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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Robinson R66: Turbine Time for the Masses

By Ernie Stephens, Editor-at-Large

Robinson Helicopter’s R66 Turbine was awarded an FAA type certificate on Oct. 25, 2010, and, based upon the 100 units already on order, is expected to be as popular as its top-selling piston stablemate, the R44. Base price for the five-seat, single-engine helicopter is $790,000.
Okay, I’ll tell you up front that I’ve never avoided a chance to check out a helicopter, even a bad one. Civilian or military, big or small, simple or complex, if it can fly, I want to see what it will do. But I must also admit that when the call came for me to hop out to California to do an evaluation on the R66—Robinson Helicopter Company’s (RHC) first turbine ship—I felt my toes curl up just a little bit more than usual.

The debut of the R66—officially named the R66 Turbine—has been one of the most anticipated helicopter rollouts in decades. No other press conference at the Helicopter Association International’s annual Heli-Expo conference packs every inch of sitting and standing room like the Robinson briefing. And no other topic gets the audience leaning forward in their seats like R66 news.

The R66 Turbine is powered by a Rolls-Royce RR300 engine that can deliver 300 shp, but is derated to 240 shp for Robinson. Placing the engine low and at a 37-degree angle saved headroom, while leaving room for a separate baggage compartment. 

Each year since 2008, owner and founder Frank Robinson takes to the podium, makes a few statements about the health of the company, shares some sales figures, then opens the floor for questions. And each year since 2008, at least the first three questions are about the R66. When will the world see the prototype? How much will it cost? Will it have six seats, since the R22 has two and the R44 has four? But year after year, the bushy-browed engineer would wryly build anticipation by sidestepping basic questions with a friendly, non-offensive, “Wait and see,” that would draw a collective chuckle from the crowd.

The Robinson R66 Turbine’s instrument panel bears a striking resemblance to the R22 and R44, with only a few changes to accommodate turbine engine monitoring. Note the new warning light panel at the top of the instrument pedestal.
Frank Robinson’s masterful building of anticipation reached its conclusion when N4512G, a white R66 Turbine with red stripes, was unveiled at Heli-Expo in Houston, Texas on Feb. 21, 2010. That’s where I saw it in person for the first time. I, and most other people who have any sort of familiarity with R44s, took one look at the aircraft on display and said: “It looks different, but I’m not sure why.”

Any similarity between the R44 and its newest sibling, the R66, can lull the observer into thinking the only difference will be in the powerplant. Not so. Most of the similarities between the R44 and the R66 are limited to the exterior lines and interior appointments that the company has made its own over the years. Even the signature T-handle cyclic that pilots either love or hate can be found aboard the R66. But that’s where most of the similarities end. The R66 is more new than old.

Lineage

Any serious conversation about the R66 has to begin with the development of its two-seat stablemate, the piston-powered Robinson R22; brainchild of Frank Robinson, who left Bell Helicopter as an engineer in the 1970s to build a helo that the general public would have a better chance of affording. It worked, too. His 857-lb helicopter was literally designed on the kitchen table of the Robinson home, and found its way to the marketplace in 1979, where it began a long run of record-setting sales.

A group of R66 hulls stands ready to be competed at Robinson’s 480,000 square-foot assembly building in Torrence, Calif.  The two-seat R22 and best-selling four-seat R44 are assembled under the same roof.
With more R22s being sold than any other helicopter in its class, Robinson turned his attention to the cries of rental pilots, who wanted an economical helicopter similar to the R22, but with room for four people. Enter the R44, a stretched R22 with a more powerful engine and seating for four—two in the front and two in the back. The aircraft went on the market in 1993, and within 15 years, became the only general aviation helicopter to outsell the R22.

The R22 and R44, in variants that ranged from float-capable designs to police models, gained widespread popularity around the world, forcing the company to move from its original general aviation-size hangar at Zamperini Field (TOA) in Torrence, Calif., to a cavernous, purpose-built 480,000-square-foot manufacturing facility across the runway.

But like a magician whose audience wants to see him pull another rabbit out of his hat, Frank Robinson’s customers wanted to see him pull a turbine out of his plant. And they wanted it to have all of the features of the $400,000 R44, but the reliability of a turbine-powered ship.

Robinson had released study after study showing that the derated four- and six-cylinder Lycoming piston engines running in his R22 and R44 were just as reliable (if not more so) than any turbine, but he could not argue with the efficiency turbine aircraft enjoyed in high, hot conditions. He also knew that the venerable Bell 206B Jet Ranger, which was slated to cease production soon, would leave a segment of the light turbine market looking for a new five-place helicopter to fill its spot. Fueled by those motivating factors, and the desire of some of his loyal customers to transfer seamlessly into a turbine aircraft, Robinson set his design team on building the R66.

