In the early 1970s, an engineer named Frank Robinson wanted to build a small two-seat personal helicopter. He pitched the concept to major manufactures, but none saw any market potential in the civilian market – the big money was in military machines. So in 1973, Robinson left his job at Hughes Aircraft and started the Robinson Helicopter Company in his home. His living room was set up with drafting tables and the garage was full of tools and machining equipment.
His son, Kurt Robinson, told me he came home from high school one day and found a tail-rotor blade baking in the family oven. Frank had built a device to regulate the oven’s temperature to a high degree of accuracy to bond parts. Kurt said the upside was his reputation in the neighborhood for making the best pizzas. When the box said to bake at 350 degrees, it was exactly 350 degrees.
Robinson rented a small hangar at the Torrance airport and began assembling and testing his helicopter. Robinson flew the first prototype himself in August 1975. After seven-plus years of designing, building, and testing the Robinson R22 received FAA certification in 1979. Much to Robinson’s surprise the R22 became an instant hit in the flight training market and soon became the world’s top-selling civil helicopter. As the R22’s design matured, Robinson started working on a bigger four-place helicopter. The R44 was certified in late 1992 and it became so popular it eventually out sold the R22. Many wondered what was next for the small company that had become one of general aviation’s biggest success stories. The answer came in 2007 when the company announced development of a five-place single-engine turbine helicopter. The R66 is scheduled for FAA certification at the end of October 2010.
Last August, with the R66 on track for certification, Frank Robinson announced he was retiring at age 80. Frank’s son, Kurt, who joined Robinson Helicopter in 1987, became the new CEO of the privately held company. Kurt will be leading a team that will continue to grow the company.
Frank has won numerous awards and donated millions of dollars to charities and aviation educational programs. He is a full member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots and a Fellow of the American Helicopter Society. I have had the pleasure of knowing Frank for about 20 years and during that time have come to know him as one of the most brilliant engineers and businessmen in the rotorcraft industry. There is no question he has had an enormous impact on the light civilian helicopter industry. I wish him a long and happy retirement.