For Robinson Helicopters, the Focus Is on the Fundamentals
CEO Kurt Robinson said he is focusing on keeping his family’s helicopter company “lean and mean to provide a good product at a competitive price” to bring value to its customers. “We’re going to keep our pencils sharpened,” he told AIN. Robinson Helicopter posted another strong year in 2013, producing 523 helicopters, up from 517 in 2012 and a long climb from the 2010 rate of 162. As was the case in 2012, the piston-powered R44 continues to be the top seller, with 289 produced in 2013; but the $839,000 turbine-single R66, with 192 already delivered, remains the company cash cow. And R66 sales are destined to increase now that the model has received certification approval in more countries, notably Canada and Russia.
Robinson exports 70 percent of its production and Robinson said 2013 would have been stronger if not for the appreciation of the U.S. dollar against some currencies. “The dollar got stronger and not all the economies around the world did as well as people hoped they would,” Robinson said. This has caused a sales softening in markets that had been strong for the company, including South Africa, where the rand is at a five-year low and has fallen 30 percent against the dollar since 2012. Exports to Brazil are also down, mainly due to currency exchange issues. During 2013, the U.S. dollar surged 21 percent over the Japanese yen, 15 percent versus the Indian rupee, 14 percent against the Australian dollar and 7 percent compared to the Canadian dollar. Against the worldwide ICE mixed currency index, the dollar posted a modest 0.5 percent gain. However, the dollar continued to give modest ground versus the euro, British pound, and Chinese yuan.
However, while new helicopter sales were relatively flat in 2013 compared to 2012, revenues from product support and service continue to grow. “When the great recession hit in 2008, we really did rely a lot more on customer support and service revenues from the existing fleet in the field,” Robinson said. “It is a very steady growth in revenue. The older we get the higher revenue percentage it is and it is a very important part of our growth.
“We’ve been very happy with the R66” in terms of its reliability, Robinson said. “When you first put a new aircraft out there, especially in extreme humidity, temperature or erosive environments–places that no amount of testing at the factory can duplicate–you are going to run into some things. We have 450 R66s out there and we have been pleasantly surprised at how well they have been handling their new environments.”
Safety continues to be a major focus for the company. “For years now we have had a strong focus on proper training and proper flying,” he said, “and I think that message is finally starting to come across to a lot of people who, in general, take flying a lot more seriously now than they did 20 years ago. Look at the Heli-Expo calendar: the Safety Challenge and all the classes that are being offered on safety. There really is an emphasis. You can feel it. You can sense it. And it translates into fewer accidents.” Kurt Robinson is a member of the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST). Perhaps because of their extensive use as trainers and owner-flown aircraft, Robinson R22s and R44s have the highest rates of accidents–88 percent–caused by pilot error among introductory helicopter models, according to the NTSB.
To make accidents more survivable, Robinson now builds its R44 and R22 models with fuel bladder tanks and has issued service bulletins for their retrofits in all existing models.
Robinson Helicopter began installing fuel bladders in new production R22 helicopters in early 2013, beginning with Serial Number 4622. The bladders replace the standard aluminum main and auxiliary tanks and make the helicopter more fire-resistant in the event of an accident by reducing the likelihood of post-impact fuel leaks. Robinson issued Service Bulletin SB-109 (Jan. 8, 2014) requiring retrofit installation of fuel bladders in all R22s through S/N 4620 “as soon as practical” but no later than the next 2,200-hour overhaul or 12-year inspection.
The bladder tanks have a 3.8-gallon smaller fuel capacity–that translates into 25 minutes less flight time–than the tank it replaces. However, the new tanks increase allowable useful load with full fuel and adds three pound to the allowable amount of installed optional equipment.
Robinson is currently installing the bladders as part of factory overhauls on the R22 and including them in field overhaul kits. Kurt Robinson said the company is working with its supplier to increase the rate of fuel bladder production. Customers with main and auxiliary tanks installed need to order the bladder kit from Robinson and follow the instructions. The kit includes the main and auxiliary bladder tanks, hardware and hoses. Robinson cautioned that the retrofit “requires substantial sheet metal work” and could take up to 40 man hours of labor, excluding paint. The kit normally sells for $15,740, but Robinson has discounted it to $6,400 and is making an $800 rebate available after each field installation upon receipt of aircraft serial number, Robinson invoice number for the kit and a copy of the logbook page showing date of installation and mechanic’s signature. Additional normal discounts do not apply. Owners of R22s without auxiliary tanks must contact Robinson directly for assistance.
Robinson’s move on the R22 comes in the wake of it offering a similar program for the larger R44 (SB-78B, Dec. 20, 2010), a discounted retrofit program that expired last April. The FAA issued a related Special Airworthiness Information Bulletin–SW-13-11–on Dec. 26, 2012 and the NTSB, noting fuel tank breaches in several R44 crashes and resultant post-crash fires, is recommending the agency to mandate installation of bladder tanks in R44s (A-14-001, Jan. 15, 2014). The NTSB noted that several R44 crashes would have been survivable had the occupants not succumbed to “thermal injuries” triggered by breaches in the aircraft’s aluminum fuel tanks. “The crashworthiness of the R44 is excellent,” Robinson said.
Robinson, who has worked at the company for almost 30 years, officially took it over from his father and founder Frank in August 2010. He doesn’t think he has made many changes, but has intensified the company’s focus in key areas. “We came in with a lot of challenges. Getting a whole new aircraft into production [the R66], getting the right people for it and getting them in place. That has been the focus for the last two or three years. And some people needed to get comfortable with the fact that Frank retired. We have a great organization with all the employees here, our dealers and authorized customer service centers around the world.”
Robinson said that the company has nothing exotic in the works, such as a larger and rumored R88 or fitting the R22 with a small APU turbine for main engine power, or turning one into a drone. Rather, he said, the company continues to work on gaining R66 certification in more countries; expanding its market share in areas such as law enforcement; simplifying the maintenance for, and bringing glass instrument panel solutions to, the company’s entire product line; promoting the testing and development of unleaded fuels for its piston-powered helicopters; and expanding its 1,250-employee Torrance, Calif. plant if needed as opposed to pursuing outsourcing. “We are growing. I don’t look at that as change; I look at that as evolving,” he said. “We have our hands pretty full.”
While Robinson said he is “pretty happy” with the situation in Torrance, he remains critical of the skills deficiencies in the local workforce and said the company thoroughly trains all new recruits and is working with area community colleges and A&P schools to produce better qualified job candidates. “We do a tremendous amount of in-house training. It’s harder and harder to find people with the skills we need such as welding or basic electrical knowledge,” he said.