Robinson R44 Raven Ian owner's review by Philip Greenspun, CFII; revised October 2012
Within its price range, Robinson's R44 is probably the best helicopter in the world for personal ownership and it might also be the best helicopter for primary training. The R44 Raven I carries a base list price of $340,000, with dealers typically discounting 3 or 4 percent off list. Paying close to $5 per gallon for 100LL and budgeting realistic amounts for maintenance and the 2200-hour overhaul, the direct operating cost of an R44 is approximately $190 per hour.
Robinson helicopters are remarkably reliable and maintenance-free. The majority of accidents are due to pilot error, so the accident and death rates in Robinson machines would be tough to reduce by making the machine more robust (though we'll talk later about some engineering improvements that could make accidents less likely to occur and more survivable).
At a production rate that peaked at 800 machines per year, aggregating R22 and R44 sales, Robinson makes more helicopters than the rest of the manufacturers combined (even the military doesn't operate all that many helicopters; the U.S. Army's Sikorsky Blackhawk fleet, for example, is only about 1200 machines accumulated since 1978). The company produced its 10,000th helicopter in November 2011.
Light weight (2400 lbs. max gross for the Raven I; 2500 for the Raven II). The R44 doesn't have a lot of inertia. If you put in a control input, the helicopter responds immediately and dramatically. A heavier helicopter is going to respond more gradually. The R44 is like a sports sedan; the big turbine helicopters are like trucks.
Heavy weight. The R44 is substantially heavier than the R22 and therefore rides through wind gusts and turbulence much more solidly than the R22. A passenger who gets uncomfortable or sick in the R22 would have no problem on most days in the R44.
Piston power. If you weigh 500 lbs. and can only leave the house with the aid of a crane and a whale sling borrowed from the local public aquarium, by all means a 1200 horsepower turbine engine is the right power source for your personal helicopter. If, on the other hand, you are a person of normal weight, the piston engine provides instant power changes without the spool-up time of a turbine. Instant power is very comforting during a go-around. Another nice thing about the piston engine is that an R44 will burn about half as much fuel as a small turbine-powered helicopter, e.g., the Bell JetRanger.
Simple maintenance and overhaul. In theory, you don't have to hire a full-time mechanic to keep the R44 in the air and make sure that all of the components are overhauled on time. Aside from oil changes, nothing in the R44 requires service between 100-hour inspections. Almost everything in the R44 is overhauled at the 2200-hour interval. (see "maintenance examples" below for how it has worked for us in practice)
As of 2012, Robinson does not offer the Amsafe airbag seatbelts that became standard equipment starting in 2006 in most fixed wing aircraft (e.g., all Cirrus and Cessna piston singles).
As of October 2012, Robinson does not offer a modern glass instrument panel. In some ways this itself has become a safety hazard due to the propensity of mechanical gyros to fail when installed in the high-vibration environment of a helicopter.
One of the big open issues with Robinson is mast rocking or mast "chugging", a poorly understood phenomenon in which a Robinson R44 can shake so badly that it becomes impossible to fly. This has been responsible for at least a handful of incidents and accidents over the years and no definitive cause has been established. Pilots should be alert when loaded near the forward C.G. and especially during steep turns and autorotations.
I decided to buy an R44 Raven I because we are using it primarily for flight training. The extra cost of a Raven II would have driven up our insurance cost and therefore we would have had to charge students more. The fact that the fuel-injected engine has been known to quit after a throttle chop, though supposedly fixed in more recent Raven IIs, was also a factor in leading us to choose a Raven I for flight training. It would be nice to have the A/C!
R44 Raven I R44 Raven II Price $340,000 $415,000 Power Carbureted Lycoming O-540 Fuel-injected Lycoming IO-540 Electrical System 14V 28V Gross Weight 2400 lbs. 2500 lbs. Empty Weight 1430 lbs. (stripped) 1500 lbs. minimum (?) Fuel Burn in Cruise 14 gallons/hour 15 gallons per hour Carb Icing Semi-automatic system to add carb heat No worries High Altitude Good Performance Very Good Performance Over Water Fixed Floats Optional Fixed or Pop-Out Floats Optional Air Conditioning Student Holds Spritzer Bottle Optional (33 lbs.; $18,500) Practice Autorotations Engine Idles Nicely 1970s fuel injection design may quit if you roll all the way down
Get up on a ladder every now and then and look at the blades. The latest blade design, which has a very thin stainless steel skin, is quite fragile. One of our local pilots experienced substantial damage to an R44 blade that encountered an empty plastic water bottle. Another experience slight indentations after some slope work in which the blade whipped through some tall grass.
