Robinson R22: The good, the bad, and the ugly

July 15, 2014 by Neal Lanning

As the President of Advanced Helicopter Concepts, Inc. in Frederick, Maryland, a Robinson Dealer and Service Center for 27 years, we have learned a lot about the Robinson R22. Advanced Helicopter currently operates five R22s, including one instrument trainer, a 1983 Alpha, serial number 378, that is still going strong.

The Good: The R22 is hands-down the world’s leader in civil helicopter training. It is like the Cessna 152 of the fixed-wing world. The helicopter is reliable, cost effective and safe if operated within its guidelines. Like it or not Frank Robinson and the R22 created an entire new helicopter market. It services the recreational helicopter pilot and allows helicopter ownership. Before the R22 and R44 both were rare. The R22 is also able to feed the rapidly growing EMS and law enforcement pilot demand that was fueled by a large crop of retiring pilots. With the demand in the last 20 years, retiring military pilots could not keep pace. With that being said…

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The Bad: The R22 does demand respect. Regardless of your experience in the helicopter, when you think you have it figured out, it will remind you that you that it demands respect. Like all helicopters, especially those with light inertia rotor systems, the recognition time during an engine failure or other emergency requiring an autorotation is critical. The trick is to get the helicopter into an autorotation in time. Once in the autorotation it does a good job and is predictable. As a pilot of the R22 you must always be aware that getting into an autorotation is the most critical time. As a CFI you must double your effort and just know at some point in the flight you may have to take the helicopter if there is a problem. If there’s no problem, great, but the awareness must always be heightened.

The Ugly: If you are not diligent, do not get the helicopter into an autorotation in the small window, and the rotor RPM get below about 75 percent you may never get it back. So it essential to just get the helicopter into autorotation and maintain RPM, deal with airspeed, and find a suitable place next. Stored energy in altitude is your best friend; continuous low operation is not a good idea. There are other problems, such as the rapid rollover rate if you stick a skid, and the helicopter can be very unforgiving. Practice your hovering and ground maneuvers with some space between you and the ground.

Despite the issues, it is still a great helicopter and we love ours. The way the average pilot can overcome any issues is to be prepared. Visit a competent helicopter company with reputable CFIs until you have slayed the dragon and an autorotation is another day at the office.

15 Responses to “Robinson R22: The good, the bad, and the ugly”

  1. Kris S Says:

    Nicely said. There is much wisdom in these words. However, as a matter of emphasis, data compiled by RHC show a very small percentage of accidents caused by engine failure.

  2. Hanna Says:

    @Kris,

    I couldn’t have stated it better! The rate of engine failure is extremely rare, therefore the endless practice (at some flight schools) of auto-rotations ends up being the biggest cause of accidents.
    I have never been given a clear answer to a simple question: Why repeatedly practice a dangerous maneuver when for all intents and purposes it will never be needed?
    The only time your 320 Lycoming fails is when you’ve ran it out of gas.

  3. Melissa T Says:

    It is true that the statistical probability of an engine failure is rare, but it does happen. Also true that most accidents in R22 are during Autorotation practice, however there are other emergencies, loss of tail rotor is one example, that would require an autorotation. People do run out of fuel and if you needed to do one it would be nice to be confident in your ability to do one.

  4. Robert Englert Says:

    Also be warned that extreme control movements particularly with the Cyclic Pitch could result in a sheared tail boom which could ruin anyone’s day.

    RE

  5. CR Says:

    There should be many Robinson simulators so that the auto rotations can be practiced over and overd the check ride autos caould be done in them also, it would save a lot of accidents and be a better training experieince

  6. John Majane Says:

    My hangar is right next to Advanced Helicopters. They are running all the time at an airport that has otherwise gotten very quiet over the past decade I am sad to say. It looks like a well run business and they seem to be having fun. The writer of this article knows what he is saying. Tempted to go over sometime and take a lesson but it looks like to much fun!

  7. Avi Weiss Says:

    Frank himself never “liked” that the R22 became a popular training platform, as he never intended that to be the primary consumer when he designed it.

    When handled appropriately by competent pilots, the R22 is a safe and relatively low-cost aircraft to operate. That said, I am a part-time CFI and mostly stick to teaching in the R44, for a multitude of reasons. Like the “scared leading the blind” combination that mostly pairs low-time CFIs with zero-hour students, coupled with the focus on autorotations during primary training, using the R22 for training places the least experienced pilot on the most unforgiving part of the aircraft spectrum.

