Rotor mogul Robinson works hard on simplicity

 - July 24, 2007, 10:53 AM

Frank Robinson, the 74-year-old firm-handed  founder, chairman and president of Robinson Helicopter, says that as long as he’s sitting behind the big desk he’ll do exactly what he pleases. What pleases him? “Keeping it simple,” he explained, “and when I retire or die, whoever takes my place, hopefully, keeps that long-standing philosophy of mine alive.”

Robinson said his son, Kurt, one of four children from his first marriage, works at his side, but that wouldn’t automatically guarantee him a place at the helm. “Kurt is a good helicopter pilot now, but I’ve always thought that position should go to the person who is most qualified,” he said. Robinson has two other children from his current marriage, but they aren’t candidates because they are too young and still living at home.

Could it be his wife, Barbara? Not likely, although she is a helicopter pilot–trusted to take the controls and land their four-seat, piston-powered R44 Raven II–should Robinson ever be incapacitated while flying on one  of their frequent cross-country trips.

Maybe one of his long-time, trusted engineers would sit behind the big desk–after all, Robinson is very fond of his 30 engineers. He hired them fresh out of college–bragged that he liked it that way–so he could teach them to do things the way he thinks they ought to be done. It’s with them that he shares the same engineer-lingo and, currently, a lot of time developing a new five-seat helicopter.

“We haven’t figured out yet what powerplant we’ll use–piston or turbine–it will take a couple more years before we’re flying a prototype, but that’s the next adventure,” he said. He wouldn’t say if he was inclined to promote one of his engineers to president, or talk about other possibilities; he wanted to get off this horrid train of thought. However, Robinson is sure of one thing: “Retirement is imminent, and my family will be very involved in this company when I retire, or when I die.”

King of Civilian Helicopters
In understanding Robinson’s thought process, or early desires, you have to understand what Stanley Hiller Jr. accomplished. Both Robinson and Hiller were kids who grew up during the Great Depression, a time when “less was more.”

In 1944 Robinson was 14  and Hiller was 18; however, Hiller had just finished building his first helicopter, the XH-44, which soon became the first efficient American helicopter that was equipped with coaxial, contra-rotating blades. In 1949  Hiller designed the 360–a two-seat, very simple machine that took flight with a 180-hp Franklin engine and earned notoriety by making its first transcontinental commercial flight the same year. The Army and Navy ended up purchasing the craft, but as a UH-12A, which had an upgraded engine and new rotor blades.

Robinson earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, at the University of Washington, the state where he was born, and later completed graduate aeronautical engineering at the University of Wichita, He then set out to learn all he could about the industry he loved. In 1957 he was hired at Cessna Aircraft, where he was a fixed-wing pilot, and then later worked on the four-seat CH-1 Skyhook helicopter project. After a little more than three years at Cessna, he decided to join Umbaugh. That job lasted for a year, while the company developed its gyroplane.

From there, he went to work for the McCulloch Motor Co., which was a four-year stint doing design studies on inexpensive rotorcraft. Robinson then worked at Kaman Aircraft for a year on gyrodyne-type rotorcraft, followed by two years in R&D at Bell Helicopter. He had become a tail-rotor expert.

In 1969 he left Bell and went to Hughes Helicopter. There, he worked on a variety of R&D projects, which included a new tail rotor for the Hughes 500 and the company’s “quiet helicopter” program, but he quit in 1973.

At every turn, he had tried to convince his employers to invest in his concept to produce a small, low-cost, two-seat helicopter, but there were no takers. Frustrated that no one understood his vision, without funding he decided to start his own company in the living room of his home. Years later, though, he said it was some kind of consolation hearing from colleagues who wanted to “kick themselves” that they hadn’t signed on.

After Robinson designed the R22, he leased a small hangar at Torrance Municipal Airport, near Los Angeles, where his company still resides today. Robinson’s first R22 took flight in mid-August 1975. He would spend three years testing the R22, which received FAA approval in 1979. The small helicopter now holds every world record in its weight class, including speed, distance and altitude.

Success followed Robinson into the mid-1980s. Along with his trusted group of engineers, he developed the four-seat R44. The larger helicopter received certification in 1992, followed by initial deliveries in 1993. By 2001, more than 1,000 R44s had been shipped to customers around the globe. From this point on, the R44 would outsell the R22.

Why was Robinson able to convince the market, but not his former employers, that his concept would work? “Because I proved that flying helicopters wasn’t something only the rich could afford, as was the case in the past,” he said, “and because I proved that helicopters could be more economical to operate than fixed-wing aircraft,” or at least some of them.

