features Robinson R66: Making its mark

Having now recorded over 1,000 deliveries, Robinson’s R66 has made an indelible mark on the global helicopter industry.
Avatar By Skip Robinson | September 17, 2020

Estimated reading time 9 minutes, 47 seconds.

On July 29, 2020, Robinson Helicopter Company delivered R66 Turbine serial number 1,000. The landmark delivery (to Robinson dealer Les Gillespie of Gardner Aviation, based in Peachtree City, Georgia) was achieved just a few months before the 10th anniversary of the R66’s certification, with the type recording more than 1.2 million flight hours across its global fleet in its first decade.

Fontana Police in California took delivery of the first Robinson R66 Police helicopter and now has a fleet of two of the type. Skip Robinson Photo

Today, the R66 performs every possible mission that could be flown by a light helicopter on virtually every continent, including aerial tours, utility work, corporate charter, private use, electronic newsgathering and even airborne law enforcement. The type’s durability has been shown in two round-the-world flights, as well as a trip to the North Pole.

The aircraft’s design is based on the hugely successful R44, which is powered by the Lycoming O-540 six-cylinder piston engine. Frank Robinson began preliminary design work on the R66 in 2001. He saw the Bell JetRanger was getting older and decided an inexpensive turbine-powered replacement for this aircraft would help fill a market need. The new aircraft would be turbine-powered and have the ability to carry five people, while a cargo compartment would also be part of the design. For Robinson, the goal was to build a light helicopter that could perform as well or better than its competition, and do it in an economical way.

Terry Robinson Hane (Frank Robinson’s daughter) hands over the keys to the first Robinson R66 in November 2010 following the aircraft’s certification. HeliStream was the recipient, with company co-owners Barbara Perrin (center) and Rod Anderson (right) taking delivery. Skip Robinson Photo

Engineering began in 2005 after Robinson reached an agreement with Rolls-Royce to develop a 300-horsepower turbine engine — which would be a derivative of the company’s long-lived RR250 series. More specifically, it was developed from the Rolls Royce M250-C20B engine core, with a simplified single-stage centrifugal compressor. Rolls-Royce developed modifications to the core in order to meet the unique requirements for the expected performance and reliability required by the R66. The agreement was for Robinson to take 1,000 RR300s over 10 years.

The R66 is built around the RR300, which is much lighter and more compact than the R44’s Lycoming O-540. This resulted in the R66 having the space for a usable baggage compartment.

An R66 is shown during the installation of the Rolls-Royce RR300 turbine engine on the production line at Robinson’s facility in Torrance, California. Skip Robinson Photo

The engine entered service with very few issues, and since then has flown more than 1.2 million hours without a known failure in the R66. Over the years, the RR300 has been enhanced with an engine monitoring unit, upgraded drive bearings in the power turbine governor and fuel control unit, and a new power takeoff seal design.

For Robinson, there was no rush to get the aircraft into service during its development, with the aim being to have a mature, reliable aircraft fielded from day one. The R66 prototype first took to the air in 2007, but the company didn’t begin taking orders for it until 2010 — shortly before it went into preliminary production. The first production R66 (serial No 4) was delivered to long-time Southern California Robinson dealer and operator Helistream Inc., on Nov. 30, 2010.

The first R66 shown in the skies around Robinson’s facility in Torrance in 2010. Skip Robinson Photo

A match for a range of markets

In addition to its standard version, the R66 is now available in police, electronic newsgathering, and float (Marine) configurations. Robinson has also made a habit of regularly adding new kits for the R66 to allow customers to increase the aircraft’s capability and suitability for various operations. These include an air conditioning system, a cargo hook kit, a wire strike package, two auxiliary fuel tanks, impact resistant windshields, state-of-the-art touchscreen avionics, and a stability augmentation system/autopilot. An engine inlet barrier filter is also available.

During 2017, Robinson introduced the weight-saving TB17 lithium-ion phosphate battery as optional equipment. The battery weighs 16 pounds/7.25 kilograms (compared to the previous 42-lb./19-kg standard and 52-lb./23.5-kg high capacity batteries.) In September 2020, skid mounted steps for easier entry became an option.

Ten years and 999 deliveries later, the 1,000th R66 was handed to Gardner Aviation. Skip Robinson Photo

The first official R66 variant to be launched was the police version, which was certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in September 2012. It was equipped with a FLIR Ultra 8000 thermal imaging camera, a 10-inch fold-down color monitor, and a new Spectrolab SX-7 30-million candlepower searchlight.

