Robinson R66 Turbine Pilot Evalution By: Shawn Coyle
(Vertical Magazine 2013)
Normally, pilot evaluation flights are usually done at the factory with a fully equipped (all the bells and whistles) machine with a company pilot – at light weight, for example. I’ve done quite a few, and they are an effective way to show off a new machine or equipment. So when Mike Reyno contacted me to do a pilot evaluation of the R66 in Calgary, Alta., I was puzzled – had Robinson Helicopters somehow slipped away from Torrence, Calif., without anyone saying anything? I was even more puzzled when he said it needed to be done soon, before it got too cold (What – there’s no heater? What gives?) And when I contacted the folks who were asking for me to do the evaluation, and they said they needed some people to be ballast, I was now very curious.
Why the ballast? And the warm weather? And Calgary? I queried. Eric Gould, the Canadian Robinson distributor, responded quickly – “We want to show the capabilities of this helicopter in a demanding environment. We’re impressed with the performance and handling, and think you will be as well.” With all that in mind, I arranged for some self-loading ballast (my brother and my niece) and headed to Calgary.
The Aerial Recon facility has a small hangar and office in the Southwest of Calgary, elevation 4,500 feet, and that’s where things were to start. After a short introduction to the cast, a very quick review of the flight manual and limitations, and the standard who is going to do what to whom, we set off for a tour of the machine. I wasn’t aware that a previous incarnation of Aerial Recon had been one of the largest operators of Robinsons, and had provided quite a few suggestions to the factory to improve all the different models. A lot of very nice touches showed up! The external power plug, for example, is situated very close to the engine, inside the cowlings – this means there is less wiring weight, and less electrical power loss to the starter (see picture). The tail rotor was slightly larger than the R44. The small horizontal plate on the stinger had taken it’s parentage from a float equipped R44, and the mast was several inches taller than the piston engine version.
Another panel opened to reveal the oil level sight gauges – with LED lights for illumination that turned on when the panel was opened, and shut off when it closed. The helicopter was full of delightful little touches that showed that Robinson had listened to people in the field.
The cockpit looked quite familiar — and another minor change popped up – the usual Robinson engine/rotor RPM gauge with crossed needles had been replaced with the gauge shown in the picture… and the normal turbine engine gauges. Once safely nestled in the cockpit, the roominess of the machine became apparent – in fact, it was pointed out that the interior is slightly larger than the venerable Bell 206.
Now more differences showed up – and so did Frank Robinson’s touches and continual questioning of the status quo. The throttle has no ‘off’ position. The minimum position is idle. If you want to shut the fuel off, it’s necessary to pull out the lever. This makes the throttle mechanism easier to design, install and maintain. But how well does this system work? I’d hate to have to count the number of starts of this type of engine I’ve done over the years – and I could say I’ve gotten so used to it that I think it’s normal. So after a very quick talk through by Marty Charbonneau, the safety pilot, it was time to turn fuel into rotor RPM. Throttle at idle, press the starter button and release (starter stays engaged), at 13% N1, push fuel lever all the way in. Sit and watch. Smooth acceleration, low maximum TOT, rotors turning. At 58% starter drops out. No drama. I have to admit that I felt slightly cheated – it can’t be this easy. But it was that easy, and it should be that easy. Thank you, Frank! Being a simple machine, the rest of the startup checks were equally as simple, and in mere minutes we were ready to lift off. Even at flight RPM, the interior was quite quiet.
This is where the confidence the whole team had in the machine was going to be put to the test. We were within 10 pounds of maximum weight, it was close to 4,000’ pressure altitude, and the air temperature was 13°C (not really warm, but above normal for that altitude). We were parked close to the hangar, and had a very slight tailwind. I’ve had safety pilots in similar situations (pilot evaluations) who were hovering close to the flight controls – to them, I’m an unknown quantity, and they don’t want any egg on their face if things go wrong. And that’s when the helicopter is nowhere near its limits. But not this time. Noting out of the corner of my eye the lack of concern by Marty (hands on his lap – either very confident in me, or more likely in his ability to detect and correct any mistakes I’m likely to make), I started to lift off. One of the ways to note good handling is that if you can do something perfectly the first time, (especially with my lack of experience in the Robinson line, and my relative lack of recent flying) it says that the machine must be OK. And it was – one small overcorrection on the pedals (I’m going to blame it on the tail wind) and we were hovering nicely. What was notable was the complete lack of any indications of stress or strain from the airframe – lots of torque (at TOT and N1) margin for hovering IGE, pedals light and responsive with no lag when a turn was started or stopped.
