Our new Robinson R66, after 50 hours
Some surprises in store for this owner
In July 2018, we upgraded the R44 to an R66. It hasn’t been an easy decision because the R44 has been great for us for the last 10 years. We know a lot of R44 owners, in fact we live in a Robinson world — it’s what we trained on and our rented hangar at EGLD contains 30 Robinson helicopters.
Just one hundred meters along the airfield is the big boys Eurocopter hangar outside which are fancy looking people with sunglasses and small pet dogs schmoozing around their aircraft — with 50% more blades than our 66.
Nonetheless our Robinson dealer (now called Global Rotors) worked on us for at least two years (sorry!) before finally we caved in and went for it. The thinking was as follows: we like the R44 — indeed we went from London to Cape Town in it — but we have started embarking on longer trips and have been finding the 44 a tad small and slow.
Truthfully, we hankered after a solid beast-like machine such as the B2 or B3 because we had heard of worrying mast-bumping issues with the R66. Tim Tucker put out a safety video on how to pilot the aircraft in turbulence and we have come to terms with it after a great deal of analysis and training.
The Robbo configured our way cost $1.156mn + VAT which is £1.07mn (July 2018 prices) + VAT. This is at least~$1m cheaper than the equivalent from Eurocopter and comes with a Rolls Royce engine, also cheaper to run.
The timing of the purchase decision was affected by three factors. Firstly, the new models now allow a factory fitted auxiliary “extender” fuel tank. Secondly, HeliSAS is now available from the factory, too. Finally, the new Garmin TXi avionics were just approved for the R66 in Europe.
Assembly was handled by HQ Aviation at Denham. One thing they know well is the Robinson helicopter and we wanted it set up to fly ultra-smoothly. We’ve configured the balance for 110 knots and two up and its creamy smooth.
Acquisition of the 66 wasn’t stress free. There are a large number of optional extras but the avionics are interdependent so it is not so straightforward. For us, we felt the move from the 44 to the 66 was a bit slight unless we took the opportunity to do a major avionics upgrade. There were two things I had my eye on: the first was a legal range extender AUX fuel tank and the second was HeliSAS Autopilot. I figured these were going to make the ship feel like a proper upgrade. In any case, we didn’t particularly mind the extra weight — lightweight operation at high speed wasn’t something we planned on with the Robinson for obvious reasons.
As we live in the UK, we end up doing a lot of sea crossings and so we wanted the factory fitted floats, too. The factory ones ensure the bottle goes under a seat and not in the luggage compartment. Obviously floats are heavy and unstreamlined and probably never used and, even if they are used, probably won’t result in us floating happily on the sea smoking cigars. Nonetheless, the peace of mind is definitely there, no question.
At this point, we had got 80% of the way towards a commercially-spec’d helicopter, one that could be put on an AOC in the UK one day if we were under-utilising. The only other extra to complete this was the harness as opposed to lap belt. Unfortunatlety the harness system also requires a sort of crossbar headrest which constrains a bit the view of the rear passengers.
Since making the decision to have the harness, we have realised that we don’t take rear passengers all that often, and it’s not all that bad according to what we are told by the children. Actually, we have also heard that it is quite effective in a “hard landing” for all passengers. We have also heard a rumour that harnesses may be made a requirement for door-off ops. On balance, we have got used to the harness and don’t regret taking the option.
It wasn’t until after we had spec’d her out that I noticed the fixed configurations are listed in the Robinson website. So let’s have another look at these options. Firstly, here is the config we can recommend for our use case.
- Basic price $930,000 for the Marine
- Range Extender $33,000
- Lithium battery $7,000
- Harness $4,000
- 5 Bose headsets and interface $11,350
- Radalt $17,300
- G500H TXi $35,700
- GTN 650 $18,500
- GTR225B Second radio $5,700
- GTX335 Transponder $3,900
- Synthetic vision $11,900
- HeliSAS $46,000
- ELT $2,900
- TOTAL aircraft $1,136,400
- Crating $4,900
- Shipping to the UK $10,000
- Assembly in the UK $5,000 (this is a guesstimate but I think about right)
- TOTAL cost $1,156,300 + 20% VAT = $1,387,560
Aircon: $24,000 but opted out. We live in the UK anyway and the A/C doesn’t work without the engine running and adds 43lbs weight permanently. It really is a very expensive option and equivalent to carrying 6.3 gallons or nearly 15-20 minutes of fuel range.
