By Steve Goldsworthy - As I sit outside a restaurant talking with Pat Cox and Pete Riedl in the gorgeous So Cal weather, I can’t help but think about flying helicopters. I wonder aloud why I chose to drive and not fly down to the Robinson plant in Torrance, California.
So how did the R66 test flight go up at Big Bear? I asked Pete. "Great, the first day we just did normal flying, then we did some more extensive maneuvers, and we saved the HV Curve for the last day. I was really impressed with the FAA team we had certifying the helicopter," Pete continues, "and they seemed to be really impressed with the R66." As the vice president of engineering for Robinson Helicopters, Pete has been immersed in getting the R66 certified.
Probably the best news out of the FAA battery of tests is that the R66 was certified last month and without any reference to SFAR 73. I’ve wondered for years why even the R44 falls under those special rules, originally designed around the R22.
Pat heads up the technical support group at Robinson, so as Pete’s job may get a little easier, Pat’s is just beginning. They both explain how the fuel control on the 66 is an improvement over traditional turbine ships. Any R44 pilot is familiar with the mixture control on a Raven, so they kept a similar design in the new ship. Unlike traditional turbines, this one does not take 3 hands or holding down the starter button with all your might. Here you just pull the fuel control to off, set the collective throttle to idle, master on, and hit the starter. The starter will then auto engage and remain locked on, hands off. At 15% N1 RPM you push in the fuel control to light the fire, and then at 58% the starter will automatically disengage and switch to generator mode.
Wow, I think. Even I can handle that.
Back at the main facility, Kurt Robinson comes down to greet me, and soon we are heading deep into the plant. By the time we walk onto the floor a few seconds later, it’s like being in a candy store. Sixteen or more R66 airframes sit neatly in two rows, a crowd of assemblers and inspectors around each of them. Next to me is a row of R44’s being built. If I had a lawn chair nearby I could sit here in the middle of the assembly floor for a few hours just breathing in the helicopter environment.
When I told Pat that during a plant visit a few months ago, he laughed. "Oh yeah, sorry, we kind of get used to it," he said with a smile.
I’m impressed today. The R66 line is up and running and there are another 20 airframes in various stages behind that first group. Further back on the line, workers put touches on the RR300 turbine, which is the very heart of the 66.
Kurt and I talk a bit about the luggage compartment. Kurt says it hit him during the trip to Houston last year for HAI. "Usually we have to plan our luggage, you know, bring bags that will fit under the seat. On that trip, we just packed our bags and shoved it all into the luggage compartment, it was great." In addition to the luggage compartment, you still get 50 pounds of load under each seat, and a 300-pound seat limit lets even big guys like me feel comfortable.
I’m standing here on Robinson Helicopters’ tarmac looking at serial number 5. More like staring actually. I can’t help but notice that main rotor blade and compare it to the famous workhorse of helicopters, the Bell 206 Jet Ranger.
"One thing we knew about the R66, is that it had to be faster than the R44," Kurt says. "So we spent a lot of time streamlining the airframe. We knew we had a larger aircraft, its taller, it’s wider so we knew we had more drag to overcome. Even the fuel caps were designed to be more aerodynamic." Apparently that extra drag was no match for Robinson engineers. The POH shows a never exceed airspeed (below 2200 pounds and below 3000’DA) of 140 knots.
"You know the difference when you drive 65 instead of 55? Kurt asks. Sure I say, not remembering the last time I drove 55. "Well, when you fly the R66, and you’re moving along at 130MPH, you can really tell the difference between the R66 and the R44."
When I last spoke with Kurt a few months ago, he was the vice president of Robinson Helicopters. With Frank’s recent retirement, Kurt now serves as it’s president, but he’s not your typical CEO. Simply put, Kurt is a nice guy. He knows the strengths in the products he makes and looks forward to the new markets that seem to follow each of the company’s new releases.
I ask Kurt about the significance of the first helicopter being delivered to Helistream. "They have been a Robinson distributor for many years," he says. "And we wanted to do the 100 hour inspections on the ship and stay involved with these first couple aircraft. Right now we are shipping helicopters to our distributors all over the globe, and most will be used as demonstrators".
I get to talk to Kurt a bit about flying. Kurt himself is a helicopter pilot with about 1000 hours. We both learned to fly the R22 back before it had a governor. He reminisces a bit about a recent flight he made to Washington in the R44 and how much fun that was. Funny how taking the work out of a trip brings us all back to why we fly- because we love doing it!
Kurt says it took 7 years to build the R22, and then it took 7 to build the R44. "We thought we could do the R66 in less time, but every time we did a design, we reviewed all the possibilities, so in the end, well, it took about 7 years to come out with the R66."
I can recall visiting Robinson back in the late 1980’s. The plant has doubled in size a few times and now has another 135,000 square feet built and ready to go. Kurt tells me that some of the other functions in the plant will be moved here, to allow the assembly lines to grow as needed.
I ask about the downturn in the economy over the last few years. "All of our unsold backlog is gone and orders are up." With around 100 R66’s on order now, about an $80 Million dollar backlog in just that one product, I can see where his optimism comes from. "We have seen our orders decrease a few years ago, level off and now we are definitely seeing an uptrend," he tells me. "I expect to see even more once we get the air conditioning certified."
This last recession was unlike any others as it was so wide spread. He counts off the countries globally where economies were uncertain. I can see the pain in his face when we talk about the layoffs the company endured. "The hardest thing is to find and keep good employees", he says. He points to a stack of airframes built and just waiting for orders. "We did everything we could to keep our people working."
Does he expect to see a slowdown in R44 sales now that the R66 is out? "Not really, it’s two different markets. Who would want to spend 800,000 when a Raven or Raven II can do the job at half the price?"
Kurt tells me "There have been a couple milestones that I remember. Getting the governor in the R22 was a big deal, getting the hydraulics in the R44, and now the R66. We have over 9000 helicopters built, but I think the next big milestone will be a party when we hit 10,000."
"I think when we hit 10,000 helicopters, we’ve really made it."
Wow, Kurt, I think you already have.