October 15, 2007 By Ken Armstrong
Continues to set the pace
Frank Robinson looks back on a path in helicopters strewn with obstacles. He began as an engineer in the late 50s on the Cessna CH-1 Skyhook helicopter, perhaps a design ahead of its time – but doomed to failure in the market.
He worked on gyroplanes, gyrodynes and eventually worked with Bell and Hughes in turn honing existing turbine helicopters. However, his dream was to produce an affordable helicopter that would provide the ultimate in freedom for many.
He left Hughes and formed and financed his own company in 1973. When his R-22 prototype showed up at the HAI convention in the mid-70s the engineers and pilots who felt turbines were the only wave of the future pooh-poohed the diminutive offering as too flimsy and decreed it would have no future. They were wrong and Robinson was decidedly right!
Initially, sales were slow but steady, until incidents with rotor systems attacking tail booms created product resistance and sales ground to a near halt. In time, this and other issues were solved and the helicopter’s desirability made it the market leader. Then in the early ’90s Robinson introduced another leap in design – the R-44. This four-place helicopter competed directly with the turbines of the day and was immediately well receieved by operators for its low acquisition and operating costs. This very efficient helicopter opened new possibilities for operators and clients alike. Sales of the two-place and four-place offerings are approaching 7,000 and growth is logarithmic as Robinson and his growing staff consider expanding their product line to meet customer requests for more helicopter types and increased capability through turbocharging, and potentially a turbine. He confided with Helicopters magazine about the challenge to find a suitable engine for his five-place R-66. The fuel-guzzling characteristics of turbines and heavy weight of diesels have always put Frank off these powerplants.
Robinson reminds me of a few other brilliant aviation engineer/designers I’ve known. They have strong opinions, see solutions and concepts in black and white rather than the world’s common shade of grey and it’s their way or the highway. And like the others in this group, he is almost always right. That’s a big part of the reason his products are super successful – he intuitively sees the big picture and realizes what must be done for the most effective, efficient solution.
When Robsinson saw a repeating issue with accidents on the R-22, he instigated pilot training/experience requirements for owners. He followed this with an excellent and inexpensive training program at the factory and this aviator benefited from same. Watching students spinning wildly in circles with simulated tail rotor failures followed by gentle “controlled” landings made me reflect on numerous accident videos that terminated differently with metal-twisting outcomes. The opportunity to practise this emergency on factory helicopters has eliminated any concerns I’ve previously borne on T/R failures in the hover.
R-22 Beta II Report Card
While Robinson didn’t design the R-22 as a training machine, a large number of flight schools think otherwise. His personal freedom machine would have incorporated higher inertia blades and he wouldn’t have laboured so much to make the machine so fast and light had he known it would be such as successful trainer. It’s true the R-22’s rotor blades require pilots to accommodate to their low inertia characteristics – much like the successful Alouette and Hughes 500 series of helicopters that preceded the Beta. What better way to force students to do it “right” and hone their skills for the most challenging helicopter characteristics?
Problems? One maintenance facility observes: “The new style scissors bearings on the R-22 are not lasting and the bearings in the stationary scissors, when worn, cause a 1:1 vertical vibration adding to the difficulty of eliminating vibration.” He adds that a baggage compartment outside the cabin would make the bird a real winner – I don’t think the production rate could handle much more success.
Operators gripe about the relatively high cost of replacing blades, the experience requirements for pilots picking up ships from the factory and the lack of credit terms for dealers on parts. Nonetheless, the same dealer added: “Parts are reasonable and for the most part available, and in spite of record sales deliveries pushing capacity to the limit Frank Robinson didn’t have to write a letter to his customers this year as other manufacturers did to apologize for not having routine spare parts on the shelf ready for shipment.”
The consensus of operators/dealers is that this 180-hp machine is fairly bulletproof and generally makes it through its recently extended TBO with rather few snags. In fact, the 12-year or 2,200-hour TBO includes all life-limited components. So, until one of the TBO time limits expires, the machine requires relatively little maintenance other than snag rectification and inspections, as the major work is completed when the helicopter goes back to the factory for an overhaul that makes it essentially “born again.” Some consider this manufacturer’s overhaul somewhat pricey, but many appreciate the ability to forecast virtually all operating costs for the helicopter years in advance.
My test/evaluation flights on the R-22 every couple of years have shown a helicopter that is constantly improving and a company that listens to the marketplace. The performance figures speak for themselves and the customer ship I flew was reasonably quiet and had very low vibration levels. Visibility is essentially unobstructed and the cockpit is roomy enough to carry a total of 400 pounds of occupants and some possessions in the under-seat lockers. The Beta II accomplishes these tasks for a miserly total hourly operating cost under US$95 hourly – and I’ve assumed avgas at $4 a gallon for these calculations.
By now, most readers will have seen all of the performance data and specifications for this two-place. But how do operators and maintenance facilities feel about the type? Typically, pilots would like to see more power in the R-22 Beta for greater lifting power – especially at altitude – but this is a common observation for many helicopter types. Mention was also made about the lack of a baggage compartment outside the cabin even though the under-seat storage will accommodate many items.
One questionnaire respondent summed up: “We will continue to purchase new Robinson products for our company because they are safe, reliable, comfortable, well priced for the segment of the market they fill, reasonably supported by the manufacturer, and the most cost-effective helicopter on the market to operate.”
R-44 II Report Card
The latest variant, the Raven II, produces more power with its angle-valve, tuned induction Lycoming thereby providing improved high-altitude performance, increased payload and higher cruising speeds. Additionally, the main and tail rotor blades have new aerodynamic tip caps which reduce flyover noise and the MRBs have increased area providing more lifting thrust and reduced vibration. The autorotative characteristics of the four-place haven’t been diminished with the blade changes since these R-44s have excellent high inertia rotor blades for very forgiving autorotative characteristics. Moreover, the very competent governor maintains rotor rpm within a small band – even with large collective excursions.
Turbine twirler operators with their noses stuck in the air will be greatly surprised should they sample the Raven II. This is one smooth, quiet machine and although it won’t lift as much as a JetRanger, it will allow you to fill the seats and fuel tank and fly faster Moreover, the hourly operating cost including reserves toward overhauls and based on 500 hours a year is under US$160. That’s impressive!
Owners and MROs were unanimously supportive of the type and only one ventured that the hourly cost of a reserve toward overhaul on the blades was 50% more than a JetRanger – this largely due to the fact the TBOs are vastly different at 2,200 and 5,000 hours.
This helicopter is becoming very popular in specialized roles such as police and media support with cost-effective optional packages that expand the Raven’s utility. The R-44 series has eclipsed R-22 sales for years and is in fact the world’s most popular helicopter based on sales. Readers wishing further information on Robinson products can contact the factory by phone: 310-539-0508 or on the web at: Robinsonheli.com.