Aux fuel range extender: At $33,000 this is the 3rd most expensive optional item and also 37 extra lbs of weight (but removeable). The problem is that this an absolute must-have for our usage pattern and a general dislike of airfields. I would have a big problem going back to 3 hours now. The extender makes the aircraft heavier and, in or view, smoother running. The additional 43g of fuel adds 292lbs (132kg) of weight or roughly two small adults. In practice, you can therefore only carry 3 adults with the aux tank full and will have to keep two of the back three seats free. Each hour you fly burns 22.5g or 153lbs (70kg) so you get a usable seat back for each hour you fly.
Two additional observations: it is apparently pilot-removable although we have yet to attempt this and doubt we will — anyway it wouod only be necessary for additional luggage space reasons, not weight, which is going to be very rare in our case. Obviously, for hard core AOC work, it would be removed.
HeliSAS: at $46,000 it is real pricey but we use it all the time. What is maddening is that we have v51 not v52 (not approved yet in UK). That means we cannot set the speed or vertical path, only the heading and the altitude. It’s pretty cool though with those alone. When you enable AP the first thing you do is set the rotor disc attitude (this is the SAS button). If you pick a 75 knot attitude and then lock that in (with the trim button on the cyclic), it just flies along at 75 knots. If you then lock in the altitude, SAS will adjust the disc attitude to keep you at that altitude. What that means is that the speed is constantly going up and down as the disc attitude is moved back and forth to hold the altitude constant. Now put you heading bug on the display to your current heading, lock in the heading on the HeliSAS and now you are flying along completely on AP. If you lower the lever (and take off some left pedal), HeliSAS will adjust the disc angle to keep your altitude until you have slowed all the way to 40 knots (which is when it will pop out of AP mode but you still have SAS on). If you lift the collective (and put in some left pedal), the heli will just speed up to stop you climbing.
You can switch from heading to NAV which means that HeliSAS will put in turns according to your planned route. It’s cool but, for a helicopter flying at 2000ft, not a huge win over the heading button. On our regular commuting route I have stored 2 routes (EGLD > Home Prevailing and EGLD > Home Counter Prevailing). I can then recall those flight plans on the GTN 650 and either Activate or Invert and Activate. This means we are flying the route completely on AP, avoiding little bits of airspace and villages, all with minimal brainwidth. I reckon this is a lot safer but I can almost hear the Ppruners arguing the opposite! By the way, untangling a lifejacket that is caught in the seatbelt without HeliSAS is, well, dangerous.
All-in-all the HeliSAS as a fabulous gadget and, if you can look away when you write that cheque, you must get it. If you are getting the range extender, and plan on flying for 4.5 hours with a Travel John and a Travel Jane at the ready, then you pretty much have to have the HeliSAS. And if you are doing long sea legs (we often do Southampton Cherbourg), it’s great to lock in the Alt and the Hdg. And, since we have experience in Egypt, if you have to fly at 8,500AGL down an airway then it would have lowered our stress levels significantly — otherwise with the earth that far away you are flying in instruments.
For more on the HeliSAS versions see below.
Garmin G500H TXi + GTN 650: a staggering $54,200. You really have only two options as far as we can make out, if you want HeliSAS (which you do). You must either go down the Garmin route, like we did, or the Aspen route which is cheaper . One if these is required to provide the AHRS feed to the HeliSAS. We initially opted for the Aspen but then we had a touchy-feely of the Aspen unit at the Las Vegas Heli Expo and bailed — it just felt too retro and not at all future proof. Garmin gave us a demo of the latest TXi unit which felt pretty good (despite the demo going wrong — more about this in a minute). We have possibly the first R66 in the UK which has the TXI installed so please do drop by HQ Aviation at Denham during the week if you want a look. Here is the template we opted for:
More on GarminGate below. In the meantime, 50 hours on, you will definitely need to supplement with SkyDemon or Foreflight (or any of the major tablet systems) to fly the heli safely in complex airspace.
