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Personal helicopter pioneer Frank Robinson remembered

Engineer, businessman changed aviation

Frank Robinson, the legendary designer and leader of Robinson Helicopter for nearly 40 years, died November 12 at his California home. He was 92.

Photo courtesy of Robinson Helicopter.

Robinson grew up in Washington state during the Depression, and the pragmatism with which he approached aviation was shaped early on. After attending engineering school in Wichita, Kansas, he went to work for Cessna, and spent time at Kaman, Bell, and Hughes. He saw a market for a small, personal helicopter, and would work on the design at night and on the weekends in the family's living room. When his vision was far enough along Robinson pitched Bell, and later Hughes on the idea. Not surprisingly, the military-industrial complex to which they were wedded didn't have a use for a personal recreational helicopter, so Robinson finally came to realize that if the everyman helicopter was going to be built, he would be the only man to do it. He quit his job and followed his passion.

From the beginning, Robinson had an obsession with limiting three things—weight, cost, and complexity. These three design philosophies were his guiding principles, and while each was important on its own, they also played off and impacted each other. Less complexity usually means lower weight, and less cost.

The initial development of what would become the R22 was all at the family's home. The living room held drafting tables where a few hired engineers would come to work. This shoestring approach led to some interesting challenges that still have impact on the project today. The R22's tail rotor, for example, is the size it is because that's all that would fit into Robinson's home oven.

After two years of development the fledgling operation was moved to a hangar at the Torrance, California, airport, where the test helicopter was assembled. It was August 1975, and progress was so successful that about two weeks of ground tests were skipped in a day as Robinson lifted the helicopter and did some basic hover testing.

The helicopter was eventually certified in 1979, six years after Robinson had started on the project full time. Getting a new aircraft through to certification with the original designer is incredibly difficult, but making that transition to production is virtually unheard-of in the modern era. Few engineers are able to both create and produce their designs. Robinson excelled in both areas.

Yet, envisioned as a personal recreational machine, Robinson Helicopter knew they had gotten something wrong almost from the start of production. Instead of an everyman helicopter, the R22 turned out to be a massive hit in the training industry. Ship three, the first production helicopter, was purchased by Tim Tucker, a flight school owner in southern California who later became a highly respected Robinson employee. In just a few months his school had multiple helicopters and still had to drive people away. Today flight schools all over the world use the R22 as a core part of their fleets for one simple reason—cost.

Robinson's insistence on controlling complexity, weight, and cost has meant that tens of thousands of pilots who couldn't otherwise afford to learn to fly a helicopter can now do so, and it's why Robinson helicopters are among the world's most popular aircraft.

Later the R44 was added to the portfolio to truly fulfill that affordable personal helicopter niche, and the R66 became an affordable turbine helicopter that was practical for both work and fun, a rarity in the rotorcraft world. In 2010 Robinson retired from the business he deftly ran for so many decades and handed the role of CEO to his son, Kurt. Every year at the annual Helicopter Association International Heli-Expo it’s been tradition for Kurt Robinson to give an update on his dad because everyone would always ask after him anyway.

Frank Robinson's vision of an aircraft that could fit in a garage and be pulled out and taken for joyrides on the weekends has created multiple generations of helicopter pilots. The designs are uncompromised, and 40 years after its certification the R22 is still the most popular training helicopter in the world, and the company is approaching nearly 14,000 total deliveries of its three core models. That's an incredible legacy, and a long way from baking parts in the family oven.

Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly is senior content producer for AOPA Media.
Topics: Robinson Helicopter Co, People

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