Robinson Helicopter found great success under the leadership of founder Frank Robinson
Robinson Helicopter Company’s enduring success has been influenced by multiple factors. Growing interest in personal aviation, the developing civil helicopter industry, emerging technology, and economic conditions all played a part in the company’s growth.
With that said, company founder (and retired CEO) Frank Robinson’s vision, tenacity, and “can-do” attitude have been the driving forces behind Robinson Helicopter’s decades of impressive achievements. Since 2010, his son, Kurt Robinson, has led the company, embracing his father’s vision and moving forward through the 21st century.
An Early Love of Helicopters
Frank Robinson developed his passion for helicopters at an early age. Born in Carbonado, Washington, in 1930, he and his three older siblings grew up during the Great Depression. Like many other families, they struggled to make ends meet.
When Robinson was nine years old, he saw a Seattle Post Intelligencer photograph that set the course for his professional career. The picture showed helicopter legend Igor Sikorsky skillfully hovering his VS-300 Prototype helicopter.
Frank was amazed at the engineering genius that could create such a machine. He vowed to build a career that revolved around helicopter design and construction.
Frank later recalled, “I became fascinated that somebody could build an aircraft that could remain motionless in the air and move in any direction. This was the basis of my long-term dream all through school and college… And I never lost that fascination.”
Getting a College Education
When his college years rolled around, Frank Robinson attended the University of Washington. He immersed himself in helicopter design and earned his B.S. in mechanical engineering in 1957. Like many other students, Frank held down a job during college. As a result, it took him nine years to obtain a four-year degree.
After graduation, Frank attended the University of Wichita to complete graduate-level aeronautical engineering work. Naturally, he focused on helicopter design.
During his college years, Frank somehow carved out time to pursue his passion for aviation. With helicopter flight beyond his budget, he learned to fly airplanes. In fact, he purchased three different light planes during college. By the time Frank Robinson obtained his engineering degree, he had earned his private pilot’s license and commercial rating.
Keeping the Helicopter Passion Alive
Although Frank Robinson was becoming a skilled airplane pilot, he never stopped building his helicopter knowledge base:
But my interest was really in rotary wing. In the meantime, I had spent a lot of time studying helicopters – how they flew and how they were controlled and all that. And I spent a lot of my spare time trying to come up with ideas that would allow someone to build a small, lightweight, simple, and inexpensive type of personal helicopter.
It would be accurate to say that Frank brought his vision to life, although it took him some time to accomplish that goal.
Helicopter Industry Career Progression
Following his college graduation, Frank Robinson decided to develop his small helicopter expertise. He applied for mechanical engineering jobs at several aircraft manufacturers that included small helicopters in their product lines.
He accepted an offer from Cessna, which was then developing an experimental version of the CH-1 Skyhook. Robinson worked at Cessna for more than three years, gaining valuable knowledge about helicopter design.
Following his Cessna tenure, Frank Robinson worked at a succession of rotary wing manufacturers. First, he moved to Umbaugh and then to McCulloch Motor Company, where he earned his helicopter rating. Assignments at Kaman Aircraft and Bell Helicopter followed.
In 1969, Frank Robinson accepted an offer from Hughes Helicopters, where he collaborated on many research and development projects. However, when Hughes won a government contract to design and build the Apache attack helicopter, Robinson made the decision to resign.
Unfortunately, he had not been able to convince any of his employers that there was a viable market for non-military helicopters. Therefore, he believed that it was time to pursue his vision of designing and building an affordable, personal-sized helicopter.
The Robinson Helicopter Company Evolution
In June 1973, Frank Robinson launched the Robinson Helicopter Company in his Rancho Palos Verdes home near Los Angeles. To obtain start-up capital, Robinson tapped the equity in his home along with his personal assets. He also assigned his patents and all patentable ideas to the corporation.
Robinson later entered into a partnership with C.K. LeFiell. This Hawaii-based retired machinist had a passion for helicopters and significant financial resources.
