Flying|March 2020

When an engineer proposes a truly new solution to an entrenched problem, a chorus of naysayers inevitably arises from the midst of any nods of appreciation. The FAA, in fact, has produced processes for accepting such departures from common thinking—often found under the “alternate means of compliance” route in aircraft certification—but those manufacturers that have pursued such paths to certification can certainly expect pushback from the crowd. If you consider this for a moment, that pushback often means either the company is genuinely headed down the garden path or it’s onto something truly different that’s never been done before.

Frank Robinson was a child of the Great Depression. While not necessarily a condition to determine either success or failure, the environment experienced by his generation caused many to fall prey to resignation because of forces beyond their control. Still, in a fortunate number, the tough circumstances bred a determination to fight past them. To distill a worthy résumé down to its watershed moment in 1973, Robinson resigned from the last of his roles as an aerospace engineer for others (among them: Cessna Aircraft Company, Bell Helicopter, and Hughes Helicopter Company), and set out on his quest to design and bring to life a low-cost, approachable rotorcraft to the flying public. It was a wide-open space, and Frank charged right in. As a result, if you’re learning to fly helicopters today, you’re overwhelmingly more likely to learn in a Robinson than any other ship on the market.

As we stood out on the ramp following our walk through the factory, Kurt Robinson, Frank’s son, gestured across Torrance’s runways to the building that once housed the company’s original factory—once Frank had moved headquarters from the family home in nearby Palos Verdes. Frank is no longer involved in the daily operations of the business after retirement 10 years ago; Kurt assumed the role of president in August 2010 and provides the vision for Robinson moving forward.

The company now produces the single-engine piston R22 Beta II, R44 Cadet and Raven II, and the turbine-powered R66 models, with a variety of versions fine-tuned to specific missions, such as law enforcement and news reporting. Unique to the series are several features designed to make the helicopters less expensive to acquire and operate, easier to enter and exit, and more likely to teach the student rigorous aircraft control than others in their class.

Most notable when you first enter the cockpit are the flight controls, which take the form of a T-bar rather than the common floor-mounted cyclic stick. The design allows for control of the aircraft from both the left and right seats—meaning instructors can orchestrate some control even with the bar angled to the right (the normal pilot-in-command position in most helicopters).

The Robinson series also features a low-inertia rotor design, with a semirigid, two-blade main rotor and a tail-mounted, two-blade anti-torque rotor. Low rotor rpm is always a concern for rotorcraft pilots, but it takes on special importance for those of the Robinson series aircraft. More on that a bit later.

The R22 Beta II is powered by a derated Lycoming O-320-J2A, which normally produces 160 hp but was walked back—or derated—by the company for a number of reasons. A derated engine isn’t working as hard, so it tends to last a bit longer, all other factors considered. Plus, by derating the engine’s performance at sea level, the helicopter maintains the same performance at altitude—ostensibly reducing the hazard of high-density-altitude operations, especially for low-time pilots.

Over the years, a multitude of features have been added to the aircraft, such as the crashworthy bladder fuel tanks now available on the R22 Beta II, R44 models and R66. The safety improvements generally reflect a balance between keeping costs in line and implementing the latest upgrades. However, on the upper end of the model range, a wide variety of the latest glass-panel navigators and other avionics are available.

The price of an R22 starts at $304,000 with basic standard equipment, a figure that makes it more than competitive with new, entry-level Part 23 airplanes. The R44 Raven II begins at $481,000, and the R66 is at $906,000. With such relatively low costs of acquisition, along with operating costs that average $100 per hour less than others in the class, the R22 and R44 have been extremely popular with flight schools.

However, one vital parameter to factor into the ownership equation when investing in a Robinson goes back to the overarching philosophy of commitment Frank instilled. The aircraft comes in for a planned factory (or service center) overhaul at 2,200 hours, or 12 years. The factory overhaul isn’t cheap—it runs from $160,000 for the R22 Beta II and $247,000 for the R44 Raven II to $326,000 for the R66—but the result is a nearly as-good-as-new helicopter on the other side.

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