Flying through

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Flying the Robinson R66 turbine

Robinson R66 at Sywell in Northamptonshire
Yesterday, I flew the Robinson R66 at Sloane Helicopter for a flight test for Helicopter Life magazine. I flew with James Skinner, their chief instructor who, with seven hours on the machine, is probably one of the most experienced R66 pilots in the country!
For anyone who does not know, the Robinson R66 is a brand new design from the Robinson factory. Of course, while it is brand new it is also Robinson family, and therefore looks and feels like a Robinson.
It was fun.
I learnt to fly on the R22, I later graduated to the R44, and although I now fly the Hughes 300 and the JetRanger and Hughes 500 far more than the Robinson machines, I am nonetheless a Robinson family member. So, it is not a surprise that I like the machine.
There are things about the R66 that are different from the other designs. One is the starting system. As the R66 is a turbine, with a newly designed engine from Rolls Royce, the RR300, it has a turbine starting system. However, Frank Robinson has put his own Robinson touch on this, which makes it a much simpler start. That, after all, is the Robinson philosophy: keep it simple and cheap. This system, while not completely fool proof, does its best to be so.
 As with the other Robinsons you use the key to start. In this case you turn the key to ENABLE, you then press a little black button on the collective, just once. However, should you inadvertently press the button twice or even hold it in like a JetRanger pilot, it does not matter - it will not hurt the turbine (and consequently your pocket!) at all. The turbine spools itself up to 15%, where the pilot applies the fuel through the normal 'mixture' control of the Robinson family. The turbine then takes itself up to 58% and self-sustaining speed. One minute warm up, wind up to flying speed and you are done. You can even put the generator on immediately without hurting the machine. Nice, and not alarming.
ENABLE start on the key
start-up button on the collective
Instruments on the R66 console (dashboard?) are all the same as the other Robinsons, with the addition of the turbine instruments, but even these are in the Robinson style. Thus, you have the tachometre of the R22 and R44 but it now has turbine rather than piston information. The green band is in the middle of the tachometre, not at the top, but these are minimal differences.

Flying the machine felt like a R44 with rather more power. Given that the price is roughly twice that of the R44, (the R44 is around 400,000 US dollars, the R66 around 800,000 US dollars) the question was asked: why would someone who is perfectly happy with a cheaper model go for the more expensive turbine?
The answer of course is yet to be discovered, but our conclusion after some discussion was that the R66 will probably start a completely new market. There will be some helicopter pilots who would like to have a turbine, but would not able to afford either the initial outlay or the running costs of the JetRanger, EC120, Gazelle, Enstrom models and yet will be able to afford the R66. May be true. These next couple of years will no doubt surprise us in many ways.
For more information on the R66, see the Summer edition of Helicopter Life magazine.
R66 crashworthy seats

Small differences in overall design:

 a. far more luggage space
b. crashworthy seats, but no room under the seats to carry baggage
c. annunciator panel, instead of 'push to test' defects panel
d. bigger blades both main and tail rotor
e. mast has a hydraulic bay above the engine which makes it look shorter, though in reality it is not
f. aerodynamic plate on the tail
g. still has same fuel drain, but it is now on the right hand side.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Finale HeliExpo 2011

Bell 407GX new Gamin console
Sadly, HeliExpo 2011 is over. It was a good show and although many exhibitors and punters laughed at the exhibitionism of the lights and smoke which surrounded the launch of the Bell  407 varients and the Eurocopter EC145T2, they also appreciated the reason it was done: the recession. The helicopter industry has been floundering in the last few years and although military sales have kept up the turnover of the large manufacturers the market as a whole has suffered. There have been helicopter repossessions, flying business closures, private pilots have reduced in number and there are many unemployed professional pilots, so we needed the lift created by the flamboyance of this show. As we start to believe that the helicopter market is improving so it will start to do so. And indeed it is already is; a straw pole of exhibitors said that they had done well out of the show; got orders, made many good contacts. We are looking for a real resurgence in 2012, but there may be a small amount of growth already.
One example of this growth is the Enstrom Helicopter company. Two years ago it seemed that Enstrom was on the edge, production down and orders few. Last year Enstrom produced five helicopters; hardly something to make CEO Jerry Mullins smile. But the tide has changed, Enstrom has acquired two big Asian orders and even sold the full production line for this year in advance - it is on the verge of getting a backlog. The company is saved and in a way Enstrom, is a forerunner of the recovery.
Enstrom 480B
One benefit of the recession is the new desire of the OEMs to work together to improve the industry both in terms of new technology and more cost effective manufacturing. The helicopter industry is an unusual one in this matter; in most other industries the public welcome competition as a way of reducing the price, but in helicopter manufacturing competition is not direct. As Jeff Pino of Sikorsky pointed out, those who train on Schweizers stay within the Sikorsky fold, while those who train on Robinsons move up through the Robinson family. Those who start on the Enstrom Shark (OK far fewer than the other two) move on to the 480B. For this reason companies like Bell and Eurocopter keep on their small helicopters even if they sell far fewer than their larger, more utilitarian models. We human beings tend to be conservative with a small C and find it risky to change companies if we can remain within the family. This in itself can only be good for training establishments. As long as there are a variety of training helicopters, helicopter schools will have a choice of trainers, punters will have choice, the price will stay competitive and bigger companies will see the value of supporting smaller ones. I hope this spirit of co-operation continues, it can only be good for the helicopter market.

Day three at HeliExpo at Orlando

Eurocopter X3 demonstrator
Day three at HeliExpo - this is the X cubed as it is known - one of the visions of the future. The debate at the moment is tiltrotor technology versus vertical lift technology - the Sikorsky group follow the latter and the Eurocopter and AgustaWestland group are the preponents of the former.

