One of the most anticipated events at any HAI convention is Robinson Helicopter founder Frank Robinson’s annual briefing – as the standing-room-only crowd at this year’s Feb. 22 gathering attested.
In a wide-ranging, unscripted, hour-long series of comments and answers to audience questions, Robinson candidly and colorfully held forth on his company’s turbine-powered R66 program, the credit crisis, and succession plans –or rather the lack of them – at his privately held firm.
“We’d hoped to have the R66 done by now,” the silver-haired CEO said of the four-seat, Rolls-Royce-powered helicopter that’s flown more than 100 hours in testing. “But (FAA certification) is still going to take the better part of a year. The aircraft flies very well, and it flew very well more than a year ago when I flew it. It’s lived up to all of my expectations. I couldn’t find much fault with its handling characteristics or performance.”
Robinson wouldn’t give any specific performance figures or name a price other than to say it will be more expensive than a piston-engine R44 (about $400,000) and less than a Bell Jetranger – if they put the JetRanger back into production.”
“It’ll be at least as fast as an R44, and probably faster,” he said. “The rate of climb will be very, very good. The service ceiling will still be 14,000 feet because that’s what the FAA will approve.”
The new model will look like “an overweight R44” because of its additional eight inches in width, Robinson said. (It’ll also be eight inches taller at the rotor.)
Robinson Helicopter set a record last year with 893 new aircraft deliveries – an all-time high for civil helicopter firms. But production will fall this year as the ongoing credit crisis takes a toll domestically and especially abroad where two-thirds of new Robinson helicopters are sold.
“The economy suddenly, overnight, has become a horrible mess,” Robinson said. “It’s just as bad, maybe worse, outside the U.S. Right now we can’t deliver on a lot of orders and sales because (buyers) can’t get the financing.”
Robinson said his company plans to continue building two-seat R22s, although he personally recommends the larger R44s for pilot training. He also dismissed questions about any future new aircraft (the hypothetical R88), joking the numerical designation had been claimed already by the lethal German cannon from World War II. “The R88? It was the best anti-aircraft gun the Germans ever had.”
Robinson, 79, paraphrased the late comedian Jack Benny when asked about succession plans for his Torrance, Calif.-based company.
“If I can’t take it with me, I just won’t go,” Robinson laughed, recalling the comedian’s quip about his wealth. “[Jack Benny] didn’t need a succession plan, and I think I don’t either.”