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The Robinson R22 – the Best Helicopter Trainer?

June 26th, 2011

File this under the “just came across my desk” heading. This states many of the reasons the Robinson R22 is the best helicopter trainer in the world, and why we use the Robinson R22 helicopter at our Boston helicopter flight school. This was printed for a Canadian school, but sums up the R22.

Everyone that starts their training will hear the arguments for the ageless “Schweizer vs. Robinson” debate. It’s really not true that one is better than the other. They each have distinct advantages. BUT – when you sum up the pros of each model, the R22 does have a much longer list than the Schweizer. From the viewpoint of the flight school AND the student. I’ve owned a Schweizer school (glad I don’t anymore), and I’ve started a Robinson school. Would I do the Robinson school again? Absolutely. The Schweizer helicopter school? Probably not (and not just because of my former partner). But that is beside the point. Read the article below and see what you think.

“At Heli-College Canada Training Inc. we have carefully chosen the Robinson R22 Beta as our primary training aircraft. Let me explain how we made this choice. First, I will have to back up a bit.

In a recent market survey of senior management and industry pilots, it was noted that many of these pilots, had themselves trained on the classic Bell 47 Series helicopters 20 to 30 years ago. However, in reviewing this survey, I observed three rather interesting trends …

1. When asked to recommend a training aircraft to a potential student pilot, many industry pilots were tending to suggest the same machine that worked for them — 30 years ago!

2. When asked what light turbine aircraft they use in their operation today, the reply was generally “Bell 206B, MD500D or Astar”.

3. When asked why they didn’t use the older Bell 206A or the “straight 500″ any more, the invariable reply was, “The newer ships are better, of course! They’re faster, safer, more economical to operate, and often cheaper to maintain!”

Do you detect an inconsistency here? I do. I understand, however, why many of these pilots might feel this way.

I too, originally trained on the 47 — there were no Robinsons back then! When I was first asked to consider the idea of using the Robinson as a trainer, I resisted. I hadn’t even flown the aircraft myself, so I really couldn’t compare it. With over 4500 hours on type, I was happy to stay with the familiar Bell 47. Despite my resistance, the school for which I was working at the time, operated both types of aircraft. This reluctantly gave me the opportunity to fly the Robinson R22. I had the chance to make a fair comparison. Guess what? The Robinson won!

My experience has been, that when a high time pilot (or a low time pilot for that matter) flies the Robinson R22 for the first time, they are favourably impressed with the handling characteristics of the aircraft. In fact, enough of our clients were impressed, that we eventually decided to drop the 47 altogether from our training fleet. You see, most of them wanted to fly the Robinson.

In much the same way as the Bell 206, Hughes 500, and ASTAR have replaced the Bell 47s and Hiller 12Es in the commercial market, — the Robinson R22 has, for the most part, replaced the other piston engined helicopters in the training market. In short, … The newer ships are better for training too!

To put it very simply — the Robinson R22 is a low cost, efficient, safe, comfortable, modern, and low maintenance training helicopter.

Here are some specific reasons why we like the machine.

The R22 is a low cost training aircraft.

If price were not a consideration, I would probably suggest that the more turbine time a pilot can get, the better. This is because the turbine helicopter is the machine of choice in the commercial market. The reality is, however, that cost is a very important consideration to most prospective pilots nowadays. Therefore, 99% decide to train on a piston engined aircraft, primarily because of the lower cost. All piston helicopters cost around the same to operate, give or take a few dollars. Therefore, there is little price advantage to recommend one, over the others. There are several significant performance differences, however.

The R22 is  the “Greenest” of the Light Piston Training Helicopters.

The R22’s Lycoming 320 cubic inch engine is more fuel efficient than its larger and heavier competitors. Burning an average of only 6.5 to 7.5 gallons of fuel per hour gives the R22 a specific air range of 2.38 miles/pound.  This is at least twice as good as some of the other piston training helicopters in use, and is even better than some cars on the road are getting! In today’s environment of unpredictable fuel surcharges, a lower fuel consumption is a good thing to see in any vehicle. Naturally, less fuel burned means fewer CO2 emissions. The smaller engine and a modern efficient blade design make for a smaller noise footprint as well. This makes it easier for us to “fly neighbourly”, minimize noise complaints, and integrate our operations into the local community.

The R22 is an efficient training aircraft.

If you can’t afford to train on a turbine, at least train on the machine that flies most like a turbine.

We call the R22 the “mini 206″. It feels like a small Bell 206 in flight. The R22 has no stabilizer bar, and therefore has the same lateral instability as the 206. It also has an efficient throttle governor like the 206. Once the student pilot masters the manual operation of the throttle (in case the governor ever fails during flight), then turning on the governor, results in spare mental capacity being freed up to attend to more important flight requirements than throttle-twisting. As a result of these similarities, the transition time from the R22 to the 206 is much shorter. Many of our R22 trained students have been able to pick up the 206, hold it steady, and fly it away on the first try, with little or no assistance from their instructor.

Also worth mentioning is the fact that the R22 makes a logical training platform for a transition up to the R44 aircraft. More and more R44s (the larger 4 place Robinson aircraft) are being flown commercially around the world, and their operators will naturally tend to favour hiring those pilots that have trained in the smaller, yet aerodynamically similar, R22.

As I implied a few paragraphs earlier, this ease of transition works equally well the other way around. I have flown with hundreds of high time 206, 500, 212, S61, and S76 pilots and none of them had any problems transitioning “down” to the R22. Even if they had never flown a piston aircraft before, they made a comfortable transition in usually less than 2 hours flight time. At less than half the cost of the 206, the R22 endorsement pays for itself during the first 2 hours of any advanced training, such as an IFR course.

