Boosted by buoyant sales of the R44 and turbine-powered R66, Robinson is ramping up production to 13 helicopters per week at its Torrance, Calif. manufacturing site.
The rate increase means overall annual production could come close to 600 in 2013, exceeding the record-setting 517 helicopters made in 2012.
“The economy has been quite a challenge, but interestingly enough it hasn’t impacted us. We’re just carrying on doing our thing,” says company President Kurt Robinson.
Although the 2012 tally marks a 45% increase over 2011’s production of 356, Robinson says the numbers could grow even further if the latest member of the helicopter family can win full certification in Canada, Russia andregulated countries. These agencies refused to accept the U.S. exemption over the helicopter’s single-string hydraulic system, thereby preventing certification of the R66 in several countries that have proved to be successful markets for the piston-powered R22 and R44 models.
As a result, Robinson has been working for more than a year with the FAA to demonstrate the single-valve design has an equivalent level of safety (ELOS) to a redundant design. FAA andofficials witnessed tests on the R66 hydraulic system at the Robinson factory on Feb. 13-14. Tests included flight evaluations of the R66 control characteristics as well as ground tests using a fixture designed to simulate critical failures.
The exhaustive evaluation work “convinced us we have an incredibly robust system. We had no dual valve, so we had to show what happens if we intentionally jam the hydraulics. We put the biggest chip we could put in there, and it proved easy for the pilot to break through the chip (and maintain normal flight control).”
Following the demonstrations, the ELOS was granted a few weeks ago. “It’s a huge step for us,” says Robinson, who adds the company “immediately notified EASA and Russia and the others. So the ball is in their court.”
If the helicopter receives approval in these markets, Robinson anticipates that “we can bump up the 66, but right now as it is we’re looking at between 500 and 600 per year (of all models),” he says. Production in 2012 included 286 R44s, 191 R66s and 40 R22s. Robinson says the relatively high numbers of four-seat R44 sales indicates theRR300-powered R66 “is not cannibalizing sales of the R44. The R66 is a different market.”
Weekly production rates are now pegged at 13, which includes six R44s (four Raven IIs and two Raven Is), six R66s and a single R22.
Efforts to win ELOS clearance for the hydraulic system have absorbed company resources and delayed R66 upgrade projects such as floats and a cargo hook. However, Robinson says “the number one project is completing certification for the other countries. Hopefully we’ve given them all they need. But if Canada, Russia and EASA come back to us we’ll work with them.”
The company has completed all the testing required for the float upgrade. “We hope the FAA will come out and do tests in the early spring. Behind that is developing the cargo hook for the R66. We’re very pleased with that system and we brought pilots down from Canada to help us with that,” Robinson says.
The plan is to certify the aircraft for operation with the hook from either the left- or right-hand seat. Additional upgrades in the works include improved cockpit avionics for all three models, and a fuel bladder to replace the existing fuel tank arrangement in the R22. Robinson is also working with Lycoming, the manufacturer of the piston engines powering the R22 and R44, as well as with the FAA, to clear the use of unleaded aviation fuel. “We feel strongly about getting unleaded fuel approval for use in our piston engines. Hopefully by the first half of the year we’ll be operating on unleaded fuel. Environmentally it is the right thing to do and it kind of bothers me that it hasn’t been done,” he adds.