The past year was a slow one for Robinson Helicopter, the world’s most prolific helicopter manufacturer. While the domestic market remained fairly stable, the California-based OEM generally exports approximately 70 percent of its output, and headwinds from many directions, both financial and political, placed a damper on deliveries in 2019.
“We expected it to be a slower year,” company president Kurt Robinson told AIN. “The high dollar and some of the tariffs have affected us, and it has been a slowdown for us.” In each of the previous two years, Robinson delivered more than 300 helicopters, but with various concerns in China, Russia, Brazil, and South Africa, the company viewed its delivery totals heading into Heli-Expo as closer to the 200-unit territory. Robinson said the decrease was particularly notable with regard to the company’s midrange R44, which is its biggest seller.
“All of these areas that we are talking about, over the last year we have seen a decrease in the sales to those countries,” said Robinson. “Obviously, we’d like to see pent-up demand, and if the dollar gets a little weaker, then these areas—as they have done in the past—could suddenly spring back and be very strong.”
Despite the fall-off in deliveries, the company has attempted to minimize staffing changes in an effort to preserve its talent pool. “I have seen this too many years in the past,” explained Robinson. “If you have good people you want to keep them, and these things tend to go kind of cyclical. When things come back and the dollar gets weaker, you want to be ready to meet those demands.”
One area where the company gained staffing flexibility is in its recently opened repair facility, a renovated 37,000-sq-ft structure that once housed Robinson's production headquarters. The year-and-a-half-long project opened in July. As the service center has ramped up operations, the company—which has a worldwide fleet numbering more than 12,000 helicopters—has been able to divert some manufacturing workers to customer-service and repair duties. The facility performs repairs and overhauls and is set up to efficiently tear down, clean, and inspect components, engines, and complete aircraft. Dedicated areas for disassembly and storage of blades, engines, and components, along with a large media blasting room and a clean room for hydraulic disassembly and ultrasonic cleaning, are situated in close proximity, and once aircraft are disassembled, cleaned, and inspected, they are brought to the main facility for reassembly, paint, flight test, and delivery.
At Heli-Expo Robinson (Booth 8324) will display three of its products, including the two-seat R44 Cadet trainer, R44 Raven II, and the turbine-powered R66. All three will be equipped with the manufacturer’s new cabin video recorder, which the OEM developed in partnership with Rugged Video. It features a 4K high-resolution camera mounted overhead in the comm box. “We wanted to make sure it recorded the outside view from the front two seats forward, along with the instruments and flight controls,” Robinson explained, adding that the system will satisfy the recent EASA recommendation for all light helicopters to be equipped with recorders. Intended for tourist flights or as a flight-training tool, the system engages when the helicopter is powered up, and operators have the option of recording cockpit audio or shutting it off. The video is available after each flight by simply removing an easily accessible USB drive. In advance of the Anaheim show, pricing for the option had not yet been firmed up but Robinson noted that it would range between $1,000 and $2,000. The company plans to initially offer the system as a factory-installed delivery option but expects it will eventually be available as a field-kit installation.
The R66, which debuted in 2010, recently surpassed the one-million-flight-hour mark. Powered by the Rolls-Royce RR300, the fleet—which now numbers nearly 1,000—reached that plateau without a single reported in-flight engine failure. The fully loaded model on display on the show floor will include the 10-inch touchscreen Garmin G500 TXi display coupled with a GTN 750 GPS navigator and the Genesys Aerosystems HeliSAS autopilot.
The helicopter will also be fitted with the company’s Slimline auxiliary fuel tank, which was certified last summer and sits in the five-seat rotorcraft’s baggage compartment. A smaller version of the existing auxiliary tank, which holds 43 gallons of fuel, it was developed in response to customer requests. “What the owners really like is that it takes up less baggage space,” said Robinson of the new tank, which occupies only one-third of the baggage compartment, leaving space for up to 200 pounds of cargo. “This is one of those fun things that was offered because people out there said, ‘I really like the aux fuel tank but it's blocking some of the baggage I want to hold.'” With a capacity of 23.2 gallons, the Slimline adds an hour of operation to the R66’s normal, fully fueled three-hour endurance. “Now they routinely have four hours of fuel onboard, which is a big difference,” said Robinson. “It allows them to do a lot of jobs and go places they couldn’t go before.”
The smaller tank weighs 29 pounds empty and 189 pounds full. It includes a crash-resistant fuel bladder that fits in an aluminum and fiberglass enclosure with an internal pump that transfers fuel to the helicopter’s main tank at approximately 40 gallons per hour. With a list price of $29,000, the tank and its fiberglass mounting tray can be removed from the helicopter when not in use.
With this year's Heli-Expo show taking place less than an hour from Robinson Helicopter's Torrance, California headquarters and factory, show attendees are invited to call the office to arrange a tour of the facility. Among the sights to see is the company's proof-of-concept, standalone helipad. "With all of this talk about eVTOL off-airport landings and everything, we've actually been hit up a lot with questions like, 'What's a safe heliport where you can land?'" said Robinson. "This is something that was put together by our engineers, and we'll be showing it to our dealers and people around here."