Robinson Helicopters: Tin-Lizzie Whirlybirds

Helicopters can do some pretty amazing things: they can pluck people from cranes and play some mad ice hockey. They've been at the center at some pretty impressive YouTube videos (or have filmed such videos) but what belies behind-the-scenes is a machine that delivers on a promise of simplicity and low-operating costs without sacrificing utility: the Robinson line of helicopters and in particular the workhorse R-44 series.

Entry-level option

When Frank Robinson first formed his helicopter company in the early 70s, the most popular turbine utility helicopters on the market at the time were the Bell 206 and Hughes Model 500, both of which were derived from U.S. Army designs (and in fact designed to the same U.S. Army requirement). Both types proved very versatile in civilian roles and gave municipal governments unprecedented access to air-lift, especially for police use and as air ambulances. The secret to their success was also their Achilles' heel: the turbine engine spat out gobs and gobs of power but was very thirsty in doing so. Popular very light utility and training helicopters at the time included the Bell 47 of M*A*S*H fame and the Hiller UH-12, a practically identical helicopter down to the Korean War M*A*S*H role. Many (if not the vast majority) of these were ex-military stock and were starting to show their age. The Hughes 269 (a design that eventually passed through many hands), another popular training and very light utility option was of the same vintage, and Frank Robinson (who himself was a designer from both Bell and Hughes) believed that a market existed for a new, low-cost entry-level helicopter taking advantage of technological advancements made since the Eisenhower administration.

Robinson Helicopters: Tin-Lizzie Whirlybirds

The resulting helicopter, which entered production at the very end of the 70s, is fairly described as egg-shaped, with a big glass front affording a high degree of visibility. The Robinson R-22 Beta is pretty much as simple as it looks. The helicopter's very lightweight, two-blade rotor has low inertial resistance making precise control possible (these things are very popular for use in "aerial ranching" where helicopters are used to wrangle cattle instead of horses) though control input is consequently overly sensitive compared to other training helicopters. Rather than a detriment, the input sensitivity means student pilots are better-equipped to "graduate" to larger helicopters upon demonstrating proficiency (it also means pilots must get a type-specific endorsement for the R-22). It's powered by a Lycoming O-320 (akin to a 320-cubic inch displacement version of a Volkswagon air-cooled, hence "O[pposed]-320") which can be found in practically anything, including a very large number of entry-level fixed-wing aircraft. Being a lightweight four-cylinder design that's seen continuous updates, the O-320 by itself represents a significant improvement over the six-cylinder Franklins (of Tucker fame) found in the older Bell 47 and Hiller UH-12 designs. To keep the design simple, the engine is naturally-aspirated; what looks like an STi-worthy turbo is actually a cooling fan. The design was also kept intentionally small so it could land almost anywhere (not incidentally, a few smaller navies use it as a training helicopter).

The R-22 proved to be a near-immediate massive hit and a direct bullseye at the training and entry-level/very light utility market and even scoring a significant cameo in the James Bond movie Goldeneye (it's the little helicopter Sean Bean and Famke Janssen escape from the train in). That said, the same qualities that made the R-22 a smash hit were also keeping it back. The O-320 is simple and cheap, but its small power output (160 HP - yes, that's right, 160 HP from an engine bigger than what's in many body-on-frame SUVs; and you thought the Malaise era was bad) limited its high-altitude performance (and marketability in high-altitude locations like Denver, Colorado). The low inertia rotor may have given the R-22 precise handling, but in addition to the control sensitivity issue it limited the R-22's payload capability. Most importantly, with only about enough room for an instructor and student, the R-22 was starting to look like a one-trick pony. To really capture the utility helicopter market, a larger design was needed that actually, offered, you know, utility.