And then it was time to try the takeoff power climb in the hover. Turn into the wind, and pull. The only indication of being near a limit was the needle on the torquemeter. Engine didn’t sound like it was straining (still in the continuous N1 and TOT limits). And we were climbing vertically at 500 fpm. Most impressive. As we passed a convenient height, I pushed the nose forward and we smoothly
accelerated into forward flight. My only comment (and one that was quickly confirmed by Marty) was that there was a slight out-of-track vibration. Otherwise, smooth, predictable handling. I could take my hands off for several seconds without the machine deviating at all. We did a quick run to cruise speed (110 knots) at 83% torque (the continuous limit above 60 knots), some turns and then decelerated to a hover well out of ground effect. Even with an estimated wind of about 25 knots at this height, the helicopter responded smoothly and crisply to pedals turns – again, an over-riding impression of ‘no drama’ – no change in transmission noise, or change in pedal response. I was comparing this to some of the characteristics of other helicopters I’d flown, where this same type of maneuver would have been much less carefree. Since one of the “self-loading cargo” had another engagement, we returned to the hangar to change ballast. I wasn’t familiar with the area, and after I ‘found’ the hangar, the relative slipperiness of the machine waggled it’s finger at me – “better slow down a bit more quickly or you’ll overshoot” it whispered. Haven’t had that said to me in a while in a helicopter that doesn’t ooze speed. Approach and hover was, as before, predictable and without a problem.
After we’d changed back seat occupants, we positioned the helicopter for some photos, and then headed out for some work at even higher altitudes. It was an absolutely lovely clear day, but the winds we’d seen at the hangar were much more in evidence. Since I make no claims to being a mountain flying expert, I knew I was going to eventually hand over the controls to Marty, who had thousands of hours in the mountains in the R44. The turbulence got a bit rougher
as we climbed up the ridgelines west of Calgary, and I volunteered the controls to Marty. The 8,000 elevation landing pad we’d decided to land on was being buffeted significantly by up-flowing air, and we ended up just hovering beside with less than 30% torque, so this wasn’t going to challenge the machine’s power at all. Sadly, we weren’t going to see what it could really do, but the performance at lower heights had been a great indicator that this was a potent machine for mountain and high elevation work.
Back at the hangar, the discussion centered on what’s next. One of my recommendations would be to make the takeoff torque limit easier to observe – the lack of any indication other than the needle position is going to make it easy to exceed, and since there is no recording of over-torques by the Engine Data Monitoring (EDM) system until well past the takeoff limit, it would be quite easy to abuse the machine. A small, unique chime might be a good idea. (It’s awfully hard to not make recommendations when you’re involved in flight testing…) Eric Gould talked about the cargo hook that was very close to approval, and what changes were being done for that – first of all, the “solo from right seat” limitation would be changed, and additional instruments would be put in the left seat window, along with a weight on hook load cell read-out. Eric confidently predicted that the R66 would meet or equal a Bell 206 for lifting capability, at a significantly lower cost of operation.
My overall impression was that the R66 is a natural evolution of the helicopter series with the most machines manufactured — plenty of power, predictable handling, pretty roomy and quiet. We’ll probably see a lot of them!
An item we were not able to evaluate was its ability to lift loads. The cargo hook was not yet available, but the predictions of load lifting capability show a serious competitor to the existing crop of light turbine machines.
But – to be honest folks, how well a machine handles in a pilot evaluation flight (and it was pretty impressive) doesn’t guarantee commercial success. A whole list of other factors, such as purchase price, product support and day-to-day operating costs are going to be key. What makes the difference is the operating cost — and those numbers are just starting to come in. Based on Robinson’s track record, those numbers should be very good.
6,500 hrs of flight time
50+ different helicopter types
10 years experience teaching flight testing
Simulator validation and specification
5 years experience in civil certification for Transport Canada
Transport Canada DAR #356 Flight Analyst Helicopters
Specialties:Engineering Test Pilot (helicopters)
Expert Witness for helicopter accidents
Litigation support for aviation legal cases
Project Management Professional
Design Approval Representative Flight Analyst, Transport Canada #356