Aside from the items on the factory checklist, pay some attention to the little screws on the sheet metal around the doors. These screws have a way of coming out. Look for damage to the sheet metal surrounding the rotor mast, which would be a sign of a hard landing.
Starting the Raven I engine is reasonably easy, one of the advantages of carburetion. As the overnight temperature in the hangar drops to 50 degrees F and the air is cold (around freezing) outside, it becomes difficult to start, much more so than our R22. Applying a propane heater to the area around the carburetor enables an immediate start, however. If you don't have a flight school van with propane heater handy, an investment in a Reiff or Tanis electric preheater would be wise.
At 500 hours, our R44 began to make some ugly-sounding noises when we
attempted to start it. At the 100-hour inspection, the mechanics found
broken teeth on the ring gear (engine side) and on the B&C brand
starter. The most likely explanation is that someone tried to start our
R44, it failed to catch, and then they tried again without waiting long
enough for the starter motor to stop spinning. Apparently the B&C
starter will spin freely for some time after the engine has stopped
turning. In some military training environments, cadets are required to
remove their hands from the ignition key and touch the back of their
heads before putting their hands back on the key to crank again.
Once you reach the magic 45 knots, let the ship rise into a 60-knot attitude and hold it there. Eventually you will achieve 60 knots and the ship will be climbing almost as fast as at Vy (55 knots). When you're a few hundred feet off the ground, say "upwind check" to yourself. Check those engine gauges. Look at the carb air temp gauge. If it is in the yellow, this is a good time to add carb heat. In fact, if you don't need the machine's full performance you can apply full carb heat and leave it on for the entire flight.
If you're doing a maximum performance takeoff over an obstacle, compare the rotor disk to the obstacle. If the tree is under the front of the rotor disk, you're probably going to make it. If you are looking through the spinning blades at the top of the tree, well, I hope that it is winter, that you are light, and that you are prepared to back up into your parking spot and kick your fat friends (and their dog) out of the ship before trying again.
Heat is ample and uniformly distributed throughout the cabin. The fresh air supply is good, but very noisy. We try to get by using the little vent windows cut into the doors and, if that isn't enough, removing a door. The noise of the fresh air system is actually audible over the noise of an open door.
The R44 rides through turbulence much more comfortably than an R22 and more comfortably than an airplane of comparable weight. The hydraulically boosted cyclic of the R44 doesn't vibrate in your hand the way that the R22's cyclic does.
Interior noise is comparable to a light airplane such as a Cessna 172, i.e., loud enough that you definitely need hearing protection. The R44 is actually quieter inside than some turbine-powered helicopters, e.g., the Eurocopter EC120. Jet-powered helicopters are impressive, but mounting an enormous roaring jet engine behind the back seat passengers' ears is not going to yield the most comfortable cabin.
After 2.5 hours at a cruising speed of 110-120 knots, depending on
weight, you'll notice the fuel gauges near the quarter tank mark that
indicates approximately 30 minutes remaining. This makes the R44 Raven I
good for a 250 nautical mile trip against an average headwind.
For a normal approach, cruise along at 300' AGL and 60 knots until the desired landing spot is just above the yaw string (this is about a 10-degree glide slope for a 6' tall pilot). Then smartly lower collective to begin a descent and adjust the collective to hold that spot at the same height on the bubble. Gradually pull back on the cyclic to keep the apparent rush of the ground underneath you constant. Make sure to establish a fairly aggressive descent rate of perhaps 700 fpm at first. Otherwise your approach will get too steep and you'll need a high descent rate towards the end, when you are slow. As you start to slow down and feel the vibrations from loss of effective translational lift (ETL), glance at the vertical speed indicator to make sure that you aren't descending more than 300 fpm. If you are, do not slow down below ETL or you are risking settling with power ("vortex ring state"). You probably did a settling with power demonstration up at 3000' with an instructor. In real life, you get into it about 100' above the ground while trying to do an approach.
