With in-development R66, Robinson bets on turbines

 - March 30, 2009, 5:46 AM

Just two days after the second Rolls-Royce RR300-powered Robinson R66 made its first flight in February, Robinson Helicopter CEO Frank Rob- inson still had little good to say about small turbine-powered helicopters.

“Fuel consumption is too…high and parts costs are too high,” he said. This has been his mantra for the better part of five decades, and Robinson has built his company around designing and manufacturing simple, relatively inexpensive piston-engine-powered helicopters. However, with 70 percent of the company’s sales to the export market, where avgas is increasingly scarce, expensive or both, Robinson felt he had no choice but to develop a new helicopter that would run on jet-A.

He spent years trying to develop a diesel-powered machine that would run on jet-A but ran into the same power-to-weight and durability problems that have retarded diesel applications for fixed-wing aircraft. “The technology just isn’t there,” Robinson said, although he does not rule it out in the future.

The RR300 engine enables the R66 to have a bigger cabin, more payload and climb faster than the piston-powered R44. The R66’s main rotor chord is slightly wider than the R44’s, but the diameter is the same. Its new fuel system meets the 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 R44, which burns 15 gph, has 47 gallon tanks. The need to carry more fuel wipes out most of the payload advantage the R66 posts over the smaller R44.

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.
The R66 is designed to be easy for both R44 and Bell 206 and MD 500 pilots to transition into quickly. Both the R66 and R44 have Robinson’s T-bar controls. The RR300 has hydropneumatic engine controls, as opposed to fadec, and the traditional “six-pack” steam gages, rather than an integrated glass cockpit display. Robinson said that he is not necessarily averse to glass displays, but he maintains that avionics makers “haven’t done a good job of making [displays] readable and easy to understand. A number is not a good way to convey information to a pilot quickly and easily. For that, it is kind of hard to beat old-fashioned steam gages.”

Starting the R66 is sort of a cross between starting the R44 and a JetRanger. Master on, strobe on, rotor brake off, main fuel valve on, throttle to idle, fuel off, igniter enable on, and depress the starter button mounted on the end of the collective. The R66’s starter runs up the compressor rpms to 15 percent and then the pilot introduces the fuel by pushing in the red plunger on the control stack that looks like the mixture control on a piston Robinson. On the JetRanger that requires twisting the throttle out of detent; on the R66 the throttle stops at idle.

Once the engine lights are off, the MGT gage moves from the red dot and settles short of redline within 10 seconds. If there is any kind of a problem during the start the pilot turns the fuel off and keeps the starter running to keep air moving through the engine compartment to provide cooling. This is not a natural instinct for piston pilots, so the R66’s starter keeps running automatically until the engine achieves correct rpms and then it disengages automatically. For typical shutdowns the pilot allows the engine to operate at idle for two minutes to enable engine cool down and fresh oil circulation and then pulls the fuel off. If temperature increases after shutdown, the pilot leaves the fuel off and engages the starter.

Robinson said flying the R66 is similar to flying the R44. “Of course there is a big power difference, but other than that, it [the R66] is a hair smoother and a hair quieter, but it is nothing earthshaking.” Other pilots who have flown it are less subdued, claiming that the RR300 basically keeps the R66’s vertical speed indicator “pegged.”

Robinson still is not taking orders for the R66 and will not set a price until it is certified. Frank Robinson said he was pushing for that to happen this year but concedes that his engineers have told him the date is more likely early 2010. He said the price would be “competitive” with the Enstrom 480B and the Schweizer (Sikorsky) 434. Initial plans call for a slow production roll-out during the first year after certification in the event any fine-tuning is needed, before the company initiates full-rate production in 2011.

Robinson thinks that R66 production could eventually reach 150 to 200 units annually and become the largest yearly revenue component of his company. He believes that demand for the R44 “will always be there” due to its lower acquisition and operating costs.

The global economic decline has made the R66 the key to Robinson’s future export-driven growth and stability. “I’ve wanted to get the R66 to market for the past couple of years,” Robinson said. “The only thing that we can count on to save this company period is to get that R66 on the market as soon as possible and at that point we can stop having layoffs and start hiring people,” he said. Robinson identified customers’ inability to secure loans in the current credit climate as the chief cause of declining orders and deliveries of the company’s existing products, and resultant employee layoffs, since November.

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 February 18 and is outfitted with a complete finished interior, is very close, if not identical, to the eventual production R66.