2005 Robinson R22an owner's review by Philip Greenspun, ATP-H, CFII-H; updated March 2010
East Coast Aero Club has a job opening for a helicopter CFI.Robinson's R22 is the world's most economical-to-operate helicopter. The R22 carries a base list price of $250,000, with dealers typically discounting between 3 and 4 percent off list, but excellent used machines are available at around $100,000. Paying $5 per gallon for 100LL and budgeting realistic amounts for maintenance and the 2200-hour overhaul, the direct operating cost of an R22 is approximately $145 per hour.
R22s have been remarkably reliable and maintenance-free. The majority of accidents are due to the machine being used in training (a mission for which the R22 was not designed and is ill-suited) or pilot error. Thus the accident and death rates in R22s 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).
This review is based on my experience as an owner of an R22 from late 2005 through late 2008.
I have heard high-time helicopter pilots, with experience in many different types, say "The R22 is the most fun helicopter to fly."
If you are looking for a trainer, consider the Robinson R44 instead. The R44 has about 4 seconds of rotor inertia rather than 1.6. That gives a pilot time to hear the low rotor RPM warning horn, look at the gauges, come up with a plan, and implement the plan (i.e., lower the collective and enter the autorotation). Count out 4 seconds to yourself and then count out 1.6.
Another pro-safety factor in the R44 is the extra power. With two people sitting in a four-seat helicopter, there is a tremendous power reserve available to recover from ugly training situations. The heavier weight of the R44 also makes the machine much more stable in windy/gusty conditions. Students learn to hover and autorotate faster in the R44 than in the R22.
In the event that the R22 is used for training, the cabin remarkably robust for surviving the inevitable accidents. I have personally met five instructors who failed to catch student errors resulting in dynamic rollovers. One suffered a cracked rib and the other two were uninjured. (See "Teaching Hovering" for some ideas on how to avoid this kind of embarrassment.)
As of 2010, Robinson does not offer the Amsafe airbag seatbelts that have been standard equipment in most fixed wing aircraft produced since 2006 (all Cessna, Cirrus, and Mooney piston singles, for example).
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 and a "smile" on the horizontal skid tube when viewed from behind. These are signs of a hard landing.
Starting the engine is easy whether hot or cold, one of the advantages of carburetion. If you are storing your engine in a place where the temperature falls below freezing at night, considering adding a Reiff or Tanis electric preheater.
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 (53 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 friend out of the ship before trying again.
Heat and fresh air controls are adequate. It is March now and my feet are still being defrosted from some time I spent in a $1.6 million Bell Long Ranger during early February; my torso was sweating but the area near the floor was frigid. The Robinson has a far more uniform heater and the output is ample for the coldest conditions.
In our miserably bumpy somewhat hilly region of the country, any wind stronger than 12 knots on the surface usually results in unpleasant in-flight turbulence. If there are reported gusts or an Airmet for "occasional moderate turbulence", prepare to be beaten up and for susceptible passengers to be airsick. This is another reason to consider an R44. A lot of New England days that are not pleasant or marginally safe in an R22 are perfectly doable in an R44.
Interior noise is comparable to a light airplane such as a Cessna 172, i.e., loud enough that you definitely need hearing protection. I fly the R22 while wearing foam earplugs and a noise-cancelling headset. If you want to do the same, make sure that you don't get a Bose headset. The speakers in a Bose headset cannot handle the full power of an aviation radio. So if you crank up the volume on your radio to hear it through the earplugs, you'll blow out the speakers in the Bose headsets. The Telex 50D and the Sennheiser both have drivers that can handle the higher sound levels and both are available with LEMO connectors that let you plug them into an R22's (optional) "Bose" outlets so that you can have noise cancellation without a battery pack. (LEMO is the brand name of the Swiss company making the connectors that Bose and other headset companies have adopted.)
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 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.
I recommend against ordering any gyros in the R22. 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 R22.
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.
With the glass cockpits that are offered by every other general aviation aircraft manufacturer except Robinson, the R22 could rise again as an instrument trainer, though the increased weight and therefore stability of the R44 certainly makes learning and checkrides easier. Systems such as those from Aspen Avionics are light and much easier to fly than the World War II-style steam gauges installed by Robinson.
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 or Hughes 300. 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 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.
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. My R22 came with a Garmin 250XL GPS/Com. In addition to being hard to see while flying, the unit does not have any land database. When your assigned route from the Phoenix Class B tower controller is "follow I-10" and you come up on an 8-way intersection, you will wish that you had the kind of land database that is standard on a handheld GPS or a Garmin 430/530. Much better than any GPS in the radio stack would be a handheld unit on top of the console, suction-cupped to the bubble, or, mounted to a stalk that slots into the door frame. The last one is our mechanic's idea. He backs out some of the factory screws and takes a phenolic block puts it into the steel channel of the pilot's side door frame. Then he takes some slightly longer screws and puts them back through the steel and into the block. Then he mounts a short metal stalk to the phenolic block and the handheld GPS mounts to that (got to worry about vibration if the stalk is more than a few inches long). A handheld or kneeboard Garmin 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 as counterintuitive and keystroke-intensive as the panel-mount Garmins.
How much power is actually available at sea level? 180 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 520 rpm. If you load up the helicopter with lead and pull the collective up into your armpit, the engine will put out 180 horsepower in an attempt to keep those blades from slowing down against air resistance.
Students on hot summer days will often exceed the published manifold pressure limit. There is no required inspection after such an exceedance, but prolonged operations at higher-than-authorized power settings invites catastrophic mechanical failure.
The Lycoming O-360 has a reputation as the most "bomb-proof" aviation powerplant out there and in its derated form, engine problems are rare. Our flight school operates more than 30 aircraft with Lycoming powerplants and we've received excellent support from Lycoming, especially Joy Moffett and Mike Everhart in the warranty department.
Unless you and your passenger are both 12-year-old Japanese girls, it is unlikely that you'll be able to top off the tanks and enjoy 3-3.5 hours of endurance. With two people in an R22, it is more typical to fly with 1.5-2 hours of fuel.
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. "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.
Most of the up-to-date piston single-engine airplanes these days come with fuel totalizers. The one in my Cirrus SR20 is part of the Avidyne multi-function display and it is accurate to within 0.1 gallons. The sensor is a little spinning wheel in the fuel line. The Cirrus carries 5.5 hours of fuel, can be fueled virtually anywhere that it can land (because it only goes to airports), and will be under gross with any pilot and passenger who are not morbidly obese. If you are carrying four heavy adults and need to resort of partial fuel, the Cirrus has tabs to make partial fueling precise. Even flying to remote corners of Nunavut, Alaska, the Yukon Territory, and the Northwest Territories, I never came within 10 gallons (more than one hour) of empty. Yet I always knew the fuel state of the airplane to within 0.1 gallons.
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.
[I wrote this section in 2006; it is now 2010 and Robinson has done nothing in the intervening four years to improve its fuel gauges.]
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. Although Robinson offers some GPS units, only the expensive and heavy Garmin 400-series will alert the pilot to an approaching obstacle.
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, 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 night flying to familiar areas, following highways, well-lit cities, and higher-than-usual altitudes above the ground. Even 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.
Be very careful going into confined areas anywhere near gross weight in the summer. If you've trained in an R44, which has a good power reserve even with four passengers, don't expect the R22 to be anywhere near as capable as the R44.
Don't try to take off unless you can hover. Don't get anywhere near the limits of the R22'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.
My first truly high-altitude operation with an R22 was in Hawaii, landing on a warm day at 6000'. The book said that we could do an in-ground-effect hover at that altitude and temperature. I kept bringing the speed back and the collective up as we came near our spot on a dirt road. The helicopter kept sinking at approximately the 300 fpm rate that I had established during the last phase of the approach. I pulled a little more collective and heard the blades start to slow down (no more engine power available). We continued to sink until we contacted the ground and slid along the dirt road. Was the P.O.H. wrong? No. I was able to pick the R22 up and hold a 3' hover. But power to hover is not the same as "power to overcome the inertia of a descent and turn it into a hover."
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.