Robinson R66

Though the philosophy behind this turbine single defies industry norms, it’s a bestseller for good reasons.

Turbine engines. Complex gearboxes. Elaborately shaped rotor blades. Helicopter builder Frank Robinson hated them all. 

Not that he was a Luddite—far from it. Prior to founding his own helicopter company in 1973, Robinson worked on some of the most advanced military rotorcraft programs of the day, including the Boeing AH-64 Apache. 

But for decades, he had tried without success to interest his large-helicopter employers in the concept of an everyman model that was simple, relatively inexpensive, and fun to fly.  Something that would draw more people into the rotorcraft community and cut the cost of training. Occasionally, they would listen politely before dismissing the idea out of hand. Frustrated, Robinson struck out on his own in 1972 from his kitchen table, spending seven and a half years designing, building, and testing his R22 two-seat piston engine helicopter and getting it certified.

Eventually, Robinson expanded from a small hangar at the airport in Torrance, California to a sprawling plant across the field that now employs more than 1,000 people and sends 70 percent of its production to the export market. The Robinson line has expanded to three basic models: the R22, the four-seat piston-engine R44, and the five-seat turbine-engine R66. 

Given the company’s reliance on export sales, Robinson began begrudgingly developing the turbine-powered R66 in the mid-2000s. Availability of 100LL fuel, required for the R22 and R44, is tricky and expensive to obtain outside of North America and Europe, and Robinson felt he had no choice but to build something that ran on jet-A, which is comparatively plentiful everywhere. But he did it with all the enthusiasm of a recalcitrant child being told to eat his vegetables. Two days after the R66 made its first flight in 2009, we sat down together in the company’s break room in Torrance. “Fuel consumption is too high, and parts costs are too high,” he said of light turbine helicopters in general. 

The Price Is Right

Nevertheless, a base R66 continues to be priced at just under $1 million, making it the least expensive light turbine single helicopter you can buy. Load it up with digital avionics, autopilot, air conditioning, fancy paint and interior, and virtually anything else you can think of, and you would still be unlikely to pay more than $1.3 million. A comparably equipped Bell 505 runs at least $500,000 more. 

At Robinson’s behest, Rolls-Royce designed the RR300 engine for the R66. It enables the helicopter to have a bigger cabin and heavier payload and to climb faster than the company’s four-seat, piston-powered R44. The R66’s main rotor chord is slightly wider than the R44’s, but the diameter is the same. Its fuel system meets current, more stringent crashworthiness standards. The 18-cubic-foot luggage hold can carry 300 pounds and is big enough for golf clubs. There is one extra seat in the back—the helicopter holds five people—and legroom is capacious. The pilot seat is wider than the one on the R44 and the cabin is eight inches wider. Empty weight is 1,270 pounds and the useful load comes in at 1,300 pounds, 300 pounds more than the R44’s load.

However, due to the RR300’s 23-gallons-per-hour fuel burn, the R66 has the capacity for 73.6 gallons of fuel, while the R44, which burns 15 gallons per hour, holds 47 gallons. The need to carry more fuel wipes out most of the payload advantage that the R66 posts over the smaller R44.

The R66 is designed with simplicity in mind so that pilots of other light single-engine helicopters easily transition into it. Both the R66 and R44 have Robinson’s T-bar flight controls. The patented T-bar cyclic provides pilots and front-seat passengers with more legroom and the pilot with a greater range of control motion. It also saves weight. Simplicity carries through to the standard flight instruments, which are built around traditional and straightforward analog gauges, but more sophisticated digital displays are available for an additional charge. Also, with an eye to the uncomplicated, the RR300 engine eschews computerized full-authority engine controls. 

A Bestselling Model

In its first decade of production, the R66 sold more than 1,000 copies, and today it is Robinson’s bestselling model, accounting for the lion’s share of its new-helicopter sales revenue. When you buy a helicopter from Robinson, you get it Frank’s way.

Robinson’s production facility is surgically clean and almost totally vertically integrated. Aside from the avionics and the engines, the company builds virtually everything itself, guaranteeing quality and precise scheduling. You are trained at a company safety course. And every 2,000 hours or 12 years, your helicopter gets completely rebuilt, repainted, and refitted with a Robinson parts-replacement kit, installed at the factory or an authorized service center. This eliminates a lot of the drip-drip-drip expense of on-condition maintenance or the replacement of time-limited parts that all have separate schedules. With a Robinson, basically everything comes out and apart at the same time—rotor blades, transmission, gearboxes, engine, sheet metal—and is replaced or rebuilt to factory standards. The entire process can take up to nine months at the factory, and somewhat less time at an independent center. 

And it’s a big hit. This past year, the factory price for 2,000-hour service on an R66 was $371,000, but that sum basically got you a new helicopter. Maybe that accounts for the outstanding resale value of all Robinsons and the R66 in particular. According to the aircraft valuation service Vref, R66s from model years 2016 to 2022 fetch between 111 and 136 percent of their original sales price, more than any other light turbine single. 

Robinson has built nearly 14,000 civil helicopters and now annually sells more than any other manufacturer. Frank Robinson retired in 2010 and passed away last November at his Rolling Hills, California home. He was 92. His philosophy of simple and affordable, versus the industry norm of expensive and complex, continues to guide the company, which is now led by his son Kurt. Things are still done “Frank’s way.”

2016 Robinson R66 at a Glance

Price new: $869,000

Price now (average): $1.05 million 

Engine: Rolls-Royce RR300, 270 shp

Main rotor blades: 2  

Crew: 1

Passengers: 4 

Maximum cruise speed: 140 kt 

Range (no reserve): 325 nm 

Cabin volume: 50 cu ft

Main rotor diameter: 33 ft