Building the R22 Prototype
During Robinson Helicopter’s first two years, Frank Robinson spent much of his time working on the two-seat R22 prototype. He applied many familiar design concepts to the R22’s development. “I designed the prototype in my kitchen and made a lot of the parts in my garage. I had my own little workshop.”
Every three months, Robinson’s machinist partner C.K. LeFiell flew in from Hawaii. During each visit, he picked up Robinson’s drawings and other certified documentation. LeFiell crafted the helicopter parts in his Hawaii workshop and ferried them back to Robinson’s small hangar at Torrance Municipal Airport. There, Robinson was steadily putting the R22 prototype together.
In August 1975, Robinson finally began to enjoy the helicopter construction process. “That’s when it became fun for me. Of course, nothing ever fits, you know, but I had my own engine lathe and other things, so I could rework the parts.
“That was really the most fun. I love working with my hands, and if you can work with a combination of your hands and your brain, that’s the best of both worlds.”
The R22 Takes to the Skies
Finally, it was time for the R22’s maiden flight, an uneventful occasion that went surprisingly smoothly. In fact, Robinson later reflected, “The first test flights were so flawless, they were eerie.”
After the R22’s first flights, Robinson embarked on the quest for FAA certification. It took three long years, during which time Robinson pulled out all the stops to keep the company afloat. He also recruited an experienced helicopter pilot to perform the flight-testing work.
By this point, Frank Robinson had gotten considerable press from aviation magazines, including Aviation Week. Many readers either wanted to purchase an R22 or become dealers of the aircraft. To capitalize on the notoriety, Robinson formed a marketing organization and began taking deposits.
The R22’s Sales Take Off
The R22’s FAA certification finally came through in March 1979. Once he had the document in hand, Frank Robinson began selling the R22 to an eager customer base.
Although the R22 had an attractive $125,000 price, its real selling points were its performance, ease of maintenance, and reliability. For better control of parts tolerances, Robinson decided to make most of the R22’s parts in house.
Over time, this compact little aircraft became the top-selling civil helicopter worldwide. Quite unexpectedly, the R22 also became an extremely popular training aircraft, with many flight schools purchasing one or more models.
Building Additional Helicopter Models
In January 1978, Robinson Helicopter Company leased a spacious manufacturing facility at Torrance Municipal Airport. The company planned to locate its factory and corporate offices there. The move positioned Robinson Helicopter well for continued growth.
The R44 Takes Shape
During the late 1980s, Robinson Helicopter saw a market need for a helicopter to replace the older Bell JetRanger. While in development, the four-seat, piston-powered R44 prototype had its share of design and flight obstacles. After resolving them, the Robinson Helicopter team began testing the aircraft in March 1990.
Following FAA certification in 1993, Robinson Helicopter began delivering the R44 to excited customers. The aircraft’s larger size translated into a higher payload capacity, making it ideal for business use, along with group touring and travel. In addition, Robinson Helicopter built specialized R44s for police use and television stations’ news-gathering purposes.
The R66 Enters the Market
Robinson Helicopter’s R66 Turbine helicopter represented a major step forward for the company. After almost 10 years in design and development, the FAA certified this five-seat aircraft in October 2010. The R66 rollout was Robinson Helicopter’s easiest run to market for any of its new aircraft.
In November 2010, Robinson Helicopter began delivering the new R66 units to customers. By the end of that year, the company was backlogged with orders.
Customers had taken note of the R66’s Rolls-Royce gas turbine engine, which was extremely efficient and durable. Together, these positive attributes played key roles in decreasing the engine’s operational costs.
Robinson Helicopter: A 2021 Product Snapshot
In summer 2021, Robinson Helicopter’s R44 and R66 aircraft are its top sellers, respectively. Both models are available in specialty configurations for police, news-gathering, and float use.