    Frequently coupled with CFIs who have barely finished training themselves, in addition to having relatively low flight time, going out and doing 10 “practice autos” in a row seems to set up the recurring “trial by fire” scenario, and quite frankly it’s surprising that accidents or “incidents” (rotor overspeeds, hard landings, chopped booms, etc) are as infrequent as they are. At my airport KLDJ, over the last 3 years there have been no less than 4 R22-related mishaps during training, ALL related to autorotation practice.

    I believe there are several changes to the R22 that can be made to increase the “margin of error” available, but likely won’t occur because it is likely too expensive to go through recertification, especially on flight-critical components. This is a prime example of how the heavy burden of certification actually HINDERS safety in the long-run, by functionally preventing manufacturers from incrementally improving their products over time.

    As Neal said, “the R22 demands respect”, both from the instructor and the student, and both must be on guard to ensure that respect translates into timely, appropriate, smooth control movements, especially during autos.

  8. jim Says:

    I’ve owned Bell 47s, Hughes 300, and for the last 20 years, an Enstrom.

    These helicopters have much higher-inertia rotors. With the low inertia rotor on R-22–the best thing for this helicopter would be wheel landing gear. If you’ve ever flown an autogyro with wheels, autos are a no-brainer. No “bottoming the collective”–simply lower the nose–flare for a landing like an airplane. The rollout is next to zero.

    No failure to enter autos–no running out of rotor rpm while still too high–no last-minute pitch pull–no pitch-0ver on landing if catching a skid–just flare and land.

  9. Tony R Says:

    I just returned yesterday from the Robinson Safety Course at their factory in Torrance, CA. First, let say – as a pilot who only recently received his PPL rating in an R22 – the course is both sobering and extremely informative. Highly experienced and skilled pilots recant accident investigations they’ve experience during a large portion of the course. I’ve developed a new appreciation for the ongoing effort that goes into helicopter design and evolution. The R22 and 44 are the only craft I’ve piloted, so I can’t compare to other models. As a 60 year old guy who simply wanted to take the challenge – it’s by far the hardest thing I’ve every done. And what an awesome experience!

  10. Neal Lanning Says:

    The Bell 47 and the Hughes are great Helicopters, but not practical for instruction on any scale more than one or two at a time, Ive tried, like it or not the R22 is it. Those of us who chose to fly it must simply learn how to handle it. The RHC Safety Course is a great place to start.

  11. jim Says:

    A business mentor once told me “You make bad decisions when you are poor–always make the choice of what’s BEST, not what’s expedient.”

    I haven’t seen very many people experienced in other helicopters that get excited about flying the R-22 themselves. There’s a message there.

    If we don’t choose it to fly ourselves, why put students in it? Even the R-22 users admit that there are “issues” unique to the R-22–and even Robinson, in asking for the training requirement, acknowledges that.

    The R-22 shares the same issues as the early LearJets and Mitsubishi aircraft–”unique” flight characteristics that require pilot compensation to turn in a safe flight. Specialized training, in all cases, improved the poor record, but the fact remains that there are aircraft that are forgiving and HELP the pilot, and those that have inherent “issues”.

    When purchasing an aircraft–buy the best and safest aircraft out there. Cessna sold a ton of Citations because they were the safest aircraft in their class. Beech owned the turboprop market for the same reason. Sacrificing safety for money is never a good decision.

  12. Freddie Ephraim Says:

    Neal could not have said it better. The R22 is simply the best training aircraft out there. It is incredibly safe if you are trained propery and fly it defensively- but isn’t that the truth with any aircraft Jim? You could take a Cessna 172 which is incredibly forgiving and take a pilot that is not trained well or inexperienced and you will have catastrophic consequences even if nothing goes wrong whereas if you take a well trained pilot and put them in an R22 and complete a safe flight. Bottom line is that there are many pilots out there that wouldn’t be where they are today without an R22 like myself and owe their entire career to that well put together and very reliable machine. Flight instruction in that aircraft is also very safe as long as you do not let your guard down- but again, it’s like that in every aircraft. Many people need to consider that an R22 with a well trained pilot is safer than a Cessna 172 with a poorly trained one- wether it’s forgiving or not, it comes down to pilot judgement, experience and always putting the aircraft in a position in which an emergency could be delt with if encountered- no matter what the airframe. I know many pilot that have decades of experience in which the R22 is still their favorite aircraft to fly, and that to me says it all.

