Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Robinson In The New Era

A new president and a new bird

Twenty-three years ago, when the producers of the ABC-TV show Wide World of Flying came to me and proposed that I write and host a segment on transitioning from fixed wing to rotary wing, it took me all of three seconds to say yes.

The idea was to chronicle the entire rotary-wing learning process, from first hour of instruction through solo, and on to the private helicopter license; then, synthesize six months of flying and learning down to 20 minutes for television. Of course, my trainer was to be the world's most popular two-place helicopter, the Robinson R22. As it happens, Robinson's manufacturing facility at Torrance Airport in Southern California is only about 15 minutes from my home, so I would train in a succession of new Robinsons.

Just as with my preliminary fixed-wing education, I needed about 60 hours to finish the course, but when I was done, I was hooked on helicopters, just as I had become hooked on conventional airplanes a quarter-century earlier.

That show aired in 1989. Now, it's 22 years later, and both Robinson and I are still flying high. (Okay, since they build helicopters, Robinson flies mostly low.) In 2008, Robinson delivered a total of 893 helicopters, compared to 733 Cessna piston products and 547 Cirrus aircraft.

Robinson Helicopters have consistently outpaced not just all helicopter manufacturers, but every other general aviation aircraft manufacturer, fixed or rotary wing, for several years. Today, Robinson builds more helicopters than all other manufacturers combined.

Best Seller
The Robinson story is another of those Hollywood-style "little guy takes on big guy and wins" scripts. Only in this case, it happens to be true. After Frank Robinson graduated from the University of Washington and did postgraduate work at the University of Wichita, he spent 17 years honing his skills at Cessna, Umbaugh, McCulloch, Kaman, Bell and Hughes Helicopters, where he gained a reputation as a tail-rotor expert.

Unable to rouse any interest from the majors in his concept for an inexpensive, two-seat helicopter, Frank resigned from Hughes in 1973 to start his own company. Working out of his home in Palos Verdes, Calif., the young engineer conceived and partially constructed the two-seat R22 in his garage. The new aircraft premiered in 1979, and quickly became the world's best-selling helicopter.

But Frank had set his sights higher. Prior to 1993, the world's most popular four-/five-seat helicopter was the Bell 206 Jet Ranger, an industry stalwart since the mid-'60s. With its Allison 250 turbine mill rated for 3,500 hours between overhauls, and a shaft horsepower of 317 to 420, the Jet Ranger seemed to have a lock on the market. The folks at Bell were confident little Robinson didn't have the financial resources to produce and certify anything more than a two-seat utility/training helicopter.

In 1993, Bell and the rest of the industry learned otherwise. Robinson introduced the R44 Astro, a piston-powered chopper with four seats and a 1,000-pound useful load. It was, in most respects, an entry-level four-seater, powered by a carbureted, 205 hp Lycoming O-540, but, by far, the most significant difference between the R44 and the Bell 206 was the price. At just under $250,000, the new R44 cost barely a third of the tab for a new Jet Ranger.

It's true, turbines are universally regarded as more reliable than piston powerplants, but even the biggest companies couldn't ignore such hard, economic realities. To no one's great surprise, the new R44 outsold the Jet Ranger from day one, no discredit to the Bell product, a simple function of price. It also didn't hurt that the R44's performance specs were very close to those of the Jet Ranger, while the Robinson's operating costs were dramatically less.

If Bell truly believed Frank Robinson would stay out of the turbine business, they misjudged him again. After several years of development, Robinson certified the R66 in October of last year, utilizing essentially the same Rolls Royce 250 turbine engine employed on the Bell product. In fact, the continued economy of the piston-powered R44, and the threat of the upcoming turbine Robinson, contributed to Bell Aircraft cancelling Jet Ranger production altogether in late 2008.

I live a mere 15 minutes from the Robinson facility, so I've watched the company expand from a small plant on the north side of Torrance Airport to a larger building on the south side, and more recently, to a huge, 500,000-square-foot megafactory, generating $200 million in annual sales. If those numbers aren't impressive enough, consider that Robinson recently rolled out its 9,000th helicopter.


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