The two-place R44 Cadet, intended for the training market, is the company’s most recent model. As of April 2021, Robinson Helicopter Company had delivered more than 13,000 aircraft to customers around the world.
Robinson Helicopter Operational Overview
Robinson Helicopter builds, inspects, and flight tests every one of its helicopters at the Torrance, California, plant. To ensure conformation to tight tolerances and achieve the highest efficiency, the company also makes most of its parts onsite.
The company also maintains a factory overhaul program for its older helicopters. In addition, a global network of more than 400 dealers and service centers handles customers’ needs.
Strong Emphasis on Aircraft Safety
As the world’s leading civil helicopter manufacturer, Robinson is very focused on pilot safety. To that end, Frank Robinson launched a helicopter safety course that is available to all pilots. Most helicopter insurers require this class, which has a months-long waiting list.
In addition, Robinson Helicopter conducts monthly safety classes for helicopter flight instructors. Helicopter maintenance technicians can improve their skills with a monthly maintenance-focused course.
Finally, Robinson Helicopter is an active member of the International Helicopter Safety Team. Established in 2005, this government-industry group works to ensure safer helicopter operation worldwide.
Continued Research and Development
As Robinson Helicopter continues its civil helicopter industry leadership, the company incorporates new technology into every aspect of its units’ construction. An autopilot developed for helicopter use, along with glass avionics, are two notable advancements.
What’s Behind Frank Robinson’s Success
When asked about the attributes that have made him so successful, Frank Robinson was quick to provide an answer:
I’ve always been very stubborn, had a lot of self-confidence and been very independent. You have to have the perseverance to stick with your dream when you run into obstacles where there seems no hope of overcoming them. You just have to hang on and take things one day at a time until you find a way to get there.
Frank Robinson’s Management Style
By his own admission, Frank Robinson does not fit the typical CEO stereotype. He certainly did not move up the ranks at any of his aerospace employers. To put it bluntly, he preferred marching to the beat of his own drum.
“When I worked for the big aerospace companies, I was always a bit of a maverick,” he said. “I don’t think I could have gotten anywhere if I had stayed with any of them. The only way I could do it was to start my own company where I could set my own rules.”
Robinson has described his management style as “not authoritarian but very independent.” He elaborates on his approach to operating the company and making decisions:
I ignore the accepted ways of running a business. From the very beginning, I’ve based most decisions purely on my own intuition. The experience I gained from working for six companies that manufactured helicopters gave me the intuition to make decisions without having to go to a board of directors.
Robinson Helicopter Marks Four Milestones in 2010
In 2010, four major events kept Robinson Helicopter in the news. In February, Frank Robinson showcased the new R66 at a Houston, Texas, helicopter trade show. In August, Robinson announced that he was retiring, and his son, Kurt Robinson, would become the company’s new president.
In October 2010, the R66 received its FAA certification. During the same month, Robinson Helicopter finished the expansion of its Torrance, California, factory, now with 617,000 square feet of working capacity. To cap off this momentous year, Robinson Helicopter delivered the first R66 in November 2010.
Frank Robinson’s Well-Deserved Retirement
Now retired, Frank Robinson has unlimited time to enjoy his summer home on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, Washington. Every year since 1980, he has made the trip to this beautiful part of the country.
For many years, he traveled back and forth via an R44 helicopter instead of a business jet. While running Robinson Helicopter, he often took a commercial flight from Los Angeles to Seattle’s SeaTac Airport. From there, he hopped in the R44 for the 25-minute flight to his home’s helipad.
Memorable First trip to Whidbey Island
In 2009, Robinson recalled his first trip to Whidbey Island as a very satisfying event. He flew one of Robinson Helicopter’s first production R22s to the state in which he grew up:
My family had a summer place up on Whidbey Island. I flew that new ship from Los Angeles all the way up there. There was a very satisfying thing to do to fly the helicopter that I had designed myself from scratch – to be able to fly it about 1,000 miles and land it on my mother’s boathouse roof. That was very satisfying.