  13. jim Says:

    ” Many people need to consider that an R22 with a well trained pilot is safer than a Cessna 172 with a poorly trained one”.

    No question about that–but why not give the pilot every break you can? Why put up with an aircraft that has this many “special considerations” (quirks)? The author of the piece acknowledges it–Robinson acknowledges it–the FAA acknowledges it–and even the defenders acknowledge it.

    The only thing that the defenders of the type seem to focus on is that it is cheap. So is a Yugo–if you want to put up with all of IT’S eccentricies–can you imagine a car rental company explaining to the renter that “you should look out for the brakes, don’t drive over 55 because the steering tends to wander, and “you might experience THIS”.

    The 172 analogy doesn’t hold up. Though the 172 is often a “starter” aircraft and is often flown by low-time pilots, it is also the SAFEST aircraft in its class–putting the lie to the old aviation wives tale that “safety doesn’t sell.” Ditto for the King Air (vs. the Mitsubishi) and the Citation vs. the Learjet–each are the safest in their class, and each are the largest sellers because of it. Would R-22 sales be better if the aircraft were safer? Absolutely. Look at R-44 sales–a number of those owner-operators opted for the R-44 rather than an R-22–no doubt that one of the reasons is the better flying qualities of the R-44 vs. the 22. That analogy also applies to that 172–so many people opted for the bigger aircraft that it eventually killed the smaller Cessna 152. Build an R-22 with the flying qualities of the R-44, and you would have even larger sales–even if it cost 10% more to make the improvements, I believe most buyers would opt for it.

    Think about an operator having to tell the dead pilot’s family–”well, the R-22 isn’t the SAFEST helicopter, but it is the CHEAPEST ONE! Don’t bother–the victim’s attorney will be glad to make that point to the jury.

    Do what’s RIGHT, not what is expedient. Don’t accept compromises.

  14. Freddie Ephraim Says:

    Well Jim I understand what you’re conveying and you are certainly entitled to your opinion, but many pilots including myself will just simply disagree. I have had nothing but great experiences with the R22 from private through ATP and continue to have an absolute blast flying that well built, reliable, “affordable” (I am aware that affordable and helicopter should never go in the same sentence!), and efficient aircraft. I appreciate your consciousness for safety, but to blanket a statement that the R22 is unsafe is an uneducated notion as it is incredibly safe if respected, as any aircraft and is proven by hundreds of safe flights daily. My parting words to you are that if you can design and build a single engine piston helicopter that operates at the same cost per hour (allowing pilots like myself to afford training who cannot buy a helicopter like you to build our careers), is not a maintenance nightmare, is safe like an R22, and can give the pilot absolutely every opportunity under the sun for forgiveness, you will be an incredibly wealthy man.

  15. Jason Says:

    In a lot of ways “cheap” and “affordable” can be considered synonyms. However, in aviation, the two can almost NEVER be used in the same context. The R22 is an affordable helicopter that is in NO way cheap. SFAR 73 was not written due to the R22 being “cheap” or “unsafe.” From what I understand, Robinson went to the FAA and proposed such training in order to prevent accidents from happening and to make sure that each and every pilot is well versed in the capabilities of the aircraft. Seeing more accidents statistically in an R22 vs other types of light, training helicopters is really a numbers game. The R22 is used by more training facilities 10 fold compared to the next. Regardless, all helicopters need to be treated with respect. I’m not saying airplanes don’t, but there are many qualities that can not be compared between the two. I fly both and yes, both can kill you, just in different ways.

    To the people saying “why practice autos, the Lycoming only fails when it’s run out of gas,” have either never flown a heli, or did not pay attention during airplane flight training. Yes, a sudden mechanical failure leading to and immediate or reduced power loss of ANY engine is VERY rare and most likely will never happen. To me, the most likely time you have significant power loss would be from carb icing, at least in the R22. With proper training and technique, this should be a non issue. However, there are other instances when an auto can/must be performed and that is where the training comes in. To me, the auto was a little intimidating at first. Once broken down, it is actually a very easy maneuver and can be performed very safely with a competent instructor and a good understanding of what is happening; very much like what you would have before performing and engine out in an airplane.

    The reason helicopter schools stay in business for so long is because of people like Freddie and Neal over at Advanced (and I’m sure the rest of the CFI’s over there as well). I do my training where I live in Virginia, but have flown with Freddie over at advanced. It’s instructors like him as well as very well maintained aircraft such as the ones at Advanced that keep pilots safe and learning day to day.

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