If you're going into a confined area and might need the last bit of power, push the carb heat down as soon as you commit to the landing, perhaps 50-100' above the ground.
If there is any chance that another helicopter might park or lift off nearby, secure at least the front rotor blade with the tiedown.
If you're keeping the R44 in a hangar, do not leave the helicopter up on the Robinson-supplied ground handling wheels. The tires seem to be designed for occasional usage, not continuous weight-bearing. For easier one-person ground handling, stock up on bigger wheels and a tow bar from www.r22r44.com. These are too heavy and bulky to travel with the R44, but are useful at the home base and are a good backup in case you blow a tire on your factory-supplied wheels.
We bought the Robinson Helicopter towcart. It cost $7000, failed after two uses, required days of our (brilliant) mechanic's labor to fix, and was not supported with any troubleshooting guide or wiring diagram. Nor was it covered by any labor warranty.
I recommend against ordering any gyros in the R44. They are heavy, expensive, and tend only to last 500 hours when subjected to the vibration of a helicopter. At the safety course, Frank Robinson himself noted that he has been disappointed in the number of R44s with attitude indicators and Garmin 430s that have flown into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) and not come out. The extra capability does not translate into safety, apparently, but only encourages pilots to take risks with the weather that they should not have. As noted in the Instrument Training section below, one day there will be lightweight glass panels with solid-state attitude reference that will fit into the R44.
I recommend against the optional digital clock. The timer is nice, but the instrument has spectacularly crummy buttons that tend to stop working reliably. You never can be sure whether or not you have been successful in starting the timer.
The one option that we ordered in our R44 Raven I was a vertical card compass. We use a Garmin 296 handheld GPS for navigation, obstacle warnings, and terrain warnings. The Garmin is mounted with a suction cup to the bubble. It shakes quite a bit and can be hard to read if you don't stabilize it with your knee.
Given the weight and unreliability of mechanical gyros when subjected to
the vibrations of a helicopter, it might be worth waiting for glass
instruments to be certified for aftermarket installation. The (sadly, non-certified)
Avionics EFIS systems, for example, weigh about 6 lbs. and include
airspeed, altimeter, attitude indicator, HSI, and GPS with a moving map.
A traditional attitude indicator and directional gyro from Robinson
weigh as much. The certified big-screen Avidyne primary flight display
that comes standard in Cirrus and Piper airplanes weighs 12 lbs.
One downside of the T-bar cyclic is that, even with the left side controls removed, the actual cyclic is very close to a passenger's right leg and right arm. A passenger is much more likely to nudge the cyclic accidentally than he or she would be in a Jet Ranger. A more serious problem is that a passenger might intentionally yank on the cyclic. Social conventions and the wide cockpit would probably prevent a passenger from reaching down between your legs and grabbing the pilot's side Jet Ranger cyclic. A local flight school owner was giving rides at a county fair in an R44. One strong young teenager, when they were in a hover at the very end of the 6-minute ride, grabbed the top of the T-bar and shook it, asking "what does this do?" Fortunately he learned the answer before the helicopter rolled over... Consider adding a "this is the control that rolls the helicopter over if you touch it" line to your preflight passenger briefing.
The R44's long range and practicality for cross-country trips make the T-bar cyclic perhaps more dangerous than in the R22. On a long trip people get a little bored. They start talking. When the non-flying person is talking, he or she is likely to be gesturing. A gesturing person will frequently whack their portion of the T-bar or the cyclic tube itself. If the flying pilot doesn't have a firm grip on the controls, there is a possibility of the cyclic being pushed full forward, which might lead to a low-G situation, an improper full left cyclic input, and mast bumping.
I have encountered high-time Robinson pilots who've been scared more than once by accidental knocks to the T-bar and wish that the R44 had conventional low-and-between-the-legs cyclic controls.
Robinson offers a variety of GPS units as factory-installed options. Unfortunately, these are all placed in a hard-to-see place at the bottom of the radio stack. A handheld Garmin 296 is a vastly more capable unit for VFR flying than anything Garmin sells for panel mounting (the 430/530 series dates back to 1998 and has the slow CPU and limited capabilities that you'd expect from computing equipment of that vintage). The newer handheld Garmins also aren't quite as counterintuitive and keystroke-intensive as the panel-mount Garmins.
