Southern California flying
Building affordable, entry-level, high-performance helicopters has been the cornerstone philosophy of the California-based Robinson Helicopter Company for the past 40 years.
Its two-seat R22, and the four-seat R44 are best sellers in their niche markets – so when Robinson decided to take a look at introducing a competitively priced gas turbine-driven helicopter (the R66), it was a big step. This was moving them into a different arena of competition and a new customer set.
Robinson wanted to develop an aircraft that would fill a gap in the market that they had identified. They knew that existing turbine helicopters start at around US$1.2 million. An R44 retails at US$450,000 and so it was evident that there was market potential for a new product at the right price – if they could bring it in at under US$1 million.
The five-seat, gas turbine-powered R66 entered service in 2010 priced at US$860,000, and since then over 600 have been delivered. “We had a healthy set of orders when we launched, and this year we expect to deliver around 130 R66 aircraft. I see tremendous potential as it becomes more established and its reputation grows. I don’t think we have really tapped into that potential yet so we are very optimistic for the future,” says Kurt Robinson, the President of Robinson Helicopters.
The development of the R66 can be traced back to the early 2000s and here, VP Engineering Pete Riedl, takes up the story.
“Back in the early 2000s we had been looking at a larger helicopter that would be a replacement for Bell’s Jet Ranger market and at that time we were studying a diesel engine as an option. “Around 2004-5, Rolls-Royce contacted us to say that they were developing the RR300, a small gas turbine that would fit our programme and that’s what really kick-started the RR66,” says Pete.
Originally, Pete and his team planned to borrow as much design and engineering from the R44 as possible, but as the design developed, it evolved into something quite individual.
Then, of course, there is the power and speed of the Rolls-Royce RR300 gas turbine, capable of generating 300shp. It is de-rated to produce 270shp at take-off and 224shp for continuous operation. The engine is installed in the rear of the aircraft at a 37 degree angle which saves headroom and leaves extra space for the luggage compartment.
Kurt Robinson adds: “An absolute design priority of the R66 was that it had to be faster than the R44. We streamlined everything we could on the aircraft to increase speed. It was something we were anxious about because even though the computer model gives you a good indication, you can never really be certain until you fly it.”
It was faster. The R66 was certified with a cruise speed of over 130mph and a maximum range of 350nm. Pilots describe the R66 as amazingly light to fly with outstanding performance and agility.
All the design work for the R66 was done in-house by Robinson and they worked closely throughout the development programme with the engine team from Rolls-Royce. During the certification process, Rolls-Royce also had an engineer permanently based on site at Torrance, Los Angeles, with Robinson.
Earlier this year, Robinson committed to an agreement for 1,000 RR300 engines at a signing ceremony held at the Heli-Expo event. “We signed a new contract there with Rolls-Royce to cover the next ten years’ worth of production, so we are comfortable with the engine and the Rolls-Royce relationship,” says Kurt.
Since its introduction, Robinson has continued to announce further enhancements for the R66. This year they included the Garmin G500H and Genesys Aerosystems’ HeliSAS autopilot to the optional equipment list for the aircraft. The G500H provides flight instrumentation, moving map navigation and situational awareness on dual screens. It is housed on a newly designed instrumentation panel which also houses the traditional required instruments.
For sales and service, Robinson is well established globally with over 450 service centres and dealerships worldwide. Robinson describe their business model as pretty much similar to a car dealership, with them as the manufacturer but the sales and service centres providing the direct interface with customers at a local level.
“Pilots find that the R66 has the range and speed they need. Many customers just want to fly and not worry about maintenance and the R66 lets them do that,” says Kurt.