Frank Robinson

September 22, 2010 by Tim McAdams

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.

Kurt and Frank Robinson


  • JAKE

    That R66 can seat five people if the fifth person
    doesn’t stand over 5 feet tall and weigh more than
    80 pounds.
    Seriously, it’s not really a five-seater anymore than
    Rush Limbaugh is a moderate.

  • Ben Welch

    My Hat is off to Frank. What a Guy! I longed for one of his helicotors and followed his company for years and finally got my rating and an R44 Raven II in 2005 and Frank placed his signature on it for me inside one of the access doors. That man has had his share of troubles along the way and had to fight and struggle to get where he got and keep what was his, the company, from those that would steal it from him. It wasn’t always a rosey road to get where he is.

  • John Majane

    Mr. Robinson is what the American dream is all about. He had an idea, went with it and created a company that provides a good product, employs many people and I am sure given many rewards both financially and otherwise to the Robinson family. It is gentleman like Mr. Robinson that we need to look towards for inspiration not the clowns in DC who wish to take it all away from him and others like him.

  • L.J. SKEIE

    A true American succes story. Privately held, privately funded, little government help. Congratulations and have a happy retirement.

  • Terry Welander

    A friend and I built a Rotorway single place in the early 1970s. I found out what a maintenance nightmare helicopters are.
    I took an introductory lesson in an R22 in the early 1990s and was impressed with how smooth it is. I have also had sight seeing
    rides in several Bells. Conclusion: Robinson is the best mechanical nightmare ever built.

  • William Packer

    I have to agree after many years of government regulations operating a Privately held local telephone exchange near Minneapolis, MN how tough it is dealing with government regulations. His success is amazing. Hats off to him. I did own a R22HP back in 1992 and totaled about 150hrs of my 1200hrs helicopter time in one. Moved to a real helicopter a EC120B. The R44/R22 are know as Maytag washing machines though. I am sure the R66 will still be desired by many but in my opinion these are not real helicopters. The R22 was very limited in useful load. The R44 seemed to fix many problems with the R22 but is and will remain a major noise complainer and still a Maytag washing machine. The R66 will help some to transition to turbine but will lack a use in the market so it will only be a toy. A very expensive toy also.

  • Steve Classon

    My wife and I have an R44 Raven II and we are very impressed with
    the reliability. We burn 13.6 gph average, and we cruise very comfortably
    at 100 knots. We have put 270 hours on the bird and except for a few
    minor SBs we have not had any issues outside of scheduled maintenance.
    Let’s see, reliable and economical: I think Frank Robinson builds a great
    (real) helicopter and he has the sales to prove it.

  • William Packer

    You need to get into a real helicopter to understand my comments.

  • Prez

    Jake can jump in the lake. Frank Robinson is a hero and so is Rush Limbaugh. The R-66 has plenty of room, unless you are big enough to make that lake spill over the shoreline!.

  • Morris Mauney

    I have been flying R22s since 1987, have logged thousands of hours of flight time in R22s and R44s in the worst and the best weather from coast to coast and border to border without even one incident or failure. I doubt that Frank or Kurt would remember me, but I, and my flying buddy Bill, attended one of Frank’s first safety courses in the small hangar at the Torrance airport in the 80’s. We sat in the first R44 mockup and test aircraft at the plant later on. In my opinion, Frank and Kurt are aviation heroes, and will be ranked among aviation’s greatest men. Because of them, I, a common guy, have been able to “break the bonds of earth “, and fly anywhere, anytime, and share over 20 years of flying joy with hundreds of friends and family members. Thanks Frank and Kurt. You are true Americans.

  • George Chartress

    I agree with Mr. Mauney,I would never have had the pleasure of owning and flying a helicopter if were not for Mr Frank Robinson.He has made helicopter ownership afordable for the average person and for that I’am for ever greatfull .He is a genuine American hero and will always be remmebered for his contribution to aviation!!

  • Dietmar Frey

    I can only add to the good wishes for Frank Robinson and agree that his company is a true success story. He has certainly brought rotary flight to many people who would otherwise not have had the opportunity to experience it. As for the product comments of WIlliam Packer, I think they are unfair. I hold a commercial helicopter licence and over the years I have owned two R22s and two Bell 206 Jet Rangers. I have also flown various R44s. While I will be quick to say that the B206 is my favorite helicopter, one needs to see the R22/R44 products for what they are: Highly reliable, economical and practical REAL helicopters. The success and sales numbers bear this out. Classifying those machines as “toys” is truly unfair, given their recorded mission profiles. And yes, Mr. Packer, I have flown the EC120 and while I don’t think it’s a bad helicopter, it certainly didn’t strike me as the revolutionary design I had expected it to be. As for the noise signatures, I again don’t believe that the R22/R44 machines are bad; there are other helicopters which are much worse. I have to agree however, that the EC120 has one of the lowest noise signatures in the industry.

  • Sean C

    After flying numerous makes and models of both military and civilan helicopters for about 5000 flight hours over 20 years, I can say with no reservations that the R-22 is the most reliable aircraft I have every flown. As Frank Robinson has proven by his design there is much to be said for simplicity. Namely, what isn’t there, can’t break.

    I expect a nice coffee-table type book to be published, hopefully in the near future, on the complete Robinson story. Come on Frank, you need a project in your retirement, how about it?

  • Alex Kovnat

    Frank Robinson is one of a limited number of individuals, which also includes the Klapmeirs, the Rutans and Richard Van Grunsven, who have made general aviation in the 1970’s and beyond what it is today. Long may his mind remain clear and sharp, long may he remain in good health, and long may he maintain a presence on the aviation scene.

  • joey petersen

    Frank is one of my heroes! He made it possible for the private guy to fly and enjoy the awesome world of helicopters. He represents what America is supposed to be about before socialism. Thank you Frank!!

  • Jake Simms

    I think William Packer merely wants us to be impressed with his ability to spend millions
    on a helicopter that I’d wager he uses for nothing more than what an R44 is capable.
    Lesson to Bill Packer:
    The only people who’ll be impressed with your heli are the ones you’re NOT trying to impress.

  • jill amadio

    Sean C:A coffee table book? Frank’s story of his struggle to bring his dream into reality can fill two volume. Stay tuned.