In just two years, the R66 went from the drawing board to FAA type certification, which was award on Oct. 25, 2010. Immediately thereafter, both the Robinson faithful, and those who wondered if they could be, came to Torrence to try out the newest member of the RHC family. In fact, as of this writing, Kurt Robinson, who took over as president of the company when his father entered semi-retirement in early in 2010, reports brisk order activity. “I think we have over a hundred [orders for the R66],” said Robinson, who chose not to reveal specific customers by name. “I don’t know if it’s over 110, but it’s certainly over 100.”

SPECIFICATION R66 TURBINE
Engine Type Rolls-Royce RR300
Max Gross Weight 2,700 lbs
Empty Weight Equipped (including oil & std avionics) 1,280 lbs
Maximum Fuel (73.6 gal) 493 lbs
Passengers and Baggage with Maximum Fuel 927 lbs
Cruise Speed approximately 120 kts
Maximum Range (no reserve) approximately 325 nm/375 miles
Hover Ceiling IGE over 10,000 feet
Hover Ceiling OGE over 10,000 feet
Rate of Climb over 1,000 fpm
Maximum Operating Altitude 14,000 feet


The Finished Product

The closer you look, the less the $790,000 R66 resembles the R44. First, the R66’s cabin is noticeably wider than the R44’s—7.5 inches, to be exact—which also set the skids six inches wider than the 86-inch width on the R44. (A small horizontal stabilizer had to be attached to the bottom of the tail fin to help eliminate some unwanted airflow issues caused by the increased width.)

Other immediately noticeable features include air intakes and vents that help the Rolls-Royce RR300 gas turbine engine breathe while it’s producing 270 shp; power that’s used to lift a maximum gross weight of 2,700 lbs to a density altitude of no greater than 14,000 feet. The designers even installed the 172-lb engine at a 37-degree angle to make room for every Robinson pilot’s dream: a separate baggage compartment capable of accepting suitcases, golf clubs, or 300 lbs of anything else that needs to come along.

Gone, or so it seems at first inspection, is the gas cap that’s usually near the base of the main rotor mast. It’s actually still there. Robinson’s engineers hid the fuel port behind a small door, which also conceals an area that can be used as a step when inspecting the rotor head. While the R66 retains nearly the same measurements from the forward blade tip to the tip of the tail, the interior width of the cabin increased from 50.5 to 58 inches, giving the passengers significantly more shoulder room up front, and a third forward-facing seat in the back. Leg room, however, only got a 1-inch boost over what the R44 was born with.

Climbing Aboard

It was cloudy, overcast, and the visibility was nothing to write home to mother about, but Robinson test pilot Doug Tomkins agreed to take me up in N4512G, the third R66 to come off the assembly line, and, at the time, still being used for some final tweaking.

He directed me to the right seat, which is designated for the pilot-in-command. Many old-school pilots poke fun at the spindly looking T-handle cyclic that Frank Robinson personally designed as a weight-saving feature, but my “horizontally-challenged” body has always appreciated the ease with which I could board an RHC aircraft by tilting it up and out of the way, as opposed to having to jack my leg up and over a conventional stick.

The tan leather interior, an option that’s fairly popular in the R44, provided a very comfortable seat. The lengthy nose that gives the Robinson line its familiar profile makes for a spacious cabin with an impressive field of view.

I was also pleasantly surprised to see that the anti-torque pedals had been improved. The 90-degree opposing pegs had a couple of inches more space between them, so that the pilot’s feet aren’t placed so close together. They could also be adjusted a few inches fore and aft to accommodate various leg lengths, now. The instrument panel was still all Robinson. It’s old, but functional mushroom design still had primary flight instrument in the wide portion, and secondary instruments below. Only a few subtle changes were made to accommodate the different parameters the pilot of a turbine helicopter needs to monitor.

In the piston-powered R22 and R44, the gauge on the far right of the top row is a dual engine and rotor tachometer. In the R66, however, RHC swapped the engine tachometer for a power turbine (N2) monitor.

The large manifold pressure gauge of Robinson’s piston line is replaced by an engine percent torque meter in the R66. The engineers also gathered up all of the caution lamps installed in three different places across the panels of the R22 and R44, and relocated them behind a double-row annunciator panel above the primary instruments.

Once Tompkins was strapped in, he completed a short prestart checklist, then coached me on how to start he R66. Talk about dirt-simple: Battery and strobes on, key switched to IGNITER, press and release the start button on the collective, wait for the N1 gauge to read between 12 and 15 percent, push in the fuel valve on the instrument panel, and listen to the engine come to life. If anything goes wrong, just pull the fuel valve to the OFF position, and the compressor will continue to blow the temperature down in the engine.

