Robinson forges ahead on turbine R66 program

 - November 30, 2007, 5:44 AM

Robinson Helicopter and Rolls-Royce are making progress with their partnership on the Robinson R66. Rolls-Royce expects certification of the new engine, the RR300, early next year. There is an outside chance that the helicopter could be certified next year as well. Scott Crislip, president of helicopters for Rolls-Royce, said the company anticipates FAA certification of its new 300-shp turboshaft next month, with full-rate production to follow immediately. He said that production of the engine next year would be in the “hundreds,” with Robinson the lead customer.

Robinson plans to use the engine to power the R66, a five-seat turbine helicopter it announced this year. Company founder and CEO Frank Robinson said that the helicopter would have a luggage compartment large enough for golf clubs, and would share many of the same design and control features of the piston-powered four-seat R44, including a T-bar cyclic, two-blade main rotor and open cabin configuration.

Rolls-Royce shipped two “airworthy” RR300s to Robinson earlier this year for use on a “flying testbed,” according to the founder. Last month the Robinson Helicopter Owners Group released a photo of that helicopter, which is registered with the FAA as Robinson R66 S/N 1. Frank Robinson denied that S/N 1 was a prototype of the helicopter, but he acknowledged that the final aircraft would look “similar” to it, with a cabin that is eight inches wider and a mast eight inches taller than that of the company’s four-seat, piston-powered R44. “We used it [S/N 1] to test the main rotor system and the engine,” he said. “That’s it.”

Robinson voiced caution about the R66’s development schedule, but he acknowledged that the company planned to receive its first certified RR300 engine in February and start FAA certification flying shortly thereafter. While Robinson said that the company was aiming to get the R66 certified as soon as possible, he conceded that it was “highly unlikely” it would be approved next year.

“Once you start [certification test] flying, it generally takes a year or two to get certified, and there are lots of unknowns,” he said. Earlier this year, Robinson said he expected the R66 to enter production in three to five years.

Robinson said that interest in the R66 is brisk but that the company is not taking deposits on the new model until “we can guarantee a price.” Early this year Robinson said that the R66 would sell for between $400,000 and $1 million. He declined to be more specific about the price or to speculate about specific demand for the aircraft, saying only that the company had not made attempts to measure it.

Crislip said Rolls-Royce was pleased with the data Robinson obtained on the new engine. The RR300 has a single-stage compressor and fewer parts than the company’s Model 250, an engine that has been the predominant powerplant in most light single-turbine helicopters–including the Hughes/MD 500 series and the Bell 206–for 40 years. The RR300 is expected to have a 2,000-hour TBO.

Crislip said that Rolls-Royce is using the RR300 as an opportunity to revamp its supply chain, with much more content from outside suppliers; streamline engine assembly; and reduce manufacturing time. He added that Rolls-Royce is using new computer design tools for faster collaboration with the RR300’s suppliers, Robinson and future engine customers. Helicopter builders Enstrom, MD and Schweizer have all expressed varying degrees of interest in the RR300, as have several fixed-wing OEMs.