Garmin Avionics — ouch
The avionics decision started out to be a terrible disappointment. We discovered some really fundamental issues with the Garmin unit as it relates to helicopters:
- The “H” part of “G500H” means, according to Garmin’s own words on their website: the G500H dual-screen electronic flight display provides an affordable flight solution that meets the needs of the most demanding helicopter missions. It is NOT affordable and it does NOT meet the need of our missions, demanding or otherwise, and here is why:
- You cannot plan a flight to a helicopter landing site. You can try and go direct to a waypoint, but it won’t give you an ETE or ETA. Your final waypoint must be an airfield.
- You cannot transfer a large library of landing sites to the GTN 650. It is limited to 1000 points and only allows 6 letter names.
- If you fly to a helicopter landing site (i.e. a waypoint) you will be bombarded with audible traffic alerts right at the critical concentation point. Try and turn them off and you will have one hand off the controls and your eyes on the screen. If you inhibit the audio alerts, they will just turn on again next time you fly, you cannot override this.
- The synthetic vision resolution is appalling in the UK. We live near a huge reservoir which doesn’t show at all. There is remarkably little detail and in poor visibility it would quite happily have us land in water. According to Garmin’s own website: The HSVT graphics look so real, it’s almost like having a clear-day “out-the-window” view of your flight situation.
- Many masts are just completely missing. The data is clearly out there because we can see the mast on Skydemon and Foreflight, but it is not on the Garmin.
- In the demo in Vegas, we were very excited about the new VIRB camera which we were told (and saw screenshots) would display in the TXi screen. This would be great — we could set up a rear-view cam like we have ion our 10 year old car. I bought the VIRB and was utterly disappointed — it is completely incompatible folks and has gone straight back to Garmin. The only compatible cameras are old models from Rugged and Astronics and neither is wireless.
- Again, at the Vegas demo, we were told that waypoints and flight plans can be wirelessly uploaded to the aircraft from the Garmin Pilot app. Actually this is only possible with the additional purchase of the FlightStream 510. This is an old-style SD card with a Bluetooth chip in that Garmin sell for $1,500.
- None of this kit logs your flights. You need an Aera 660 to do that and somewhere to “hang” it in your console.
- The graphical flight plan edit is not possible when flying to a waypoint. Making changes to a flight plan whilst enroute is so difficult that is is basically not safe to try whilst flying.
- Don’t forget some fairly chunky annual charges for database updates too.
We took some of these issues up with Garmin and they have responded as follows:
- The G500 TXi displays are certified products, and any changes to these displays need to go through a review and certification process. That’s not to say that adding this data is completely out of scope for the future, it’s just that we would need to work on making a more detailed assessment on how we can source the data, ensure it’s accurate, scope the investment for a possible software change, and review the business case.
- H(SVT) — The primary purpose of this feature is to improve situational awareness, and this feature should not be used as a primary means of navigation, or for the primary purpose of assessing a landing site for a Helicopter. I believe the Flight Manual should contain more information on the limitations.
- G500H Helicopter Customisation — Garmin has customised the software for the G500H TXi to be adapted for helicopter operations, and to meet the certification requirements of such applications. This includes changes to the way we present the attitude information to Pilots, changes to the terrain shading information, and other changes not visible to the Pilot, but required by the certification authorities.
- Connext Support for Transferring of Flight Plans — The GTN and TXi displays do not natively support Bluetooth or WIFI which is an integral part of the Connex ecosystem. In order to establish this wireless connection a module called a Flightstream 510 is required.
- Terrain awareness for custom waypoint — The alerting happens due to the custom waypoint not being accounted for in the alerting algorithm. We are looking at future software changes to improve this in the future, but we do not currently have a timescale for the implementation of this.
- Graphical Flight Plan Changes — I will need our Aviation Product Support Team to look into this in more detail, but it might be linked to the same issue as the above point.
HeliSAS v51 and v52 onwards
Version 52 also controls the collective which means that you can set the speed as well. With v51 there is no SPD button and the BC button does something so complicated we haven’t been able to use it. Here is the sum total on BC in the user manual: Backcourse Mode (BC) is identical to NAV but with reverse sensing for backcourse approaches. The course on the CDI should be set to the inbound front course in this mode (tail of HSI course needle points toward runway). BC mode only applies if the navigation receiver is set to VLOC.
Version 52 will allow some nice autopilot features. For example, when accelerating from a hover, HeliSAS will automatically compensate for the needed cyclic trim throughout speed changes and hold the commanded attitude.