You can order a Robinson helicoper from the factory pre-wired with LEMO
connectors for noise-cancelling headsets; the connectors alone are about
$600 each. This is the connector brand that Bose uses. Some other
brands of headsets can be ordered with a "Bose-style" or LEMO connector.
Sadly this does not include David Clark whose H10-56HXL is probably the
most rugged noise-cancelling headset available and has a coiled cord for
helicopter use. David Clark uses a Hirosi connector and can only accept
14V (i.e., if you were to get a David Clark headset and plug it into a
LEMO connector from a 28V aircraft such as a Cirrus or Raven II, you'd
fry the headset). David Clark makes a somewhat clumsy adaptor that
includes a voltage regulation box. Probably the best thing to do if you
have a 14V helicopter, such as the R22 or R44 Raven I, is have an
avionics shop wire the David Clark Hirosi connector (David Clark part
number 09228P-93; about $30). For my R22 it turned out that the
necessary power wire had already been run up to the headliner by
Robinson. It took the mechanic about three hours per connector and now
the David Clark headsets run very nicely without batteries.
How much power is actually available at sea level? 260 horsepower. The collective control in your left hand is mechanically connected to the swashplate, which will push up the pitch links until the blades assume an extreme pitch angle. The correlator and governor will open the throttle as wide as it needs to go in order to keep the blades spinning at 400 rpm. If you load up the helicopter with lead and pull the collective up into your armpit, the engine will put out 260 horsepower in an attempt to keep those blades from slowing down against air resistance.
With just two people in the R44 for training, it would be almost
inconceivable to exceed the published manifold pressure limit. On a hot
day at gross weight coming out of a confined area, you might go over the
red line. There is no required inspection after such an exceedance, but
prolonged operations at higher-than-authorized power settings invites
catastrophic mechanical failure.
At the Robinson Factory Safety Course, we were told not to rely on the gauges: "Use your watch," the instructor said, suggesting that we keep track of flight time. "How many gallons per hour does the R22 burn?" a student asked, noting that there are no data for fuel consumption or range in the P.O.H. (the same is true for the R44 P.O.H.). "We won't tell you that because it might not be right for your ship," was the reply. "What about a dipstick?" None is supplied. So... you don't really know how much fuel is in the tanks unless you top off and are way over gross. You could make your own fuel stick, but where do you store it so that you don't get grit on it and then put grit into the fuel tanks? Even if you knew how much fuel was in the tanks before you took off, it would be tough to calculate how much remained in flight because you don't have any numbers for fuel consumption.
With the Robinson, by contrast, the gauges have often shown me very close to the FAA minimum 20-minute VFR reserve (day or night) for helicopters. Yet I had only a vague idea of how much fuel was actually in the ship. If Robinson ever switches to an all-glass cockpit, it would be nice to have a fuel totalizer and it shouldn't add more than a few ounces of weight.
Helicopters are much more likely to encounter obstacles such as radio towers and power lines, yet very few have any kind of terrain or obstacle awareness system. The Europeans have been investing in a database of all obstacles within Europe and a system for installation in helicopters that can alert a pilot "approaching power lines". The best that we can do in the U.S. is rely on the FAA's database of really tall towers. The latest Garmin 400-series panel-mount GPS units and all of the modern Garmin handheld aviation GPSes will alert the pilot to an approaching obstacle. For helicopter flying, you need to turn down the intensity of these warnings to avoid becoming distracted.
In March 2006, the NTSB formally asked the FAA to require that
helicopters carrying six or more passengers be required to have a
terrain warning system. This was in reaction to a March 2004
"controlled flight into water" crash of an Era Aviation Sikorsky S-76
with two professional pilots at the controls.
If you're operating in a truly dark area, i.e., not a towered airport, consider leaving the landing light off when near the ground. It is so bright that it will ruin your night vision and you won't be able to distinguish between trees and sky. It is perfectly possible to hover using only the nav lights for reference.
Try to limit your night flying to familiar areas, following highways, well-lit cities, and higher-than-usual altitudes above the ground. Even some very experienced crews have gotten disoriented and collided with terrain or water at night. In an airplane, I treat a night flight in an unfamiliar or mountainous area as an instrument flight and fly IFR routes, altitudes, and procedures.
