAT AA83-100 audio panel with VOX; and an electronic engine monitoring unit for maintenance and engine health tracking.

The optional equipment list for the R66 includes an artificial horizon with slip skid indicator; directional gyro; turn coordinator; FreeFlight Systems TRA3500/TRI-40 radio altimeter; and PS Engineering PXE 7300 AM/FM/CD receiver. Garmin is represented with several GPS/COM products, such as the GPS 400W and 500W; GPS/COM 420; and GPS/COM/NAV 430W and 530AW.

The R66 I flew above RHC’s test range was well equipped with a mix of standard gauges and upgraded Garmin navigation gear. Everything was positioned in a logical manner, and did not clutter the instrument panel. A Garmin 430 GPS in the lower half of the instrument pedestal was backed up by a WAAS-certified Garmin 500W installed in its own housing and bracket to the right of the stack, directly in front of me.

Both GPS units were readable and accessible, but the center-mounted vertical stem of Robinson’s T-handled cyclic created a bit of an obstacle when trying to reach the knobs on the panel-mounted 430. The cross member atop the cyclic stem, however, teeters up and down, and posed no obstruction to the 500W unit located in the avionics suburbs above my feet.

Flying the aircraft on that cloudy day — the norm, it seems whenever I visit RHC — was a delight, not just because the R66 has a nice set of gauges and electronics, but also because it’s a small helicopter that flies like a big one. Between the well-tuned rotor system and the silky-smooth performance of the 300 shp Rolls Royce RR300 power plant specially designed for the aircraft, Frank Robinson’s trusty old analog gauges didn’t dance or wander, even as we nailed the ship’s 140-kt top speed.

Would some glass in the instrument panel be nice to see in the future? Prior to driving the Robinson R66 Turbine, I might have said yes. But heck, why bother? I think I like it just the way it is.

Ernie Stephens is Editor-at-Large of our sister publication, Rotor & Wing, and a former police helicopter pilot and aerial photography business owner. He has a master’s degree in aeronautical science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and currently serves as an instructor.

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