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Sunday, April 1, 2007

Rotorcraft Report: Robinson Reveals R66 Program, But Not Much More

Frank Robinson still isn’t showing all his cards. The creator of what are the best-selling civilian helicopters in the world today revealed plans for the next aircraft in his product line at Heli-Expo 2007, after years of teasing. But he didn’t reveal much.

If those displaying at Heli-Expo felt the exhibit hall crowd got a bit light around 2 pm on March 1, the show’s first day, that’s understandable. More than 150 people at that time were packed into Robinson’s briefing room and its doorways. His answer to most of their questions about his new, five-seat, turbine-powered helicopter boiled down to this: "Somewhere between the Raven 2 and the Bell 206 JetRanger."

"A lot of older JetRangers are getting very, very tired," he said in explaining why he is targeting the new bird — even the name R66 isn’t definite — to replace those aircraft. It is intended to do the same job as the older 206s at a lower purchase price. How much? "I’d like to keep it under $1 million, but it will be more than a Raven 2."

Powered by Rolls-Royce’s new turboshaft RR300, the R66 will have a two-bladed rotor, a cabin 8 in. wider than the R44 (to make room for that fifth person) and a mast 8 in. higher. It won’t have an autopilot — "I really want the pilots to keep their eyes outside the cockpit." It will have a cargo compartment. It may have a stability augmentation system, and will be designed for time between overhauls of 2,000 hr. Robinson had previously told Rotor & Wing that the aircraft won’t reach the market for 3-5 years. But at the show he said it will be another full year to 18 months until the aircraft could gain certification. That was about the extent of the details. What about weight, range, speed, and other performance areas?

"As good as or better than the R44 or the JetRanger."

Robinson reported 2006 "was our best year ever," despite the fact that the company delivered fewer helicopters than in 2005 — 749 vs. 806. "There was a very, very large shift from the R22 to the R44 Raven 2," he said. "The revenues were higher, because the shift all occurred from our least expensive model to our most expensive model."

He said the Raven 2 "has just become a very, very popular helicopter." One reason for its popularity was the company offering it with air conditioning as an optional item. Robinson has mixed emotions about the system. "It reduces our payload by 33 lb, and that bothers me some," he said. "But people really, really like it."

Robinson initially thought this year would mark a slowdown in sales, and had had his company reducing payroll through attrition. "I kind of misjudged it," he said.

When the company in late November announced its annual price increases, to take effect Jan. 15, "our orders came in stronger than they had even last year," he said. Now expecting this year to be as good as last year, Robinson is "hiring a lot of people now to build our force back up fairly strong."

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