Estimated reading time 9 minutes, 27 seconds.
It has taken a while, but Robinson Helicopter Company has entered the world of glass panels and flight control systems in a big way. For a time, the only way to get such technology into one of the manufacturer’s products was through aftermarket sources. This was how the Aspen EFD 1000 and some other systems originally found their way into a few R44s, as Robinson held off adopting them into their factory offerings.
We then saw the Aspen EFD 1000 line enter Robinson’s option list a while back for the R44 and R66. This was then followed by the Garmin G500H for the R66 and R44 Raven II and Cadet.
And then came the autopilot. If ever there was a piece of avionics gear that screamed “Robinson,” it is the Genesys Aerosystems HeliSAS. Certified for the R44 and R66, the HeliSAS — in my opinion — is the essential component to an avionics suite for a Robinson helicopter, tying it all together into one nice highly functional package.
Today, Robinson’s optional avionics and instruments price list is slammed full of the latest in avionics from Garmin, Aspen, and Genesys Aerosystems. I was recently offered the opportunity to explore all of this gear in depth — working together — in both an R66 and an R44 Raven II. Robinson test pilot Scott Woolums was my guide for the two flights.
In the Cockpit
Since my primary interest in the flights was to evaluate how well the HeliSAS flew the Robinson products, that will be the focus of this piece. And in the interest of space, this report will focus on the R66 flight — the first of my two flights — noting any additional points from the R44 flight.
The R66 was equipped with the Garmin G500H system and included Helicopter Synthetic Vision Technology (HSVT) and Chart View. The primary communications and navigation were provided by a Garmin GTN 750 installed just below the G500H in the center of the panel. The HeliSAS control panel was mounted just below the GTN 750.
The R44 was also equipped with the GTN 750. But it was in a separate pilot side console mounted on a cross bar to the right of the main instrument panel. In the center of the main instrument panel was the dual screen Aspen Evolution 1000H Pro primary flight display (PFD)/multifunction flight display (MFD). The HeliSAS control panel was mounted at the top of the remaining avionics stack on the lower subpanel.
Having a decent amount of operational experience with all of this gear, the ground checks went pretty quickly — mainly performing the HeliSAS checks prior to departure.
We set up for GPS navigation first, entering an easy local flight plan in the GTN 750 and watching it pop up on the G500H. The latter is highly customizable through the menu pages. Although you can go deep into these, the pages you normally need the most are immediately available with minimal button pushing.
The key is obviously to set up the three displays (GTN 750 screen and two G500H screens) in advance to maximize the available information presented without screen redundancy or the need to do a lot of button pushing while in flight.
The GTN 750 is touchscreen, but the G500 is not. So things like METARs can be found with buttons and knobs on the 500 or touchscreen on the 750. That’s good to have on a bumpy day when the 750 is a little more work intensive.
Putting it to the Test
We departed the Robinson pad and went to a nearby grass area for hover work. The HeliSAS has three modes: completely off; SAS mode; and full autopilot. For most non-autopilot operations, the SAS mode would be turned on. I found a sweet spot in the hover and tapped the HeliSAS trim button on the pilot’s cyclic. This is essentially an attitude reset button. (It works like a force trim release/reset button for those familiar with what I mean.)
The HeliSAS maintained an incredibly impressive hands-free hover attitude. By no means is this an “auto-hover” feature. But it surely did a nice job keeping the R66 (and R44) very stable. I performed a pretty robust pedal turn and it held on fine. Initially Robinson had issues with aggressive maneuvering and the SAS shutting off, but that has been corrected for all but the most extreme maneuvering.
I left the HeliSAS on for takeoff and found it very easy to “fly-through” the control pressure and reset it as needed with no control bump at all. At 200 feet prior to the selected cruise altitude, the G500 issued an audio warning — two beeps — then again at reaching target altitude.
I selected the altitude hold function on the HeliSAS. I also hit the attitude sync to recenter the PFD attitude when in normal cruise attitude. (The Aspen 1000H also has this feature, whereas on the fixed-wing version it’s set by the avionics shop.)
