Robinson Helicopter has had more than 21,000 pilots attend the three-and-a-half-day safety course at its California factory since the mid-1980s and thousands more at foreign-based courses sponsored by its dealers in 30 different countries to date. Robinson exports roughly 70 percent of the helicopters it builds. In any given year the factory teaches 14 to 16 courses with attendance averaging 55 to 60 for each one. Attendance for the foreign-taught courses can run from 15 to 110 students each, depending on location, with larger markets such as Australia, Brazil, and South Africa. This year the company also held four separate safety courses in China with the assistance of Chin Tu, owner of Civic Helicopters in Carlsbad, California. Tu speaks fluent Mandarin.
Flight portions in foreign-taught courses vary based on helicopter and instructor availability. The course typically includes 1.5 hours of dual instruction flying time in Robinson R22, R44, or R66 models and extensive classroom instruction in safety, operations, and maintenance. Any licensed helicopter pilot with at least three hours in a Robinson is free to attend, although 65 percent of attendees are instructors or potential instructors. The course is an FAA-approved flight instructor refresher course (FIRC) and can be used toward CFI renewal. Fees vary from $500 for the R22 course to $1,100 for the R66; even so, the company offers the course at a loss. And that is just fine with CEO Kurt Robinson.
“We’ve had the distinction of making helicopter flying less expensive and whenever that happens it gets into more hands. You have to convince people that it has to be approached differently than driving a car on the ground,” he told AIN. Robinson is the world’s largest manufacturer of low-cost civil helicopters by volume. It has made numerous safety improvements to its helicopters, including the availability of crash-resistant fuel bladders. Also, more than half of all R66 turbine singles are ordered with autopilots, and the new R44 Cadet provides more safety margins, is easier to hover, and is becoming a popular IFR trainer.
Despite all this, Robinson said any helicopter’s main safety feature remains between the pilot’s ears. “People need to set limits before they fly; corporations do it with their safety management systems (SMS). Safe flying is not just skill, it’s judgment and we spend a lot of time in the course focusing on getting people to make better decisions. I can’t be more proud of our safety course.” Kurt Robinson points out that Robinson was the first factory program to teach the Vuichard vortex ring state (aka settling with power) recovery technique back in 2011, which has now become the international standard for escaping this potentially deadly flight condition. The recovery consists of increasing the collective to climb power, keeping the nose straight with left pedal, and simultaneously applying right cyclic to a 10-20 degree bank angle.
Tim Tucker has logged 10,000 hours in Robinsons and is the company’s chief instructor pilot. “Not everyone who buys a helicopter goes through the course,” he said, “but some insurance companies require it. We certainly do a lot of things to encourage buyers to take the course,” chief among them keeping the cost low. Tucker said that crashes in Robinsons have four main causes: wire strikes and weather (29 percent each), low rotor rpm stalls (21 percent), and low G mast bumping. When Robinson started the course, the highest cause (36 percent) was low rpm rotor stall, but that has decreased significantly with the advent of the course and improvements to the helicopter, including adding an engine governor and a low rpm warning indicator, Tucker said.
All of the leading causal factors are discussed at length during the course. “The whole thing is safety. On the first day, we show some pretty vivid (crash) videos and that turns some people off,” Tucker admits. Only accidents in Robinsons are discussed. The first day of ground instruction covers topics common to all Robinson models, while the second and third days focus on the pilot’s operating handbook (POH) for the student’s specific model. There also is a more extensive discussion of model systems and maintenance on day three. The flying portion focuses on the Vuichard recovery, recovery from low rpm, advanced techniques for maneuvering in autorotations, recovery from hydraulics malfunction in applicable models (R44 Raven II and R66), and, time allowing, anything else of student interest.
Tucker, like Kurt Robinson, is a major proponent of SMS for all helicopter pilots—including private license holders. “The commercial pilot may have an SMS in place, but trying to get an individual owner to think about SMS is tougher,” Tucker said. “That’s why some of our course videos are pretty graphic and gruesome; you have to be up front about the accident consequences. The people who attend our safety courses probably already have their heads in the right spot. It’s the people who say, ‘Oh, I don’t need that,’ those are the people who should come.”