Robinson Helicopter Founder Frank Robinson Dies at 92

 - November 14, 2022, 10:09 AM
Robinson Helicopter Founder Frank Robinson (right) passed away on November 12 at his home in Rolling Hills, California. His son Kurt (left) runs the family-owned business as CEO. (Photo: Robinson Helicopter)

Frank Robinson passed away November 12 at his Rolling Hills, California home. He was 92. 

"Our industry lost a giant over the weekend," said James Viola, president and CEO of the Helicopter Association International (HAI).

Robinson feigned insult when asked about his possible retirement at a packed 2009 Heli-Expo press conference. “Why?” he shot back with a grin when asked about it. “You know what [the late comedian] Jack Benny said when they asked him what he was going to do with all that money when he died? He said, ‘If I can’t take it with me, I won’t go.’ He didn’t need [a retirement] and I think I don’t, either.” 

But the following year, at age 80, Robinson did retire from the iconic helicopter company he founded in 1973, turning control over to his son, Kurt. 

“Frank could do it all,” Kurt Robinson said of his father. “He had a business sense, the engineering sense, and the financial sense.” He could do it all in part because he had to. 

Frank Robinson founded his company at his kitchen table in 1973 with the goal of realizing his college dream of producing simple, low-cost helicopters for the civilian market. Today, Robinson Helicopter is closing in on the delivery of its 14,000th aircraft. 

Robinson’s interest in helicopters dates back to his childhood. “I was nine years old when I saw a newspaper picture of a Sikorsky VS-300 prototype hovering. I was intrigued that someone could make a machine that could stand motionless in the air,” Robinson said in 2007. 

He aimed his education and career path exclusively at helicopters, receiving his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Washington and later attending Wichita State’s graduate aeronautical engineering school. Robinson went on to work at various helicopter programs at Cessna, Umbaugh, McCulloch, Kaman, and Hughes, all the while unsuccessfully trying to foster his employers’ interest in his idea for a low-cost “everyman” helicopter while concurrently working on the concept in his spare time from his home workshop. 

“I started working on it before I graduated from college and kept at it while I worked for other companies,” Robinson said. “I bought machine tools and riveting equipment and set it up in my basement or garage, where I did a lot of experimenting. I was married at the time and it always created a bit of a conflict—whether to spend money on an engine lathe or new drapes for the house. I continued to pitch the idea of a small, two-seat personal helicopter at just about every company I worked for, but could never convince them. They were making a lot of money building large, expensive, and overpriced helicopters for the military. I was working on the [AH-64] Apache program at Hughes in 1973 when I decided to leave.” 

Robinson spent seven and a half years designing and testing his two-seat R22 light piston helicopter himself before achieving FAA certification in 1979. Much of the work was done in a small hangar in Torrance, California. Today, Robinson remains in Torrance but employs more than 1,000 at its sprawling plant there, manufacturing the R22, larger R44 piston, and R66 turbine single, sending 70 percent of its production to the export market.

Unlike many of its competitors, Robinson’s factory is vertically integrated, making most of the production components it needs in-house to control quality and scheduling. The company remains family-owned and Kurt Robinson still flies the company’s helicopters regularly.

Two days after the turbine-powered R66 made its first flight in 2009, Frank Robinson still had little good to say about light turbine helicopters. “Fuel consumption is too high and parts costs are too high,” he told AIN at the time. Robinson had even less complimentary things to say about modern, glass cockpits. However, Robinson Helicopter now offers a variety of digital avionics options. It also delivered 1,000 R66s during its first decade of production.   

Frank Robinson’s philanthropy benefitted various education and aviation organizations through the years, including millions of dollars donated for financially disadvantaged student scholarships to the University of Washington. He received numerous national and international awards for his contribution to rotorcraft, including The Igor I. Sikorsky International Trophy, American Helicopter Society; The Doolittle Award, Society of Experimental Test Pilots; the Howard Hughes Memorial Award, Southern California Aeronautical Association; Cierva Lecturer, Royal Aeronautical Society; inductee, National Academy of Engineering; Living Legends of Aviation, Lifetime Aviation Engineering Award; and the Daniel Guggenheim Medal, AHS International.