Rotor-Wing Suburban

Enter the R-44 Astro, which as the name implies is more or less twice the R-22 in one machine. The most significant changes are the doubling of the cabin, stretched to fit an extra row of seats, and an upgrade to the Lycoming IO-540 engine. The output of the IO-540 is around 250 HP, nearly identical to the 3.3 liter engine in my Hyundai Santa Fe; but when the whole machine weighs little more than a Lotus Exige, that's nothing to sneeze at and certainly a massive improvement over the O-320. Just as important, the "I" in IO-540 indicates that the engine is fuel-injected, meaning no more pesky carbs (or carb icing at altitude). The R-44 Astro was eventually replaced by the R-44 Raven, which introduced a slightly revised control scheme, and the R-44 Raven II which introduced larger rotor blades to further improve lift payload. There's also a corresponding R-44 Clipper and Clipper II which is nothing more but a Raven with inflatable flotation aids attached to the skids. As it turns out, the R-44 might have something more in common with Ferraris than Suburbans; as cited in this company-issued service bulletin, the gas tank had a tendency to rupture and cause fires in certain crash conditions, prompting the replacement of the culprit tank with a more puncture-proof bladder.

Robinson Helicopters: Tin-Lizzie Whirlybirds

The improvements meant greater versatility beyond the training and personal transport markets, perhaps beyond even Robinson's own reasonably optimistic hopes. The improved lift made it a viable option for 21st century police departments who needed something less antiquated than (or even as a replacement for) the Vietnam-era Bell 206 or Hughes (now MD Helicopters) 500 or found their successors, the Bell 407 and MD Helicopters 500E/520N to be too much of a hotrod (or simply unaffordable). Local news affiliates have found the R-44 to be a far more efficient alternative to the turbine-powered competition as well, especially at a time when HD cameras have shrunk to lightweight and compact packages (as seen in the image above). Many operators in the utility helicopter business have traded in their 206s and early-mark 500s for these little things, and quite a few more have been able to spring up because of how affordable things things are. The R-44's low operating costs have turned sticking a GoPro onto the side of one and filming extreme athletes in remote locations a sensible business option.

The IO-540 is absolutely central to the R-44's success - compared to the turbine helicopters, they simply burn less fuel. The piston engine also allows the R-44 to be cheaper upfront (no more expensive than a fixed-wing aircraft equipped with the same engine as opposed to a new 407 or 500E at a million plus). Being a very common aero-engine, support is not an issue. But as with the R-22, the IO-540 also holds the R-44 back. A turbine engine makes up for its fuel burn in its simplicity; in comparison, the IO-540 is a labyrinth of pushrods and valve heads. The IO-540 is also stuck using low-lead content aviation petrol which is not only pricey but currently being phased out, leaving tens of thousands of piston aircraft owners and operators potentially stuck between a rock and a hard place. And turbines are just great at making gobs and gobs of power. No matter how lightweight a Lotus Exige is, it's still no Corvette Stingray. The R-44 may be a global success story, but it also opened the door for Robinson to compete against the 407 and 500E head-on. And there's only one way to do that.

Breathes in kerosene, spits out flames

At the turn of the decade, Robinson introduced its newest offering, the R-66. Functionally, it's an R-44 with a jet turbine engine in it, and it certainly looks the part (the differences are almost invisible in all but close-in detail photographs, save for a series of vents at the base of the boom that feed air into the engine). A host of other improvements are introduced into the frame, but the most appreciable ones come as a direct result of the Rolls Royce R300 powerplant, a version of the same engine found in the competition re-engineered especially for the R-66. Part of that re-engineering includes bringing the price point down to be more competitive with piston engines, allowing the R-66 to come in well under a million. The R-66's dead weight decreases too (the R300 is a good deal smaller and lighter than the IO-540) while payload independently goes up (HP goes up to 300 now). Fuel burn also goes up, but the turbine's simplicity helps check rising operating costs. People who buy the R-66 as personal transportation will also appreciate the turbine's greater reliability, which translates to a decreased chance of sudden in-flight engine failure. Especially important for a helicopter.

Robinson Helicopters: Tin-Lizzie Whirlybirds

The R-66 has only been on sale for a few years, and it faces stiff competition not only from more established players but from its own older brother. But the combination of a proven and reliable frame with low entry and operational costs is almost guaranteed to be a winning one.

Images - if they work (thanks Kinja!) come courtesy of the Robinson Helicopter Company's website where much of this information comes from (along with Wikipedia because, hey, I'm lazy).