HAI Convention News

R66 customers are champing at the bit

 - February 24, 2008, 3:03 PM

Robinson Helicopter dealers who attended yesterday’s press conference said they are ready to place orders for the turbine-powered R66 currently under development at the Torrance, Calif. company’s headquarters.

Michael Russell, president of Prestige Helicopters of Chamblee, Ga., for example, said he could sell 20 R66s right away, to both individual owners and business operators. And Eric Gould of Canadian Robinson dealership Aerial Recon said he also could sell dozens of R66s, if they were available. However, Robinson Helicopter is not yet taking orders for the new model.

The R66, which first flew late last year, is now flying once or twice a week in preparation for FAA certification. Robinson is building two more flight-test R66s and one for static ground testing.

Frank Robinson, company president and CEO, who has flown the R66, said, “It flies very similar to an R44, with a few minor procedural changes.” Although the company hasn’t released any performance numbers for the R66, it performs much like the R44, he said, with similar range because the R66 will carry more fuel but will burn more, too. The R66 should have much better hover performance with the greater power output available from the turbine engine, Robinson said.

The flight-test R66 is powered by a preproduction version of Rolls-Royce’s new RR300 engine. “It is very close to what will be final,” Robinson said. (Earlier flight tests were conducted using a Rolls-Royce 250 engine.) The new engine, he added, “is a very good engine.” The biggest difference between the 250 and 300 models is the change to a centrifugal compressor, eliminating the many small blades and complexity of the 250’s axial compressor. The RR300 installation in the R66 should be much easier for technicians to access, Robinson said, making maintenance more efficient.

Robinson still won’t commit to a firm price for the R66, saying only as he has before that it will cost more than a piston-powered R44 but less than a Bell 206B3 JetRanger III. After hearing the news that Bell will halt production of the 206B, Robinson said that he welcomes that move. “The JetRanger is a good helicopter,” he said, but there are many JetRangers in operation and many of them are getting old. “Just replacing all those JetRangers will be a good enough market to justify designing the R66,” he said.

Obtaining FAA certification of the R66 after the design work and flight testing that has taken place thus far should take another one to two years, Robinson said. He  also said he doesn’t expect any surprises during the rest of the certification process and noted that cash flow to pay for certification won’t be a problem. “This time we have the luxury to take everything in stride,” he said–and he doesn’t need to get creative to figure out ways to get buyers to pay for their helicopters before delivery as he did with the R22 development program.

Robinson hasn’t revealed the avionics planned for the R66 but insists that he will consider a modern glass cockpit. “I have mixed emotions on glass,” he said. “Anything that distracts the pilot, I feel strongly about.” Robinson conceded that if glass cockpit design reaches the point where the pilot can safely get everything he needs with one glance at the display, then he would consider a more modern avionics package. “I have an open mind,” he emphasized, “I really do.”

One change that buyers will not see on the R66 or any other civil Robinson helicopter is composite rotor blades. Composites make sense for military helicopters, Robinson said, because military users value the lower radar reflectivity offered by composites and composites are more tolerant of ballistic damage than metal blades. But composites are much more susceptible to erosion damage from sand and rain and also are harder to keep to high quality standards during manufacture, he said. “We want more radar reflectivity,” he said, “and we don’t plan on flying where someone will be shooting at us all the time.”

Robinson Helicopter delivered 823 helicopters last year, 70 percent of which were exported from the U.S. A few helicopters still on the production line were promised to bankrupt Silver State Helicopters, some painted in Silver State colors. “We lost some money on that, too,” Robinson admitted, adding that he may have to offer free paint jobs to buyers of helicopters already painted in Silver State’s livery.

“Many of us had thought that Silver State was built on a house of cards,” Robinson said, but it has long been his policy that nothing leaves the factory unless it’s fully paid for, so the training company’s demise shouldn’t affect Robinson Helicopter. “Those I really feel sorry for,” he said, “are all the students [who lost money when Silver State went bankrupt and whose student loans may have been siphoned off by Silver State’s owner]. That was wrong, absolutely wrong.”

Asked if there are other helicopter types on which he would like to flex his engineering muscles, Robinson said, “I would like to design a utility helicopter, but it’s not easy to do. Right now we have our hands full with the R66.”