Torrance, California-based Robinson Helicopter started off 2021 with the delivery of its 13,000th rotorcraft in company history. But as it came amid the ongoing distractions caused by the Covid pandemic, the manufacturer didn’t even notice the milestone until weeks later. According to company president Kurt Robinson, that tally includes more than 1,000 of the airframer’s turbine-powered flagship R66s, nearly 5,000 of its two-seater R22s, and more than 7,000 of its four-place R44s, the latter two piston-engined.
“Certainly, the total number is impressive and, more importantly, you have an obligation of duty that we want to be here and keep those operating,” he told AIN. “We still have aircraft flying that were produced in the ’80s, '90s, and 2000s, so it's something that we are proud of and we just keep working to keep upgrading the fleet and keep everyone moving along.”
That obligation was sorely tested last year during the height of the Covid pandemic when California faced a lockdown to curb the spread of the disease. “We looked pretty good until about January, then all of a sudden we had people getting affected,” said Robinson. “L.A. County imposed that shutdown and we had to send everybody home literally for nine weeks because everybody was dealing with Covid.”
The company spent days trying to determine if it was considered an essential service or not, and once it was decided that it was, the airframer began bringing back key workers. “At first we just had the minimum stuff, the repair station, but then as we went on it became better defined that yes we are an essential service, so we could, following all the protocols, bring people back, but we did it very slowly,” Robinson noted. “It took a lot of effort from a lot of people here, but we were really able to maintain service, particularly if someone is sending you [a component], being able to have the right people work on it, we were able to do that.”
The company put up plastic barriers, established socially-distanced work areas, painted the now-ubiquitous footprints on the floor in high traffic areas, and instituted a mask mandate. Temperature checks were instituted at the beginning of each shift with a scanner mounted near the time clock. “The tricky part was if they came in here [infected] to figure it out and get them out of here so they wouldn’t infect anyone else,” Robinson stated. “We created little pods of workers so that at least we had it isolated down to two or three people that were really kind of in contact with each other.”
With such protocols in place, the company began recalling its workers at approximately 25 per week, with its full staff of approximately 900 back in place by late in the third quarter of 2020.
“The tougher things are not the production,” Robinson explained. “It’s when [workers] go on breaks. We had to really separate them so they couldn’t eat together and you have to keep reminding people 'look, Covid doesn’t take a break during lunchtime.'" The staff was encouraged to take breaks outside and find alternate places to eat, either in their cars or at their desks. “You do what you’ve got to do to get through the crisis,” noted Robinson.
With all of the chaos and disruptions caused by the pandemic, the company braced itself for a decline in production. “It was down, but it surprised us because it wasn’t really down that much," explained Robinson, adding it delivered 177 helicopters in 2020, just 19 less than it did a year earlier. That number included 18 R22s, 105 R44s, and 54 R66s. “The interesting thing with the R66 is that’s exactly the same number we did in 2019, so we didn’t really miss a beat on the R66,” Robinson said.
Likewise, in the spirit of moving forward, the company continued with its projects under development. At Heli-Expo last January—one of the last aviation trade shows to take place before the pandemic became entrenched in the U.S.—Robinson unveiled a new impact-resistant polycarbonate windscreen, for which it subsequently received certification. Yet due to those clear plastic barriers that have appeared everywhere from personal protection equipment face masks to supermarket checkout lines, the company that manufactured the new windshield could not source the needed plastic.
“The demand for plastic went nuts in the summer and the fall,” said Robinson “We got pushed off for several months, and so we had to go back to some of our customers and say 'we’re going to have to use the standard acrylic windshield, we just can’t get the polycarbonate that we need.'” Those shipments have since resumed.
Another previously announced improvement that received approval in the third quarter was the cockpit video camera installation. In addition to providing a keepsake of their flight for passengers, the position of the camera (which can be turned on or off at the discretion of the passengers or crew) allows for a panoramic view outside as well as the inside of the helicopter, enabling mechanics to better analyze any glitches or when and why a warning light illuminated.
“We actually already have caught some things in flight test here that pilot or the mechanic did, so we’re seeing it's an excellent training tool,” he said, adding that he has been pleasantly surprised at the high demand it has received so far. The system is now standard on all R66s ordered after this year’s pricing went into effect in January, and is available as an option on the R22 and R44.
On the R44, the OEM recently received approval for the installation of the TrueBlue Power TB17 lithium-ion battery, which is 45 percent lighter than the standard lead-acid or nickel-cadmium options at the same power. “It saves 13 and a half pounds, so for a 44, that’s huge,” noted Robinson. “It’s nice with the avionics and stuff that people are putting in the aircraft.”
Also newly-authorized on the R44 are heated front leather seats that are available as an option. The R44 and the R66 received new paint schemes starting this year.
NEW TECHNOLOGY FOR PISTONS
Perhaps the biggest change to the company’s piston-powered rotorcraft over the past year is the inclusion of an engine monitoring unit (EMU), a project that has been in the works for the past seven years. “We’ve always had it on the R66, but with the 44 and the 22, we had to switch over all the instruments, the steam gauges, so that they could provide digital information,” Robinson explained, adding that while those aircraft may look the same as older vintage models, they are now fundamentally quite different. “It’s one thing to say 'wouldn’t it be great to have it,' but then when you look at it, you realize all your instruments and everything has to be changed.”
The new system monitors the engine speed, rotor speed, oil temperature, cylinder head temperature, manifold pressure, and outside air temperature among other parameters, and records all that data. “If the mechanic is doing a [check] on the aircraft, he can see if there was an exceedance and even more importantly, now he can see the extent of it,” said Robinson. “He knows not only that there was an overspeed, he can see how bad it was. So, I think it’s going to help long term on the maintenance.”
While all of those improvements have a cost, the company is cognizant of its audience. “We understand that [with] our market, if I raise the price, there are certain people who can’t afford it. So, we’ve always been very good at trying to add new items and make the aircraft more reliable, but at the end of the day, to try and reduce cost, so that’s one of the mantras that we follow pretty specifically here.”
For 2021, Robinson is optimistic at the end of the first quarter. “At this point this year, we have more orders for new aircraft than we did at this point last year,” he said, adding that he believes the company’s deliveries for the year will exceed 2020’s and even 2019’s totals, barring any unforeseen factors such as a massive resurgence of Covid. “What we’re seeing is around the world the helicopter industry seems to be rebounding quite nicely. We’re not seeing it in just one area, we’re seeing it all over the world.”