The R22 is 20% to 50% faster in the cruise than its other piston competitors. This reduces the ferry time to the mountains and other practise areas. The result is, that a greater proportion of the student’s precious 100 hours training time, will be spent on the more practical exercises.

The R22 IFR trainer has a proper instrument panel, including HSI and RMI in a standard ICAO layout. If a student pilot has to do the mandatory 5 hours of instrument flying anyway, they might as well use an aircraft that is properly equipped.

The R22 is a safe training aircraft.

Because of its greater reliability, the R22 is now being recognized as the safest light helicopter of them all, if it is flown by a well trained pilot who demonstrates good judgment. A recent NTSB accident review showed that the Bell 206 had mechanical failure or engine failure listed as the cause of an accident 20% of the time. In comparison, the Robinson R22 showed a figure of only 5%. Some uninformed pilots may have misled you. The fact is, the most recent safety figures show that, with all the current improvements incorporated, the R22 now has the fewest accidents per hour flown compared with any of the other common piston training aircraft types. Of course, it is also important that you choose a reputable, experienced, and disciplined training operation to ensure a safe overall training environment. Start with a safe aircraft. It is a good first step.

In order to reduce the likelihood of mechanical damage to the aircraft and further increase flight safety to the occupants, a number of improvements have been made to the R22 in recent years. In addition to the throttle governor, (which has virtually eliminated problems associated with overspeeds) — other modern design features such as temperature and metal chip detection caution warning lights, low RPM warning horns, elastomeric bearings, stainless steel blades, full-flow oil filtration, rotor brake, and starter lock-out systems are now standard equipment on production R22s.

The manufacturer is constantly improving the safety and efficiency of the aircraft because the R22 is still in active production. In fact, as of April 2009, over 4430 R22s (and 4865 R44s) are now in service, making it the largest production run of any type of helicopter. The helicopter is usually returned to the factory for a teardown, major overhaul and upgrade every 2200 hours of operation. During this process, the latest upgrades and safety modifications are installed. This means, at our particular school, that we are always flying aircraft that are effectively no more than 3 years old.

More available power will result in an improved margin of safety during training operations and a smoother transition to the turbine later in your career. In the R22 Beta model, full power is available up to 5200 feet. The R22 engine (the reliable Lycoming O-320) produces almost 30 horsepower more than is normally required during standard flight maneuvers. This results in three additional benefits that affect aircraft safety and reliability. First of all, since the engine is de-rated, it is not having to work so hard during normal operations, and therefore is more likely to continue through its service life without any premature failures. Secondly, as in all turbine aircraft, the pilot must learn to remain constantly aware of how much power is being used at any one time, and is responsible for physically limiting that power to avoid exceeding the transmission limitations of the aircraft. And thirdly (despite the limitations mentioned above), at sea level, an additional 21% emergency power is available to the pilot, if necessary, to modify a flight path that might have otherwise resulted in a potential accident.

Again, — a better training path to the turbine, and increased safety margins. Both good things to have in a training aircraft.

If you can carry out a good autorotation in an R22, you can do one in any aircraft. Due to the lower inertia rotor system, a high degree of skill is required to carry one out effectively. Although the newer R22s have stainless steel, tip-weighted main rotor blades, that perform much better than the original design, the R22 is still more demanding in the timing during autorotation when compared with most other helicopters. We feel though, that this is a good characteristic to have in a training machine. Autorotations are one of the most important exercises to master during flight training. They can only become easier when the pilot eventually transitions to a machine with even higher blade inertia. This is the way you want it to be!

The R22 is a comfortable training aircraft.

Safety and student progress improve when the pilot is more comfortable flying the aircraft. The R22 teetering cyclic control that many of you out there have expressed concern about, is really not a problem. It simply allows the pilot to position the cyclic where it is most comfortable for them to use – not the pre-selected spot that one of those old-school designers (those guys with the really long arms?) thought would work for the “average” pilot. The dual heater outlet design ensures that both the student pilot and the instructor have equal environmental control in the cockpit, and that the windscreen remains effectively de-fogged on both sides. At Heli-College Canada, we have installed leather seats in all our aircraft. Not because it is cool to have leather, but because they hold up better over time and are more comfortable on longer flights. These may seem like small items at first, however it has been proven that a pilot will fatigue more rapidly, and be more susceptible to errors, if they are not comfortable in the cockpit..

The R22 is a modern training aircraft.

In addition to the obvious safety benefits mentioned above, as a newer, modern machine, the R22 also looks nice! And the student pilot is more motivated to keep it looking that way. Our students regularly wash and wax the machines. They don’t do this because they are told they have to. They offer to do it, in order to have a clean and shiny aircraft that they can be proud of. In actual fact, this particular “pilot” skill may be of more benefit to them than they think. I know of several pilots who recall that their first “flying” job, consisted of washing and waxing the fleet. Many of the prospective employers I have spoken to agree that it is often not flying skill, that gets a pilot their first job, but attitude.

The R22 is a low maintenance training aircraft.

The R22 checks out OK on the maintenance front too. Its maintenance downtime is low, mainly due to the complete factory “remanufacturing” that takes place every 2200 hours. The machines are literally put back on the assembly line and come out looking, and feeling new after major overhaul. The TBO times are set so that the main components all come due during the rebuild. In my experience, the R22 is “online” more often than its piston competitors. Since this reduces interruptions in the training schedule, everyone wins on this point.

What a great essay!

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