HAI Convention News

Robinson ties its future to R66

 - February 21, 2009, 10:38 AM

The second Robinson R66 made its first flight on February 18 and a third is under construction at the company’s headquarters in nearby Torrance, Calif. All Heli-Expo’09 attendees are invited to the Robinson factory on Tuesday for facility tours beginning at noon followed by a preview of the R66 at 3 p.m.

The Robinson open house is an unusual move for a company cultured in underplaying its achievements. It highlights just how important the Rolls-Royce RR300 turbine-powered R66 is to the company’s future. Company founder Frank Robinson is characteristically blunt about it. “The only thing that we can count on to save this company,” he said, “is to get that R66 on the market as soon as possible, and at that point we can stop having layoffs.”

As customers continue to grapple with tight credit, Robinson (Booth No. 2718) has seen its average weekly output fall from 17 helicopters to 12. That number could go lower. While in 2008 it delivered a record 893 helicopters, last month there were signs that 2009 output would be severely reduced. Robinson delivered 48 helicopters in January and began laying off workers at the rate of 50 per month beginning last November, the maximum rate allowed by law without having to provide workers with 60-days’ statutory notice. Frank Robinson hinted that more layoffs likely are in the offing and said new helicopter orders have basically “collapsed” in the wake of what he calls a “global depression.” 

Robinson exports nearly 70 percent of its total production, and demand for the company’s helicopters in key emerging markets such as Russia “has just gotten crushed,” said company vice president Kurt Robinson.

For privately held Robinson, the challenge is to ride out the storm long enough to bring the R66 to market and to retain a sufficient skilled workforce so “we have the experienced people we need when the 66 goes full-bore,” said Frank Robinson.
That is likely to happen in 2011 after a gradual production ramp-up and controlled deliveries in 2010. Certification is anticipated late this year or early next. Frank Robinson predicted that the R66 likely will eventually become the biggest sales component of the company “in terms of dollars,” but that the piston-powered R44 will continue to sell more units annually. “Demand for the R44 will always be there,” Robinson said. “It has more appeal to private individuals because of initial and operating costs.”

A typically equipped R44 Raven II costs $455,000. While the price of the R66 has yet to be determined, it is widely expected to be just under $1 million.
As Robinson continues to work toward certification of the R66, it is curtailing payroll and other expenses. Plans for a major plant expansion and double-deck employee parking garage, for example, have been temporarily shelved. The R66 will be produced on a new production line parallel to that of the R44 in the company’s existing factory.

Meanwhile, the company is not waiting for the R66 to increase its revenue-per-unit ratio. The push is on to sell more R44s with high-dollar, factory-installed options packages directed at the electronic newsgathering (ENG) and law enforcement markets. Those packages can easily propel the price of a new R44 past $700,000. Kurt Robinson said he sees a down economy as the impetus to boost sales in those sectors with the R44 now, and perhaps the R66 later.

On Monday, Robinson will deliver its 60th ENG helicopter. Kurt Robinson called ENG “the one market that is not slowing down. 

“We are literally putting out these packages at half the cost of a turbine platform,” he said, and a growing number of television stations are beginning to grasp the economics. 

Similar inroads are being made with law enforcement agencies that once eschewed anything other than turbine power. “That stopped about four or five years ago,” Kurt Robinson said, until, due to budget constraints on new or existing programs “people realized they were either going to lose their programs or could keep flying with our product.”

On the R66, Robinson worked hard to carry over popular characteristics of the R44.
Chief among them, said Frank Robinson, is “simplicity.” That means hydro-pneumatic engine controls as opposed to Fadec, and the traditional “six-pack” steam gauges instead of an integrated glass cockpit display. Frank Robinson said it should be fairly easy for a pilot to transition from the R44 to the R66. “Of course, there is a big power difference, but other than that, [the R66] is a hair smoother and a hair quieter, but it is nothing earthshaking.”

The R66’s main rotor chord is slightly wider than the R44’s, but the diameter is the same. Its fuel system meets new and more stringent crashworthiness standards.

The luggage hold is big enough for golf clubs. There is one extra seat in back, the pilot seats are wider and legroom is capacious, and the overall 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 an R44. However, due to the RR300’s 23-gph fuel burn, the R66 has 75-gallon fuel tanks, while the 44, which burns 15 gph, has 47-gallon tanks. Initially, all major R66 components, including the engine, will have a TBO of 2,000 hours, although that is likely to be extended over time to perhaps 2,200 hours.

Over the last year R66 S/N 1 has accumulated 70 hours on the airframe and 25 hours on a certified RR300 engine. Frank Robinson said S/N 2, N266RH, which first flew last week and is outfitted with a complete finished interior, is very close, if not identical, to the eventual production R66. He said he sees the R66’s market appeal mirroring those of Robinson models that came before it. “It’s a better helicopter for less money.”