He said in the past, the cost to keep helicopters airborne–the price of the crucial moving parts–was exorbitant, more so than fixed-wing aircraft. Flight instruction was too expensive as well–there weren’t enough instructors who had piston experience, and if they did, they had only about 50 flight hours’ worth.

These factors contributed to numerous pilot-induced accidents, and insurance companies were going to make it impossible for a pilot to afford coverage on the R22. This threatened Robinson Helicopter’s future. Robinson quickly started a factory training program for instructors; the FAA followed with action, upping minimum flight hours to 200 for instructors to be eligible for a CFI rating. Additionally, the FAA requires 50 hours of flying time in each helicopter type in which an instructor is providing training.

Top of the Game
Since early last year, Robinson Helicopter has expanded its workforce from 600 to more than 1,015 employees. Additionally, the company has a new, 215,000-sq-ft manufacturing building, the sister to its 1994-built 260,000-sq-ft plant. Robinson Helicopter became cramped for space when it turned to using computer numerically controlled (CNC) machining centers; in 1998 an overhaul center was added, inclusive of two dynamometer test cells for precision engine testing.

“We needed this–now our six-month backlog should be shortened but we’re completely sold out to year-end,” noted Robinson. As robust as things may be, Robinson makes sure his company is on a continual diet; with little room for fat, accounting and other departments remain thin. In fact, Robinson spends a great deal of his time dealing with the day-to-day activities of the company–he likes it that way. He directs much of the company’s revenue right back into manufacturing and engineering. The company performs most operations, including welding, machining, assembly, painting and flight testing, at its factory.

Robinson said that in terms of units sold, not dollar amounts, his company is way ahead of Eurocopter, Sikorsky, Bell, Schweizer and Enstrom. “With dependency upon government sales, their products are more expensive than ours,” he said. The company produced 150 helicopters in the first quarter but delivered 158.

“We delivered 54 R22s and 104 R44s–that’s a huge increase from our 2003 deliveries for the same period, with 30 R22s and 57 R44s,” he said. “If we don’t stub our toe around here, we should sell 600 helicopters this year, maybe more.” Last year, which Robinson described as his best ever, the company sold 433 helicopters.

The four-cylinder Lycoming O-360-powered R22 starts at $170,000, and the six-cylinder Lycoming IO-540-powered R44 begins at $346,000. The Raven I is also available as the Clipper I, which has fixed utility floats. Fitted with emergency floats that inflate within two seconds, the Raven II becomes a Clipper II.

 “The R44 Raven has turbine performance, but at an affordable piston price,” he said. Robinson Helicopter also sells the Raven II as an IFR trainer; however, it’s a trainer only and not certified to fly in actual IFR conditions. Students can’t miss the enlarged, 10-hole instrument panel, which can be equipped with Bendix/King or Garmin avionics. Robinson helicopters are used mostly by flight schools around the globe. Other uses include cattle herding, police observation and light utility.

With every purchase of a new R44, customers get a free helipad (conditions apply), which the company started manufacturing in mid-2003. Otherwise, the helipad kit, which supports no more than 3,000 pounds, costs $7,000.

Foreign Connection
When it comes to disclosing statistics on how many helicopters were shipped to each country, based on the model, Robinson said this information is proprietary. All he will say is that, since January, orders from dealers in Japan, South Korea, Brazil and China accounted for 19 helicopters, 11 of which have been shipped.

“I will say that we’ve been selling more than the normal amount of R44s to Brazil in the last two years,” he noted. “In São Paulo they are being used to transport business executives as a taxi service out of the city because of all of the bank robberies, homicides and kidnappings.”

In mid-June, a 39-year-old pilot landed his new R44 in Xianyang, northwest of China’s Shaanxi Province. (The General Administration of Civil Aviation of China opened its lower-altitude airspace in May last year to private aircraft.) Although cheers and applause marked the presence of aircraft flying overhead in the country’s restricted airspace, Hong Kong-based Prominent Technology Enterprise, Robinson’s only dealer in China, was not celebrating. It lost a commission, and Robinson Helicopter said it will not honor the warranty now because the sale didn’t go through the dealer.

Chinese newspapers reported that the pilot paid approximately $723,000 for the R44. Robinson Helicopter said the inflated price could have been inclusive of the cost for flight instruction and shipping. But a difference of about $300,000? The company said it did not approve of the sale, but cannot do anything about it. Robinson Helicopter declined to disclose which dealer outside China made the sale, but it confirmed that the dealer is located in the U.S.

A Robinson dealer in the U.S., who asked not to be identified,  said R22s or R44s would be targets for questionable sales in China, no matter who is pocketing the extra yuan. The dealer said (and the manufacturer confirmed) that this wasn’t the first time this has happened in China with a Robinson helicopter. The dealer added that the same thing has happened in South America, too.