Archive for September, 2010

Frank Robinson

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

In the early 1970s, an engineer named Frank Robinson wanted to build a small two-seat personal helicopter. He pitched the concept to major manufactures, but none saw any market potential in the civilian market – the big money was in military machines. So in 1973, Robinson left his job at Hughes Aircraft and started the Robinson Helicopter Company in his home. His living room was set up with drafting tables and the garage was full of tools and machining equipment.

His son, Kurt Robinson, told me he came home from high school one day and found a tail-rotor blade baking in the family oven. Frank had built a device to regulate the oven’s temperature to a high degree of accuracy to bond parts. Kurt said the upside was his reputation in the neighborhood for making the best pizzas. When the box said to bake at 350 degrees, it was exactly 350 degrees.

Robinson rented a small hangar at the Torrance airport and began assembling and testing his helicopter. Robinson flew the first prototype himself in August 1975. After seven-plus years of designing, building, and testing the Robinson R22 received FAA certification in 1979. Much to Robinson’s surprise the R22 became an instant hit in the flight training market and soon became the world’s top-selling civil helicopter. As the R22’s design matured, Robinson started working on a bigger four-place helicopter. The R44 was certified in late 1992 and it became so popular it eventually out sold the R22. Many wondered what was next for the small company that had become one of general aviation’s biggest success stories. The answer came in 2007 when the company announced development of a five-place single-engine turbine helicopter. The R66 is scheduled for FAA certification at the end of October 2010.

Last August, with the R66 on track for certification, Frank Robinson announced he was retiring at age 80. Frank’s son, Kurt, who joined Robinson Helicopter in 1987, became the new CEO of the privately held company. Kurt will be leading a team that will continue to grow the company.

Frank has won numerous awards and donated millions of dollars to charities and aviation educational programs. He is a full member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots and a Fellow of the American Helicopter Society. I have had the pleasure of knowing Frank for about 20 years and during that time have come to know him as one of the most brilliant engineers and businessmen in the rotorcraft industry. There is no question he has had an enormous impact on the light civilian helicopter industry. I wish him a long and happy retirement.

Kurt and Frank Robinson

Robinson R66—First flight

Monday, September 13th, 2010

I just spent the last two days flying Robinson Helicopter’s new light turbine helicopter, the R66. Although it is still in experimental category, FAA certification is expected in the next 30 days as Robinson and the FAA work out some final details.

Having a couple of thousand hours in the Bell 206 light turbine series helicopter made for an easy direct comparison. Last year Bell announced that it would cease production of the five-place Bell 206B JetRanger, citing the R66 as one reason. Company founder Frank Robinson’s design goals are not just well-engineered products, but cost effective as well. The R66, the company’s first turbine helicopter, exemplifies this objective extremely well, and after flying it, I think Bell made the right decision.

The R66 is powered by a Rolls-Royce RR300 (model number 250-C300/A1), a new engine based to the proven 250-series engine (same engine used in the 206B). It is mounted below the transmission deck at a 37-degree angle which gives easy access for maintenance. The engine produces 300 shaft horsepower and is derated to 270 shp for a five-minute take off rating and 224 shp for max continuous operation. Starting is simple; igniter switch to enable (a nice feature that allows you to motor the starter without firing the igniters–no more need to pull the igniter circuit breaker); press-and-release the start button (it’s latched so no need to hold it down), at 15 percent N1 push the fuel control in and monitor engine light off and acceleration. At 65- to 67-percent N1 the starter disengages and the generator is switched on.

Picking the R66 up to a hover is smooth and it feels a little bigger and a little heavier than the piston-powered R44, which it is. I flew with Doug Tompkins, Robinson’s chief pilot who did all the experimental test flying on the R66. We were hovering at 64-percent torque and as we approached 60 knots during the take off Doug suggested pulling 100-percent torque. I started raising the collective, before I got to 90 percent the VSI was pegged at 2,000 feet per minute and at 100 percent we were climbing like a banshee. It didn’t take long to feel comfortable with the helicopter and we moved on to autorotations. These were predictable and basically a lot of fun. I did 180-degree, 90-degree, and out-of-ground-effect hovering autorotations to a full touchdown. It is just like the R44, only easier.

Another noticeable feature is comfort; the cabin is eight inches wider than the R44. The cyclic flight control retains Robinson’s T-bar arrangement. Not only does this ease transitioning from the R44 to the R66, but the T-bar is exceedingly comfortable in flight.

There is not doubt this helicopter will do very well. Once again Frank Robinson has found a need and filled it. The agile and turbine-powered R66 will do the jobs that a piston engine simply can’t, such as high-altitude flying. It will also find great acceptance in parts of the world where avgas is hard to get or just not available. And for those operators and contracts that require a turbine engine, the R66 will fit perfectly.

There is a lot more to say about this helicopter so look for a full feature article in an upcoming issue of AOPA Pilot magazine.