Fontana Police Department was the launch customer for the Police R66, and the type proved so successful for the unit that it took delivery of a second R66 a few years later. Both are still in service. “Fontana gets very hot in the summer, so the superb air conditioning is much appreciated, and the RR300 has plenty of power even on the warmest days,” said Robert Muse, who runs Fontana’s Air Support Unit. “We can get airborne very quickly, even after a cold start, so that gives us the ability to get on-scene quickly. The police equipment works well and has been reliable. Overall, it’s a low maintenance helicopter with great overall capabilities.”

Inside the cockpit of the R66 Police helicopter. Skip Robinson Photo

In 2015, an upgraded version of the R66 was introduced, which came with the Garmin G500H primary and multifunction display system as standard, as well as a Garmin GTN 635 touchscreen navigation system and GTR 225A com radio. An AeroComputers moving map system, autopilot and radar altimeter were also available.

The next certification was for the R66 Turbine Marine, which was approved in December 2014. This version included a pop-out float package attached to the skids. This added 65 lb. (30 kg) to the aircraft, and the floats could be deployed in just two or three seconds. This option is good for tuna boat and fisheries patrols, and is useful for operators who regularly cross water. Although they are not fixed floats, they are approved for water takeoffs and training.

Robinson introduced an upgraded version of the R66 in 2015, which came with the Garmin G500H primary and multifunction display system as standard. Skip Robinson Photo

The R66 Turbine Newscopter was certified by the FAA in July 2017, and Sky Helicopters of Dallas, Texas, took delivery of the first one the same month. The four-seat R66 Newscopter delivers increased altitude performance over the popular R44 news helicopter for markets requiring it. Its standard configuration consists of a five-axis gyro-stabilized gimbal, housing an Ikegami HD camera and Canon’s 22-to-1 HD lens, with an optional gimbal accommodating the same camera, plus a tighter-angle Canon 40-to-1 lens.

Three high-definition micro cameras, two seven-inch monitors, and two Geneva digital audio controllers also come in the ENG package. In the aft compartment, camera controls are located on the center and laptop consoles, and images display on several HD monitors. The R66 Newscopter can also be ordered with a HeliSAS autopilot and air conditioning, which is of great help in keeping both reporter and pilot comfortable in hot summer conditions.

A technician installs a tail rotor on the R66 production line. Skip Robinson Photo

“About half of our TV station customers have elected to use the R66 turbine-engine news helicopter, and the other half fly in the piston-engine R44 news helicopter,” said Ken Pyatt, president of Sky Helicopters. “The R66 certainly gives us better high-altitude performance, plus the opportunity for a greater payload when we carry additional talent or passengers. The TV stations we are adding next year are also evenly split between the two airframes. Overall, our customers really appreciate the reliability, dependability and economy of the Robinson products.”

The R66 Newscopter has proven to be a popular version of the series. The variant was certified by the FAA in July 2017. Skip Robinson Photo

A utility product

In August 2018, the FAA certified Robinson’s R66 optional cargo hook installation, which allowed the aircraft to offer more capability in the utility role. The Onboard Systems hook is rated for external loads up to 1,200 lb. (545 kg). The R66’s maximum gross weight has been increased from 2,700 to 2,900 lb. (1,225 to 1,315 kg) for these external load operations.

A shot of the entire Robinson family: the R66 (top), R22 (bottom left) and R44 (bottom right). Skip Robinson Photo

The cargo hook installation includes right- and left-seat controls for solo flight from either side. It also includes a left-seat hydraulic switch, and a left-seat start button. A load weight gauge and a second set of engine torque and gas temperature power gauges are located in the left door sill. These allow the pilot to monitor engine operations while watching the external load. Provisions for remote control of external equipment such as a long line or a water bucket are included.

The R66 Newscopter includes a five-axis gyro-stabilized gimbal that houses an Ikegami HD camera and a Canon 22-to-1 HD lens. Skip Robinson Photo

Despite having almost a decade of success under its belt with the R66, Robinson continues to work to enhance the type and offer new products to its customers. Next on the line is a cabin video recorder that fits in the ceiling of the aircraft alongside the comms box. The camera records five hours of video, headset audio, and GPS position to a removable USB memory stick. Recording starts automatically when the master switch is turned on, and ends two seconds after it is turned off. Robinson expects it to be available towards the end of this year.

A look inside the R66 Newscopter. A state-of-the-art setup allows camera operators full flexibility and great control to get the shots needed for the story. Skip Robinson Photo

“Delivering R66 serial number 1,000 demonstrates this aircraft is a top performer and leader in its class,” said Kurt Robinson. “This is a significant milestone and we look forward to expanding the market as the R66 continues to evolve.”

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