Flying the R66

After completing an equally simple pre-takeoff checklist, it was time to go flying in the deteriorating muck that was the Torrence-Long Beach area that day. It would be quick, since we would be losing VFR conditions soon.

As usual with flying a Robinson when you haven’t been in one in a while, picking it up was ugly, but relatively safe. (I could tell, because the ground crew, while amused, did not run for cover.) This is due to the sensitivity of the controls, which is a nice thing once you get readjusted to them. And as is also usual in a Robinson, that readjustment period took only a couple of minutes.

Climb out past the tower at Torrence was spritely, to say the least. Pulling in the maximum allowable torque (100 percent on the gauge) on a relatively mild day with an altimeter setting of 29.80, produced a climb that I limited to 1,000 fpm. Not bad, considering we were probably about 300 lbs shy of the helicopter’s 927-lb useful load.

The approved test flight area for Robinson is above the Port of Long Beach, approximately six miles southeast of the airport. At 80 KIAS, that gave me a few minutes to assess the aircraft’s manners. And the first mannerism I noticed was how smooth the ride was. Yes, most turbines offer a rattle-free trip. But I guess what made it so noticeable was that it used to be common to see the instrument panel in a Robbie—or any piston helicopter, for that matter—vibrating all over the place while in flight. It just didn’t happen in the R66.

Close your eyes, and the R66’s hydraulically boosted cyclic and collective will make you feel like you’re in a Bell 206B. The controls aren’t wishy-washy. They offer excellent feedback and response to commands. (And yes, like the R22 and R44, the cyclic can be comfortably controlled using just three fingers.)

Since our track took us directly to the grassy practice landing area, which is in the middle of the second busiest seaport in the world, I asked if I could execute a normal approach. Tompkins’ reply was the same as it would be throughout the short flight: “Whatever you feel like doing.”

Hauling back on the power until I reached 60 KIAS was uneventful, and when I lowered the collective to begin my decent, there was no argument from the aircraft. It just settled towards the turf, politely answered my call for some hover power at the bottom, and plopped itself straight down on the ground upon command.

There was plenty of room for a normal takeoff, but I wanted another demonstration of the R66’s available power. So, I pulled the ship up into a pure vertical climb. Tail rotor authority never waned, and I was sorry that I had to transition into forward flight at 900 feet. AGL to avoid going IFR, because the aircraft felt like it had another few hundred feet of climb left in it.

It was now time for what I call the “Giddyap Test,” where I pull in the maximum amount of available power to see what the aircraft will do. Again, the first thing I noticed was how funny it felt to be in a small helicopter that wasn’t being rattled all over the sky by a four-stroke engine. Acceleration was smooth all the way up to the top of the green arc on the torque gauge, which gave us a nice 120-KIAS ride in zero winds.

Every other maneuver I tried, from out-of-ground-effect hovers to abrupt turns, and from climbs to descents, were met with what could only be interpreted as an aircraft yawning from boredom: It was responsive, but acted as if it could take a lot more if asked, and I might have asked too, had the ceilings not begun dropping. So, I pulled N4512G hard over, and started back to Torrence to try a couple of autorotations before the clouds intruded any more.

After getting cleared by the tower, I lined up with runway 29R about one-fourth mile out, and rolled the throttle off. The R66 glided towards the runway at approximately 1,100 fpm, and between 65 and 70 KIAS, with the rotors at 100 percent rpm and very few control inputs from me. In fact, the ride down was so uneventful, I was able to take couple of seconds here and there to enjoy the view. At the bottom, Tompkins requested that I roll the engine back online for a power recovery, which I did after a gentle flare. It was the way an autorotation should be, but seldom is when I’m driving: efficient, effective and calming.

After standing next to the runway to take some stills and video footage of Tomkins shooting some autos that I could post at www.rotorandwing.com, I hopped back in, and let him air taxi us back to the RHC plant.

Shutdown of the R66 was as elementary as the start up. After putting the collective in the full down position, the throttle is rolled off, the engine is given a two-minute cool down period, and the fuel valve is closed. Just take a few seconds to ensure that the N2 and rotor needles have split, and the internal engine temperature is trending down, and it’s time to shut off the battery and put it away.

Final Impressions

In a word: Wow! In 60 words or less: Expect the Robinson R66 Turbine to be as plentiful in the skies as minivans are at little league baseball games. Because as everyone already expected from the mind of Frank Robinson, this aircraft is a winner, and could become the premier entry-level turbine helicopter many people have been waiting for.

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