Don't try to take off unless you can hover. Don't get anywhere near the limits of the R44's performance unless you are going from one big airport to another big airport where there is plenty of room to slide onto a runway. When approaching to land, don't let your airspeed fall below ETL unless everything looks good. Don't go into any confined area unless the P.O.H. says that you can do an out-of-ground-effect hover at that altitude.
How does the Raven I do in practice? On my first full day of ownership,
we filled up the tanks and put three guys in the cabin and went up to
Big Bear, California, an airport at 6700' above sea level that was 8600'
density altitude due to hot summer weather. At an estimated weight of
2250 lbs., i.e., 150 under gross, we had plenty of power for our
approach to an in-ground-effect hover. We also had a good 500' per
minute climb rate out of there. At 2200 lbs., I have had no difficulty
landing the R44 Raven I at airports as high as 7400' and have even done
some pinnacle landings closer to 8000' above sea level.
People have had accidents from windows popping out and doors not being properly secured. So if you are putting doors on and off, don't get lazy about putting the cotter pins back through the hinges.
Most of the standard insurance companies will not insure Robinson helicopters, partly due to the fact that Robinson does not itself have insurance. Thus if there is an accident and the victims allege that there was a manufacturing or design defect, the owner's insurance company is defending side-by-side with the notoriously stubborn Frank Robinson and not with a settlement-minded insurance company. In theory, the domestic carriers such as A.I.G. charge $20,000 to $26,000. In practice, I was never been able to get a quote from any of these companies, though they managed to waste weeks of time and effort. AIG didn't want to insure our R44 because we also had a Cirrus SR20 and AIG likes to insure all aircraft owned by an entity or none. Okay... maybe we could add the Cirrus in. That wouldn't work because AIG won't insure any Cirrus at any price. Then AIG didn't like the fact that the R44 was used by a flight school that owned airplanes that were insured by a company other than them.
Sutton James has a program underwritten by a new carrier, Starr Aviation. This is midway between the (theoretical) A.I.G. price and the Pathfinder price. The insurance will allow rental by customers.
Budget between $30 and $45 per hour for 100-hour inspections and other routine maintenance.
A second example is the 2008 R44 Raven I IFR Trainer that we picked up in March 2008. The ship was delayed for a month or so because of a lawsuit against the carburetor manufacturer. On the ferry flight from Los Angeles, the steam gauge attitude indicator failed. Robinson is the last major aircraft manufacturer in the world to supply mechanical gyros. As noted previously, a helicopter is the worst possible environment for mechanical gyro and the attitude indicator is the most fragile kind of gyro. It wasn't a surprise, therefore, to find the A.I. tumbling after 30 minutes of flight. What was a surprise was finding out that Robinson would not send us a replacement. It took several phone calls to get them to agree to look at the attitude indicator. Robinson wanted us to pull the old attitude indicator from the ship, placard everything INOP, FAX them the next day to remind them to look at the old one, and call them the day after that as an additional reminder. Our flight school's head of maintenance expressed some annoyance at this procedure and noted that "Any other aircraft company would have overnighted us a new one and taken the old one back." The result of this kind of warranty support is that we lost weeks of revenue because we couldn't teach any instrument students.
The same ship was down for approximately a month due to problems with the original factory carburetor. If you're leasing a helicopter to a flight school, these unscheduled weeks and months of downtime can ruin what seems like a good financial deal.
The VFR trainer that we picked up in 2008 was due for an overhaul in 2012. At 2107 collective hours, the main rotor transmission gears began grinding and produced enough metal to activate the MR CHIP light. We already had an overhaul kit in place and elected to swap the transmission. Now we are left with a helicopter whose transmission will require replacement at 4307 hours while the rest of the machine will require overhaul at 4400 hours. The "2200 interval for everything" idea is great in theory, but it does not work in practice when individual components fail to last until the 2200-hour mark.
The cost of overhaul is substantially higher than Robinson advertises due to the fact that Robinson adds a substantial core charge to the cost of an overhaul kit. When the timed-out cores are returned to the factory, nearly always the factory says "These cores are in much worse than average condition" and only a tiny portion of the core charge is refunded. As of October 2012 it makes sense to budget $100 per collective hour for the overhaul.
Here are some of my favorite dealers: