AVSIM Commercial Aircraft Review

Flying Club

Robinson R44

Product Information

Publisher: Just Flight

Description: Helicopter Add-on.

Download Size:
97.4 MB

Format:
Download
Simulation Type:
FS9 & FSX
Reviewed by: Jeff Shyluk AVSIM Senior Staff Reviewer - March 15, 2008

FOREWORD: Meet The Robinson

Let me start with some questions. Is it sunny and the weather clear where you are? Are you near any airports? Are there any helicopters in the sky right now? If you were to look, there's a good chance that the helicopter that's buzzing your neighbourhood was built by the Robinson Helicopter Company. In FSX, Robinson is represented by the nimble R22 helicopter. The third-party developer JustFlight, after a two-year production period, has recently released the companion to the R22, the larger, more powerful R44.

For those who are interested in knowing more about the Robinson line of rotorcraft, one can look at the company website. With their kind permission, I will quote from the Robinson Company Information page:

Founded in 1973 by Frank Robinson, the company has about 1,200 employees and currently produces more helicopters annually than all of the other North American manufactures combined. (NOTE: According to Philip Greenspun, an acknowledged expert on helicopters, Robinson out-paces even the United States military for helo production, with roughly 800 R-series rotorcraft being built each year.) In addition, Robinson has a factory overhaul program for older aircraft and conducts monthly and safety educational courses for helicopter flight instructors and maintenance technicians. The organization has a global network of more than 110 factory-authorized dealers and 290 service centers in 50 countries, including China and Russia.

Robinson is an engineering company that places great emphasis on research and development. In recent years, efforts have concentrated on refining the R22 and the R44 designs to enhance their performance and further reduce the maintenance requirements for both aircraft. Some of the most recent product developments include hydraulic power controls and specialized configurations of the four seat R44. The R44 Clipper has fixed or pop-out utility floats for over water operations; the R44 Police Helicopter is fully equipped for airborne law enforcement; and the R44 Newscopter is the first aerial platform specifically designed for high-quality live television broadcasting.

Robinson’s modern factory was designed and built for helicopter manufacturing. The facility is equipped with the latest state-of-the-art machinery, including extensive use of CNC (computer numerically controlled) machining centers. To maintain the highest quality standards, the company performs most operations, including welding, machining, assembly, painting and flight testing, on site at its Torrance Airport plant in Southern California.

As far as JustFlight was concerned, rendering the virtual R44 presented an excellent opportunity to fill a gap in every sim pilot's hangar by providing a model for one of the world's most popular helicopters.

INTRODUCTION: Clippers And Ravens Join The Club

For Flight Simulator 2004, JustFlight released a compilation package of popular General Aviation aircraft that was called "Flying Club". Over the years, the package has been updated, most notably to make it compatible with FSX. As well, a couple of new aircraft were added to the Flying Club, the Schweizer 300CBi (reviewed on AVSIM), and now the Robinson R44.

Please note that you do not need to have any previous Flying Club software to use the R44. All the Robinson R44 needs is either FS9 or FSX. There are some differences between the FS9 and FSX versions of the R44, but I will primarily concentrate on reviewing the FSX version.

Currently, there are six variants of the R44 in the real world:

R44 Astro - The original four-seat R44 design, manufactured from 1992 to 2000.
R44 Raven - A newer R44 production model featuring improvements over the Astro and a carbureted piston engine.
R44 Raven II - The newest R44 variant with the most modern avionics and a fuel-injected engine.
R44 Clipper (II) - An R44 with either fixed or inflatable float gear for water landings.
R44 Police Helicopter - An R44 equipped with crime detection and prevention gear approved by the FAA.
R44 Newscopter - A three-seat R44 with special camera mounts and an on-board news gathering workstation.

Real-world pictures of the Police and Newscopter R44 variants. Externally, each has special equipment installed in the nose of the craft. Photographs courtesy of Robinson Helicopter Company.

The Flying Club R44 is presented as a Raven II model as well as the Clipper II variant with floats. Since the engine is fuel-injected, it won't suffer from carburetor freezing, and so should run more smoothly and powerfully than the baseline Raven under normal conditions. In my estimation, this also would make the Raven II the simplest variant to operate, which is probably why it was chosen to join the JustFlight Flying Club.

The Raven uses skids, and the Clipper has working floats.

The JustFlight R44 comes with a number of attractive and realistic features, as well as a fair array of paint jobs. The website claims "221 variations to fly", but I sense some hyperbole from the marketing department. Truth be told, I have not looked at all 221 variations, but for the most part the differences between most of the variants are very small.

Operationally, there are only three variations: the Raven II without floats, and the Clipper with either permanent or pop-out floats. On these three airframes are painted three basic Robinson-style colour schemes: 1) mostly a solid colour with the Raven II logo and the registration number, 2) a single stripe, and 3) a series of curved stripes.

There are also five "custom" liveries based on real-world or at least semi-fictional aircraft: Bournemouth (a United Kingdom helicopter rental agency that offers lessons), HeliAir (another UK rotorcraft operator with a singularly beautiful and inoperable website), and Aerius Helicopters (a New Zealand helicopter tour specialist) all use plain solid-colour paint schemes with the company logo pasted on like a decal. Universal Helicopters is represented with a life-like paintjob of blue with white and yellow stripes; it turns out to be a helicopter school operating in the southern United States.

Lastly, there is Altech NETSTAR, which is a company in South Africa that specializes in automobile tracking devices to prevent theft: their logo and colours grace the final R44.

Where the 221 variations on these basic models come in is that each vehicle can be customized with pre-rendered tail numbers based on six countries: USA, Denmark, France, Germany, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

If you enable all of the international liveries, this page will go on for a mile.

INSTALLATION AND DOCUMENTATION: Taking Her Up For A Spin

The JustFlight Flying Club R44 can be purchased either for FS9 or FSX. I downloaded the R44 directly from JustFlight, and the file size was 97.4 Mb. The download consists of an executable file that automatically installs the R44 models, utilities, and documentation. If you are familiar with the Flight1 wrapper, the JustFlight system seems to be quite similar and effective to me, just click the icon, follow the prompts, and away you go. It's worth to note that the JustFlight "key" will work only for a limited number of installs, so you may want to be careful with your files.

The Install screen set up for either FS 2004 or FSX.

The main documentation is a nice 34-page manual in .PDF format. The documentation does a commendable job of introducing the basics of the R44, but it does not go into a lot of realistic detail. In fact, more than once, the manual states, "there may be certain instrument readings and flight characteristics that are not identical to the real world aircraft." This, I admit, perturbed me.

However, the news is not as bad as it would seem at first. There are limitations to the helicopter model in FS9 and FSX, and JustFlight has done the best they could to keep the R44 operational, given those limitations. As it stands, though, the manual can only give some basic advice on how to fly this aircraft, and it lacks some notable details. The largest omission, in my mind, is the absence of a Height-Velocity Diagram (H/V Curve, or "Dead Man's Curve"), which usefully describes the flight envelope of a helicopter. From what I can see, it's difficult to find this chart on the Internet for the R44, so I suspect that the Robinson Company is trying to protect this information from causal observers.

The latter portion of the manual offers a simple tutorial flight for the R44. These days, it seems common practice for developers to include a pre-made tutorial flight or two in with the Free Flight menu, but JustFlight missed this opportunity. It's up to the user to create the flight for themselves. This is by no means difficult, but on the other hand, it feels like there is something missing from the fit and finish of the product.

As well, an H/V Curve would come in handy, as the tutorial advises the new sim pilot to lift off from a taxi hover to a hover 350 feet above the ground. Granted, there is some ambiguity here, but I feel that just lifting straight up to 350 feet is a dangerous manoeuvre, as it's difficult to recover the helicopter from an engine failure if there is no forward momentum. The procedure for saving a rotorcraft from a catastrophic power failure is called "autorotation", and I will discuss it with respect to the JustFlight R44 later in my review.

Depending on whether you have the FS9 or the FSX version of the R44 software installed, you will also receive a handful of utilities. In short, FSX allows for a more realistic flight environment than FS9, so to tailor the R44 to your needs you may end up requiring more of the utilities in FS9 than FSX.

That being said, it looks to me that all of the utilities are written with FS9 in mind, so that if you are using FSX and expecting to try out a function, it will be ghosted if it's unavailable. Ghosted functions are already active within FSX. For instance, in FS9, there is an option to choose between a "Normal" and an "Expert" flight model. One model trades off the ability to auto rotate with fidelity to real-world flight characteristics. On the other hand, advances in the FSX SP2 helicopter algorithms allow for a more integrated flight model, so the FSX sim pilot does not get to choose from flight models. That's fine by me; I usually don't have good experiences with aircraft that have a "simple" and "advanced" flight model anyway.

The AeroSelect utility.

The heart of the utilities is a device called "AeroSelect", which is a control panel that allows access to the various configurations of the R44 rotorcraft. In FSX, you can choose the nationality of your aircraft as well as open up a paint kit utility. In FS9, you can also alter the look of your pilot character, add or subtract passengers (who have visual models!) and select your flight model. All of the paint and graphics utilities seem to be very much geared towards the FS9 user.

I found the AeroPaint utility in particular to favour FS9 over FSX. AeroPaint helps the user select the appropriate textures for paint-shop edits, and then re-imports them into the flight simulator. However, its simplicity made it hard for me to gain control over what it was doing. While it was quick and easy to swap paint jobs into FSX, I had a murderous time controlling the specular map.

FSX is stronger than the FS9 graphics department, and so to create proper textures, a designer needs access to more sophisticated controls. AeroPaint just didn't match up to what I was expecting.

In summary, if you are looking for a good, basic level of documentation that will support your laid-back, "let's take her up for a spin" flying style, then the manual and utilities should be helpful to you. If you are looking to really put the R44 and its utilities through their paces, though, I imagine you might come away somewhat disappointed, especially if you prefer FSX over FS9. Still, I haven't said very much about the JustFlight R44 itself, so let's look at it in detail.

VISUAL MODEL: Born To Fly

Exterior Model

The R44 Robinson is a handsome, contemporary-looking helicopter. It's designed to be powerful yet economical, at least for a rotorcraft. The entire Robinson line of vehicles resembles one another, so that the R22 and the R44 look quite similar. At the most basic level, the R22 seats two people, while the stronger, faster R44 can accommodate four. All of the Robinson helicopters have a rather tall rotor mast. It's a distinctive feature to these aircraft. If anything, especially if the helicopter is painted black and white, the rotor mast reminds me of a killer whale's dorsal fin. When I asked the people at the Robinson Company the reason behind the tall mast, I was told that putting the main rotor up so high makes it easier for people to get in and out of the helicopters.

Scale chart for the R44. I've superimposed the real R44 dimensions upon the JustFlight model. Blueprint chart courtesy Robinson Helicopters.

The Robinson Company was very kind as to provide a basic scale diagram of a R44 Raven. Right away, I wanted to match it up with the JustFlight model to see how close the Flying Club version is to the real thing. As you can see on the chart, the model comes very close to the real helicopter in terms of details and dimensions. This is a well-designed model that I think looks strikingly like a real R44. The level of detail is high, including some nice engine detail, realistic-looking doors, windows and vents, and even rotors that simulate drooping in a breeze under optional parking tie-downs. The main rotor will exhibit tilt when you move the cyclic joystick.

The paint jobs represent what might be considered typical factory colour schemes, and the helicopters all look shiny and new. When you are looking at the R44 from the outside (and the helicopter is not "parked"), you will see a male pilot figure as well as any passengers that have been enabled. The passengers exhibit some very rudimentary animations that at least give them a little bit of life, while the pilot has a wider range of appealing motions.

Bright yellow emergency floats pop out for water landings.

If you choose the Clipper variant, then you are flying an R44 with the capability to float on water. You will either take a spin in a Clipper with fixed floats, or else you can try out a model with inflatable emergency pontoons.

The inflatable gear is folded up inside the skids. Compressed gas canisters under the passenger seat will shoot enough air into the floats to inflate them in less than two seconds. The floats are strong enough to allow for an emergency landing on the water, just the thing to save the day if you like island-hopping and have a surprise programmed into your failure menu.

Same as the real Clipper, once you activate the emergency floats, you cannot deflate and re-inflate them at will (unless you reset your flight, of course). Unlike the real Clipper, the floats just pop instantly into being with no animation. When I was challenging the limits of the JustFlight R44 over the glassy blue waters of the Philippines, I wasn't worrying about the float animation as much as about becoming food for the virtual sharks. When an emergency strikes, it seems you need five hands and six eyes, with no time to watch the floats puff out.

Close-up detail of the Clipper II with emergency floats.

If the float animation is abrupt, at least the rotor animations look correct. A fact that I discovered was that the tail rotor of the R22 spins in the opposite direction as the tail rotor of the R44. In the R44, the tail rotor spins so that the bottom blade is advancing, while in the R22, the rotor spins so that the top blade advances. Strangely enough, the tail rotor on the FSX default R22 spins the wrong way! Chalk one up for JustFlight to get this animation done right.

2D Cockpit

The JustFlight Flying Club R44 had both two-dimensional and three-dimensional cockpits. If you've looked in on the R22 Robinson that comes as default in Flight Simulator, then the R44 looks quite similar. The big difference between the default Robinson and the JustFlight version is that with the add-on you will find more clickable working features and enhancements, which is fine by me.

The 2D cockpit.

At the heart of the 2D cockpit is the small cluster of gauges in the front column. The gauges are clear and reasonably easy to read, although if you are running a small computer screen, you might find the dials a little small as well. It's easy to click and drag the window to make it suit your needs. The needles on the instruments seem responsive, making the flight of the R44 a joy.

Since the R44 is primarily designed as a VFR (Visual Flight Rules) aircraft, usually IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) gauges are left out. The JustFlight R44 comes with a few more gauges than the stock real-world R44. Here is what helicopter expert Philip Greenspun has to say about the Raven fresh from the factory:

"Panels don't get much more basic than the one in a stock R44. The flight instruments are airspeed, vertical speed, altimeter, engine/rotor tachometer, and manifold pressure. Engine instruments include oil pressure and temperature, and cylinder head temperature. You won't be distracted by all the individual cylinder and exhaust gas temps that you might find on a modern airplane; there is nothing in the Robinson panel to tell you if one cylinder is running leaner and hotter than the others."

The JustFlight R44 comes with a heading indicator, turn indicator, VOR navigation dial, and an attitude ball. Philip Greenspun talks about the dangers of relying on these extra instruments in a Raven or a Clipper:

"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."

Microsoft flight simulators do not normally factor instrument wear and vibration into the aircraft model, so we sim pilots have some freedom to put devices into the cockpit that might not work out so well in the real world. I mention this as I feel that the JustFlight R44 panel could have been improved if there were not so many dials in such a small space. On the other hand, a stock R44 panel might be too sparse for some users, and as I said although the R44 is intended for VFR flights, it can be flown under IFR conditions. Having those extra gauges would make IFR flights possible. The panel layout isn't something I really like or dislike, just that there could have been an opportunity to model both stock and IFR-rated helicopters.

The 2D cockpit with all of the pop-up screens on display.

Other than the basic gauges, the JustFlight R44 has an ammeter to measure battery operation, twin fuel gauges, oil gauges, an analog clock (Mr. Greenspun recommends against the digital clock), and a Hobbs meter, which measures how long the aircraft has been operating.

Interestingly, the radio and the transponder are by default turned off. The buttons and switches for the radio are quite tiny, so I find it's a chore to operate them while in flight. The radio in the real-world Robinson is programmable. In the real R44, you can input up to nine frequencies that you will need as your flight progresses, and then switch between them using a toggle on the cyclic joystick. This toggle is represented in the JustFlight R44, but it only allows you to switch between the current frequency and the standby one. A programmable radio would have been a really useful feature to have in the JustFlight model, as both the real and virtual R44 require that you keep your hands on the controls at all times.

Incidentally, the transponder in the JustFlight R44 will default to "7000", which is the international squawk code for non-IFR flight operations in Europe. In North America, the VFR default is 1200.

Virtual Cockpit

" ... You can get anywhere you want up that river that suits you, young captain!"

The default R22 is one of my favourite platforms for "sightseeing" the vistas that FSX generates. The view out of the front window is truly spectacular. Add the ability to twist, turn, zip, and hover, and you're about as close to bird flight as you can get. The JustFlight R44 takes that experience and almost completely doubles it.

Since in the real world, the R44 is an upgrade from the R22, the cockpits for the two Robinson ships end up being quite similar as long as you are looking forward. At first glance, you could be fooled into thinking that the JustFlight and the default cockpits are the same, and while they share congruency in some places, the JustFlight cockpit has more features, things like doors that open and close, air vents you can operate, and a wider range of instruments to fiddle with.

There is a downside to the JustFlight R44 VC, though, and I will get it out in the open now. The gauges and instruments are just too small to be useful! In the default R22, the gauges and switches are quite small, but at least the sim pilot has a shot at operating them. Because the JustFlight cockpit has more instruments than the R22, quite a few of them are simply too small to be of much good.

The default FSX R22 with the brown cockpit side-by-side with the JustFlight R44 with the blue cockpit.

You can zoom your view manually, or you can choose the "Radios and Ignition" view which greatly magnifies the instrumentation. Unfortunately, when I zoomed in this close, I tended to lose situational awareness, making it difficult to keep my ship under control. I could not operate the radio and watch the attitude ball without either sacrificing my view or else my ability to click on the tiny radio control hotspots.

The view from the pilot's seat in the VC. The Radios and Ignition View.

The best view, of course, is outside the magnificent windscreen. The R44 is a reasonably stable and very robust aircraft, and as along as you can see the ground and the horizon under VFR rules, there is little that you can do to harm your ride as long as you are a cautious pilot. A governor will keep you from over-revving your engine so that you do not have to manage the throttle with the collective. I found that as long as I was happy to "fly casual", I needed only to glance at the instruments from time to time. I just don't think that the JustFlight R44 stands up very well to being flown by the numbers, but if you are looking for a fun hop into the sky, it's great.

Let's look at the good stuff that comes with the JustFlight R44. For me, the best feature is the interactive and easily customizable VC. Not only are there more clickable controls in the Justflight Robinson than the default R22, but it's also possible quickly and easily to set up unique display configurations. The control yoke, the GPS unit and each of the passengers can be removed or added with the click of a mouse. How great is that? I am most impressed with how easy it is to customize the cockpit.

The full VC cockpit. Below my aircraft is the Glasgow Science Center in Scotland. I've removed the passenger-side yoke and pedals.
I've removed the pilot yoke as well. The GPS box has been removed.

First, the control yoke is, for lack of a better term, collapsible. Unlike many helicopters that have a long stick that goes through the floor of the aircraft between the pilot's feet, the Robinson series uses a control bar that looks like the letter "T". The pilot grabs onto the handle on the right side, and a co-pilot can use the other handle. How comfortable you are with this setup might depend on how sober and effective your left-seat passenger is with helicopters. Of course, in FSX, this is not an issue, but in the real world there have been instances where the passenger has grabbed or knocked the yoke unexpectedly, according to pilot Philip Greenspun. In both the real R44 and in the JustFlight model, you can take off the left seat control bar. In the case of the model, all you have to do is click on it with your mouse.

If you don't like seeing the yoke at all (it has a way of blocking the instruments), you can choose to remove the whole thing, again by clicking on the yoke hotspot. Click on the yoke base and it re-appears. This is not a new development for VC models, but I sure do enjoy having the option to add or remove the yoke as I see fit, and I would heartily encourage all aircraft modelers and developers to have this function in their product.

A full load of passengers. Each passenger can be added or removed with a mouse click.

Then, there are the passengers. You can have up to three male Caucasian passengers, and although the models look to me like they have been used before in JustFlight offerings, they are quite lifelike in appearance, and they did not seem to have a strong impact on my frame rate. For me, having well-proportioned, realistic human models is a definite plus for a VC, otherwise it just looks like you are flying with ghosts. Still, there are those who don't want to see people in the cockpit, because either the models are ugly, or worse, they eat up frame rates.

In FSX, you can add or remove the R44 passengers with the click of your mouse, which again, I think adds a lot of appeal to the JustFlight model. In FS9, you have to use the external AeroTools chooser to load in your passengers, but even so, I feel it's important for the sim pilot to have a choice as to whether or not to see people in the cockpit.

Lastly, we have the GPS. Unlike the real R44, which has an optional GPS installed at the bottom of the radio stack where it's hard to see or get at, the JustFlight R44 mounts the Garmin GPS on top of the dashboard column. It is easier to see, but again, the thing is too darned small to be of any use. Probably, in a real Robinson it would also vibrate a lot up there, a small, expensive, blurry box that would break after a couple hundred hours. Philip Greenspun recommends taking a handheld GPS, so I just open the GPS window in the VC to operate the larger, much easier to use 2D GPS panel. If I have a flight plan loaded into your GPS, I can just make out the pink flight line, but that's about it. Fortunately, if I don't want to see the GPS, I can click on a hotspot and it will vanish! If I want to see it again, I can click on the hotspot, and it's re-enabled.

Screenshots of night views in the R44.

Night lighting in both the 2D and 3D cockpits is somewhat low-key but it's acceptable. I find the dials are quite bright in the 3D cockpit, but since they are small, I'd rather have them too bright than too dark. The exterior running lights seem to have a tendency to bleed through to some of the outside textures, for instance, part of the rotor mast on the top of the ship turns red from the running light in the belly. As well, if you are looking exactly the right way, the running lights will bleed into the interior as well. I don't think this can be helped, as it's a common problem for many FSX aircraft.

The running lights can bleed through both internal and external textures, a common problem for FSX aircraft.

SOUND FILE: Can You Hear Me Now?

If you were to ask me how the JustFlight R44 for FSX sounds, I would likely reply, well, it's a quarter after three o'clock. Why? Probably because I can't hear you anymore. The sounds for the JustFlight R44 are about the loudest I have yet come across in Flight Simulator. If you are not careful, you could end up with your ears ringing. Forget about listening to the comm radio, you won't hear a thing.

Of course, you can turn the engine noise down, but that won't help when you switch to the exterior view where the sound level is low and the effects are hushed. It's almost as if the audio files for the interior and exterior are switched, but from what I can tell, there's more going on with the sounds than that.

Volume issues aside, the R44 audio to me sounds authentic. Both the Raven II and the Clipper II use the same fuel-injected Lycoming IO-540 piston engine, which has a distinctive buzz to it like a well-ordered hive of bees. There is no whine of a turbine like you would hear on the Bell JetRanger. When you add or subtract collective, the engine sound spools appropriately, and the blades will change their sound as they are given more power to bite into the air. The start-up and shutdown sequences are also nicely done. The prop sounds bend pitch a fair bit as they slow down to the final stop, and I thought that sounded a little artificial, but by no means was I disappointed with the quality of the audio.

FLIGHT CHARACTERISTICS: Just Like The R22, Only More So

Test System

Intel Core 2 CPU 6600 @2.40GHz x2
2 GB RAM
NVIDIA geForce 8800GT Superclocked Edition
RealTek AC'97 Audio
Win XP SP2, FSX SP2
Thrustmaster Top Gun Afterburner II
Logitech MX Revolution Laser Mouse
MS Digital Media Pro Keyboard
Saetek Pro Flight Rudder Pedals
TrackIR4:PRO
TrackClip PRO
XBOX 360 Controller

Flying Time:
18 hours

In terms of flight characteristics, I can suggest that since the R44 is bigger and more powerful than the R22, it handles just like the R22 only more so. If you are beginning to learn how to fly helicopters in the real world, you will likely be aboard one of the Robinson aircraft or a Schweizer 300 CBi, as they are among the safest and most economical contemporary helicopters to fly. However, if you are learning how to fly a helicopter in FSX, I would strongly recommend starting out with the Bell 206B JetRanger as the controls are the simplest and it's a more stable and powerful aircraft than the virtual Robinsons.

Roughly speaking, the handling of the JustFlight R44 falls right between that of the FSX R22 and the JetRanger. The R22 is rather lightweight, and a gust of wind will toss it around like a carnival balloon. The much heavier JetRanger, on the other hand, is like flying a locomotive on rails of air. The R44 is more stable than the R22, but it's still an agile flyer. As with any helicopter, the better the quality of your controls, the more solid control you will have over your ship.

Certified Flight Instructor Philip Greenspun says this about handling an R44:

"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. 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. 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."

Flying the JustFlight R44 requires a light touch. Certainly, you can throw the R44 around the sky and it's tough enough to take a lot of punishment, but to get the most of it, you may want to be careful with adding controls. If you slam the throttle open, the R44 will leap into the sky like a cork popping from a bottle of champagne. However, if you use the controls judiciously, the R44 tends to respond tamely to your commands. Like most helicopters, it's not terribly fast or possessed of long range, nor will it climb very high, but it is very good at short hops across a city or the countryside.

There are three rudimentary phases of flight that are important to the piloting of a helicopter: hover, hover-taxi, and cruise. Take-offs and landings are variations on those three themes.

Hover

To hover the R44 is fairly straightforward. Just slowly add collective until the aircraft begins to "feel light", and you may see vortex effects on the ground. Very gently add a little more collective, and the skids will "unstick" themselves from the ground. The tiniest addition of collective will lift you into a hover. You may need to be quite aggressive with the cyclic and the rudder to keep pointing level and ahead. I found a tendency for the tail to drop which can confound a hover close to the ground.

To land, simply reduce collective slowly until your skids "stick" to the ground. Any aircraft, with fixed wings or rotors, will feel a boost close to the tarmac called "ground effect", where the vehicle is literally riding on a cushion of compressed air caused by vortexes interacting with the ground. FS9 and FSX do model ground effect to some extent, but the effect does not feel very strong to me in any of the helicopters, including the Justflight R44.

Hover-taxi

A hover-taxi is simply moving along the ground in a low hover at slow taxi speed. If you suffer an engine failure, you must be low and slow enough that an emergency landing would not harm the ship. Otherwise, it's much like taxi in a fixed-wing aircraft. To hover-taxi the R44, from a basic hover you very gently apply cyclic in the direction you want to go and add rudder to keep your nose pointing in the right direction.
To test the capabilities of the various helicopters, I created a rectangular track using taxiways at a large airport. I then loaded in the "Stormy Weather" theme in FSX to create wind gusts. Then, I took up the R22, the Justflight R44, and the Bell JetRanger up for a spin to see how they performed. The idea was to follow the centerline as closely as possible in spite of the wind:

R22: It's lightweight and lifts off easily. Hover is easy to accomplish with no wind, but the gusts would push the R22 around something awful. Several times on my track, the tail swung out and I was flying sideways, and I had to ride the rudder pedals hard. Not only did I veer off the centreline, I even swerved off of the concrete a couple of times.

R44: It's heavier, but also more powerful than the R22. The R44 seems to shoulder aside weaker wind gusts, making it easier to hold course. Still, the wind could push the R44 around, and for a while I was flying at forty-five degrees to the centerline. I did not drift off the concrete, though.

JetRanger: The heaviest and most powerful of the three helos. It takes some time to spool up and react to collective, but once it finally lifted off, I might as well have been flying my house, it was so stable. Wind gusts did affect my flight line, but I barely needed any rudder at all to keep to the centerline.

Hover-taxi drill, navigating along runway lines. This is the default green FSX R22. The wind keeps pushing me off course. The same drill as above drill. This is a red JustFlight R44 Raven II. It's easier to maintain my course in wind gusts than with the R22. Hover-taxi drill, final lap. This is the default white Bell JetRanger. It's big and heavy and cleaves to the centerline despite the storm and wind.

Cruise

As I mentioned before, the R44 handles like a bigger, more powerful R22. Thanks to innovative lightweight rotors, the Robinson is quick to respond to cyclic and collective controls. The R44 is very nearly as nimble as the R22, but it has a better climb, and it can fly farther and faster. One thing my FSX R22 does, though, is roll to the left during level flight. I've researched this phenomenon a little, and my best guess is either that FSX is trying to model "dissymmetry of lift", where the blade that is moving backwards won't produce as much lift as the blade moving forwards, or else it's some sort of programming glitch. Whatever the reason, the things that the R22 does, the R44 does more of. The roll to the left is especially pronounced in my R44, meaning that I cannot afford to take my hand off the cyclic during flight. Strangely, the JetRanger does not exhibit this issue at all.

Like the FSX R22, the JustFlight R44 has a native tendency to roll to the left.

A Height-Velocity Curve would make take-off, landings, and cruise by the numbers easier. Neither JustFlight nor Robinson could give me one, though. I find that I best climb in the JustFlight R44 at about 45 knots to 60 and cruise at around 60 to 80.

Autorotation and Settling With Power (and some important disclaimers!)

FSX Service Pack 2 is supposed to include code that improves the handling of helicopters. Included within is the ability to "auto rotate". An autorotation becomes necessary if a helicopter loses engine power while in flight. You need to disengage the clutch to keep the stalled drivetrain from stopping the rotors. As long as the rotors are spinning fast enough, you can use their inertia to glide to a reasonably safe landing, much better than falling out of the sky like a rock. My experience with autorotation in FS9 is very limited, and what I remember of it was that as soon as the engine died, the helicopter would drop to the ground and that was that.

With FSX SP2, it is definitely possible to auto rotate the JustFlight R44. However, the process is different from what you would do to auto rotate a real helicopter, so:

WARNING! What I am about to tell you, do not ever do in a real helicopter! This will kill you!!

How to auto rotate the JustFlight R44 (this works best in the 2D cockpit with the Pedestal Window open):

1) Fail the engine. This can be in the Failure menu, or you can just cut the fuel.

2) In FSX, you MUST NOT be climbing. Your VSI (Vertical Speed Indicator) should be at zero or below. It is VERY IMPORTANT to have forward speed, although I think it might possible to do this from a high hover. Release the clutch (there's a switch on the panel) to let the blades rotate freely. The more the blades spin, the longer you can stay airborne.

3) Immediately drop the collective to zero. This is what you do to minimize drag that would slow the blades down without power.

4) THIS IS UNREALISTIC AND WILL KILL YOU IF YOU TRY IT IN A REAL HELICOPTER: You will start to feel the helicopter glide a tiny bit. If you remain in this state, the blades will stop spinning, and your ride will plummet. Almost right away, start adding collective (this is so wrong, but in FSX it works!). Gradually add collective until you establish your glide. Keep your nose down to move forward, which will keep the blades spinning. On some of my attempts, the collective was all the way up to 50%, which in the real world would be A Very Bad Thing.

5) Above your landing site, nose up to kill your forward speed. It's not so much like a hover as it is like landing a glider. It certainly isn't pretty, and in FSX, it's not realistic, but it is possible.

As for "settling with power", this is another situation that helicopter pilots train for. If you hover, you create a cylinder of turbulence beneath your rotorcraft. If you descend directly into that cylinder, the air is moving around too much to be able to hold up the helicopter, and you will fall uncontrollably. Adding collective just makes it worse. To survive settling with power, you must manoeuvre out of the cylinder of "bad" air and into "clean" air, usually by nosing forward. FSX does not model settling with power at all, though.

Lastly, I can mention the throttle. To make their helicopter easier to control, many third party developers will link the throttle to the collective. In reality, you can twist the collective like a motorcycle throttle to adjust the helicopter throttle. Newer helicopters have an internal governor that prevents the throttle from calling for settings that could damage the helicopter. You can twist the throttle in the JustFlight R44, but the governor will kick in and over-ride your setting anyway. True helicopter aficionados may want to customize the throttle control so that it is separate from the collective (this is possible), but I prefer letting the governor do the work.

THE BUG LIST: Bugs Get Patched

I found it difficult to enjoy the JustFlight R44 at first, since there seemed to be many things that would not operate the way that I thought they should. However, the more time that I spent with the JustFlight R44, the more I grew to like it. The thing seems to be that FSX just doesn't handle helicopters as well as it does other aircraft. I feel that some of the nuances that make helicopter flight interesting are either not represented in FSX, or are rendered incorrectly. As I mentioned before, things like the lack of ability to settle with power, the weak-feeling ground effect, and the strange autorotation procedure do not make helicopters feel fully realistic. Then there are situations that FSX users report where the tail rotor speed is linked to power settings and the throttle being linked to the collective that reduce the realism of the rotorcraft.

At first, I had some trouble distinguishing what was really a bug with the JustFlight R44 and what was a limitation of the Flight Simulator model. As I learned more about helicopters in FSX, I began to see that the JustFlight R44 is quite a robust model, given the restrictions of the simulation. The manual is vague about what the limitations of FSX are, so I would suggest that if anybody was interested in looking at the JustFlight R44 that they try to look at helicopter forums to see how rotorcraft are handled in Flight Simulator. I will provide some helpful links at the end of my review. I would also suggest that to gain an idea of what the R44 is like, one could spend some hours with the FSX Robinson R22, as it is somewhat similar.

Many of the real bugs that came with my copy of the Flying Club Robinson R44 were fixed in a recent Service Pack issued by JustFlight. Three bugs for FS9 have been corrected:

1) A transparent spot in one of the gauges has been fixed.
2) Some switches that had their labels reversed are fixed.
3) If you use the emergency floats, the helicopter has been fixed so that it will now float.

In FSX, the second fuel gauge has been fixed so that it is now operational. Fixes have also been made to the AeroPaint application.

The JustFlight website has this to say about their R44:

"Other issues that have been reported such as certain gauge indications and flight model operation are basically down to the limitations that the host simulators have and are outside of Just Flight’s control to change although in saying that we have worked very hard to deliver the best that we can and in the FS2004 version we have supplied an alternate, switchable flight model that enhances areas such as Auto-Rotations but at the cost of more normal flight characteristics. When the R44 is used in FSX with Service Pack 2 (SP2) and/or Microsoft Acceleration add-on is installed the general helicopter operation is much improved due to the enhanced helicopter operation in SP2, but we must say that we have received much praise for the operation and flight characteristics of the R44."

There are issues that are unresolved by the patch. The cockpit noises are still very loud. All of the cockpits have the Raven II identifier on their panels, even if the helicopter is a Clipper II. Also, there are problems with the manifold pressure gauge, in that the needle seems to fly off in random directions, especially during start-up and shutdown. The manifold pressure gauge in the default FSX R22 also performs the same way, so I cannot say what is causing this fault.

This panel gives me problems. The manifold pressure gauge sometimes has a mind of its own; the label says "Raven II" even if I am flying a Clipper, and sometimes the gauges suffer from random visual glitches, such as this temporarily broken Hobbs meter.

CONCLUSION: Executive Summary

JustFlight introduces the Robinson R44 as a new addition to their "Flying Club" line for both FS9 and FSX. The R44 is one of the world's most popular small helicopters. The JustFlight version provides a flight model that is extremely well suited to sightseeing hops or short passenger shuttle missions. Although the real-world R44 has variants for police work and Electronic News Gathering (ENG), unfortunately, the JustFlight aircraft only comes with the baseline passenger model. The Robinson R44 line is split into two brands: the Raven and the Clipper. The Raven has conventional landing skids, while the Clipper comes with either permanent floats or collapsed floats that inflate for emergency water landings.

The R44 has some nice animations. Here, the pilot is holding the door open for you.

The visual model for the R44 is lovely to look at with pleasingly accurate lines. The paint jobs seem to be based on a limited number of factory-style liveries, but you can jazz them up with automatically generated tail numbers from six countries, or you can try your hand at making your own colours with the AeroPaint utility included. Animations for the JustFlight R44 are competent and add to the realistic look of the product.

Do you like your aircraft loud? The JustFlight R44 is about as loud as they come. Audio quantity issues aside, the quality of the audio is superb, with authentic engine sounds, realistic blade noises, and an appealing start-up and shut down sequence.

The 2D cockpit gets my vote over the 3D cockpit, as the instruments are easier to see and operate in the 2D cockpit. Both cockpits suffer from switches and knobs that are too small to operate easily while in flight, especially for the radio. However, the 3D cockpit allows you to add or remove the control yoke, the GPS unit, and even passenger figures with the click of a mouse. The view out the front window is spectacular, which should be one of the reasons one would want to purchase an aircraft like the Robinson in the first place.

In terms of handling, the R44 seems much like the default R22, only more so. Larger, heavier, faster, and more powerful the R22, the R44 seems to handle better in windy situations, and yet is almost as nimble as the R22. Still, it is not nearly as stable as the FSX Bell JetRanger, so you will be kept busy with your hands and feet on the controls. The JustFlight R44 benefits from quality controllers, so those with a good joystick and throttle set as well as rudder pedals should enjoy wonderful sky-borne journeys in the R44.

The JustFlight R44 is harder on frame rates than the default FSX R22, but it's also that much more detailed. I would say that the R44 is about like the default 747 in terms of a frame rate hit, if you have all of the passengers loaded onto your helicopter.

Roof detail in the R44.

JustFlight's R44 comes with its own share of issues that would prevent me from claming this helicopter as the best add-on ever, but JustFlight has put in years of hard work on this product, and they seem eager to support it in the future. They have quickly released a Service Pack that fixes problems with both the FS9 and FSX versions of the aircraft. Limitations within Flight Simulator prevent JustFlight from providing a truly realistic helicopter experience, so those who want to fly the R44 "by the numbers" may find disappointment.

However, anybody who just wants to zoom into the sky and explore the world of Flight Simulator should really enjoy the features the JustFlight R44 has to offer. It provides more details than the FSX R22 without so much of the smaller craft's skittishness, yet it is also more challenging to fly than the FSX Bell JetRanger, which to me almost seems to fly on invisible rails. Overall, as long as I didn't get too involved with the smaller issues, I ended up being happy with the JustFlight R44!

THE FINAL WORD: Team Robinson, AVSIM Style

Aviation is an industry that thrills the imagination. Yet there are aircraft developers and builders that I come across where normal enthusiasm has been transcended by awe.

Robinson Helicopters seems to me to be one of those companies that people are excited to talk about no matter what. In researching this review, I had no shortage of people who were very kind to explain to me the workings of the R44 in detail.

First among those is the Robinson Helicopter Company itself. The people at Robinson were very kind in answering questions and providing quotes that I could use for my article. They provided the "blue print" chart that I used to compare with the JustFlight model.

JustFlight was also very quick to provide knowledgeable answers to my numerous questions, and they have also allowed me to use some of their images and website quotes.

Philip Greenspun is a Certified Flight Instructor and is a Raven owner and operator. Mr. Greenspun kindly allowed me the use of the text on his website where he describes R44 operations in entertaining and easy-to-understand detail.

I was able to research virtual helicopter flight through the AVSIM Helicopter & Rotor Head Forum (thank you Dave!) as well as through Hovercontrol, the excellent website devoted to virtual helicopter flight.

The last word in my review goes to Scott at JustFlight who sums up their experience with the Robinson R44:

"It’s been very satisfying from our end, after spending a record 2 years in development, we’ve received much praise, as well as the odd niggle, we’ve even received a couple of letters from heli-pilots expressing their gratitude for the program. So it all makes it worthwhile in the end. The FSX limitations are frustrating but we just have to do the best we can, the other option would be to not attempt such products and that’s a route we’d rather not go down."

Well, Scott, I can't give you the absolute last word... sorry! The final last word is a picture, which I am borrowing from the Robinson website, with their permission. When I first saw this picture, my jaw dropped, as this was exactly what my office at the AVSIM World Headquarters looks like... well, okay, I tell a lie... this is what I WISH my office would look like... if I even had an office... as I said, aviation thrills the imagination, and here is a picture where imagination and budget appear to be running in tandem:

Photo courtesy of Robinson Helicopters, but I really wish it was mine...

Of course, you can go to the Robinson website to find out how to purchase both the R44 helicopter pictured above as well as the nifty landing pad! Mansion, shoreline, and clear skies are not include.

 

What I Like About The Flying Club R44

  • Good visual model and animations!
  • Easy to configure virtual cockpit
  • Lifelike human models
  • Appealing, realistic sound set
  • Amphibious landing gear for water and land missions

 

What I Don't Like About The Flying Club R44

  • Dials, gauges, and control knobs too small
  • Interior audio way too loud
  • AeroPaint results unpredictable (FSX)
  • Limitations of flight file (due to FSX, not JustFlight's fault!)
  • Some gauges randomly act wonky

 

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