During climbs and descents, hitting altitude hold will cause the HeliSAS to grab the altitude but fly through it for 50 feet or so before returning to the selected altitude. The HeliSAS doesn’t have the provision for capturing a preselected altitude.
Turning to a heading is a simple matter of rotating the heading bug to the desired setting. The helicopter then assumes about a 20-degree bank until it rolls out smoothly on heading. I wish there was a small left/right heading toggle switch on the cyclic next to the other HeliSAS buttons. That is the most frequently used function for autopilots and it would be nice if the pilot didn’t have to reach across the T-Bar cyclic every time a heading change is needed.
A neat new GTN 750 software feature is that it can hold at any “direct to” waypoint you have entered. I tried it and when reaching the waypoint, the 750 guided the HeliSAS around in a perfect holding pattern.
Out over the water and clear of any traffic and noise sensitive areas, we began the tests I really was waiting for — how this HeliSAS flies the R66 (and R44) in unusual attitude recoveries. The SAS limits are 11 degrees nose up, five degree of bank, and six degrees nose down.
First was the nose up test. I had a preset attitude of level flight and then began pulling back on the cyclic to raise the nose up to about 10 degrees. When I released the cyclic, the HeliSAS smoothly returned the helicopter to the level preset attitude. There was no heavy pitch over and I felt no lightness in the seat.
I then pushed nose down to about 10 degrees, but this time reset the SAS and let it go. It immediately — and smoothly — pitched up to the preset limit of six degrees down.
Next, I turned the SAS completely off and placed the helicopter into a high nose attitude and steep right bank. I then engaged the SAS and it smoothly returned the helicopter to the preset five-degree bank, and 11 degrees pitch up. The same procedure brought the same result in the R44.
Another feature is that in order to use any of the autopilot functions, the helicopter must be above 44 knots and below 140 knots. Otherwise, the HeliSAS kicks off any autopilot function, but still remains in SAS mode. I tried this in cruise on a selected heading and began lowering collective. The HeliSAS maintained perfect heading and altitude until I hit 44 knots and it reverted to SAS only.
It was time to head back for a coupled instrument landing system (ILS) approach. I used the heading and altitude modes while being vectored around for the intercept. At the 45-degree intercept heading, I engaged the NAV function and the associated light lit up white — indicating it was armed. When the localizer captured, the NAV light turned to green.
The glideslope came alive so I hit the VRT button (for “vertical”) to arm for glideslope capture. (The HSVT was doing an outstanding job of displaying the many towers at the shipping docks that surrounded our approach path.)
At glideslope capture, the VRT light went from white to green, and I gently reduced collective to approach power. The HeliSAS flew it about a half of a dot below the glideslope during capture before it returned back to dead center, where it stayed throughout the rest of the approach. At minimums, I disconnected the autopilot and landed.
I duplicated the above tests in the R44. For the most part, it performed exactly the same. I did sense a little more cyclic action from the HeliSAS as it was flying the R44. But it wasn’t noticeable in how the aircraft flew. The steep pitched unusual attitude recoveries by the HeliSAS were equally smooth. Any doubts I may have had about the HeliSAS and low-G pushovers were squashed.
I concluded the R44 flight with a coupled area navigation (GPS) approach to localizer performance with vertical guidance (LPV) minimums. Like the R66, the HeliSAS flew the approach beautifully. I finished the R44 flight with a 180-degree autorotation with the autopilot engaged in altitude and heading mode just to see how it felt if the pilot forgot to disarm it during an engine failure. It was a non-event. I could feel the pressures — but only because I was looking for them.
Robinson has come a long way from the hard and fast rules of years gone by, which appeared to dictate that its helicopters should be minimally equipped for “eyes outside” priority flying. Yes, these are still visual flight rules helicopters and “eyes outside” should remain the master mantra. But the advent of some exceptional new avionics — and market demand — has certainly prompted Robinson to finally increase its offerings. It was worth the wait.