I'm off to the show now, I'll write more later

Monday, 7 March 2011

Day Two HeliExpo 2011

Today was a Sikorsky day. It started with Jeff Pino, CEO of Sikorsky Helicopters, giving a packed media room a company rundown. Eurocopter and Sikorsky are vying for the top slot in helicopter production and both have a turn-over of 6.7 billion. Not bad for companies that started with one small dream each. Jeff Pino said that for a few moments - due apparently to the exchange rate - Eurocopter overtook Sikorsky as market leader, but now Sikorsky has inched ahead. Who knows - 6.7 billion each sounds good to me. The profit, Pino said, allows them to continue their aggressive drive in R & D.
We then moved onto their new products and how the market is moving - this includes the X2 pictured and the electronic Schweizer 300. The electronic 300 has already been launched (and mentioned in Helicopter Life) but Sikorsky are working hard to make it viable - ie improving the flight durabily from its current 5 minutes!
The market is moving towards togetherness rather than competition he said - echoing an earlier statement from Agusta's Orsi. There is much more to write, however, since I'm off to a Bell Helicopter party you'll have to read about it in Helicopter Life, or if I have a quiet moment tomorrow. Hope to see you then.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Day one at HAI HeliExpo in Orlando Florida

The Orange County convention centre in Orlando
Day one at HeliExpo started with the Eurocopter breakfast - information on the state of the company and an invitation to join them at their booth for the unveiling of the EC145T2.
The next press conference was Turbomeca, who make the engines for many of the Eurocopter products and who are closely involved in the new Eurocopter 'E' incentive to produce more environmentally friendly and cost effective engines.
This was followed by the ribbon cutting event to open the exhibition floor to the buyers, viewers and enthusiasts.
The SKYe SH09 Marenco Swiss Helicopter
11.15 was the unveiling of the SKYe SH09 'revolution in rotary aviation'. This turned out to be a 2.5 ton metric ton class helicopter with a full composite fuselage, bearing free rotor system of 5 blades and ... so they say - none were in sight - an electronically governed engine with a glass cockpit.
As one who has seen a few of this prototypes arrive and go nowhere we will see if anything happens - of course there is no doubt a wonderful Swiss Hedge fund or two behind the idea, but will it actually come to fruition or will the financiers pull out first?
The next excitement of light and smoke came from Eurocopter.
Eurocopter EC145T2
This was the unveiling of the EC145T2, an upgraded version of the EC145, which has a fenestron tail (the original EC145 had a conventional tail rotor) which will lower noise and increase safety (Lutz Berling said). Presumably, the technology to allow a helicopter the size and weight of an EC145 good tail rotor authority has now been developed. It has Turbomeca Arrile 2e engines and a new main gearbox, which give increased engine performance. It has a FADEC system and a new 4 axis autopilot, with a 20% increase in mission performance. The last bit is, of course, not a fact but an interpretation of possibility by the company. But, afterall, that is what marketing (or we call it spin in the UK) is all about.
Lights, smoke and another unveiling - the third in so many moments (well about 45 minutes) and in fact the third and fourth as Bell was unveiling two beautiful new helicopters. New? Well, ok no but new to you kids. It was the 407GX with a new super Garmin 1000 H console, which we were told was a beautiful machine, and then the 407 AH, a 407 with weapons, which was 'a beautiful machine' no lack of vocabulary there then.
Bell 407GX with the new helicopter Garmin 1000 H
CEO John Garrison, who is probably the fastest speaking man I have ever heard, introduced the machines, just as he later gave(a fast speaking) rundown of Bell finances. 3.2 billion revenues, one of the best years for a while, thanks to the rebound from military spending.
The next two press conferences were the HAI favourites: Robinson and MD Helicopters.
Robinson is just fun. This is now the Kurt Show, son of Frank Robinson, the old man of helicopter innovation, who is the new CEO, but we learnt that Frank still works 7 days a week, he just enjoys it more than he did when he was CEO. There was some chat about the Robinson R66 and - fascinatingly, the information that Robinson are already on the up and getting in orders - in fact 130 order to date on the Robinson R66. I get to fly it next week and I am told I will love it. I certainly hope so, and I will let you know.
And then finally the Lynn Tilton show. Why are we bothering with watching Charlie Sheene drooling and wombling about when we could have the lovely Lynn? Her press conference, like that of the Robinson family, was standing room only and she exploits us all, but who can blame her. It seems that the production problems in Mexico have been resolved, that the company that make the MD902 fuselage in Turkey has lost its way and the fuselages are returning to Mesa, and that if (and she seems confident here) they get the EMS contracts they have been promised in the Middle East (God willing) then MDs financial problems will be over.
Thus ended the first day of Heli Expo - roll on tomorrow.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

HAI HeliExpo preshow day

Swiss helicopter - a teaser for tomorrow
First day at HeliExpo in Orlando. There were only two press conferences and most of the show was still setting up in the main hall. However, we did get to hear about Thommen's new search light the HSL 1600.
Thommen is a Swiss company, which started making clocks and watches (there's a surprise 'eh) moved into aviation watches and then into search lights. This one is at the forefront of the market having integrated software and the ability to operate up to 200 knots in a static position or 150 if moving... more in Helicopter Life magazine.
The other press conference was Agusta Westland - who still hope for the US Presidential Helicopter - humm, bet you thought that dream had died, but guess they have some Charlie Sheen like tendencies. Anyway, they also see the vertical market as the hope of the future. Signor Orsi sees 2050 as being a world of verticality - towns will be revolutionized by vertical entry and exit and helicopters will no longer be for EMS, rescue and rich VIPS but general transport like buses... he may be right but we are notoriously bad at predicting the future.
Enough for tonight. Tomorrow is a long day starting with the Eurocopter breakfast.