Rotor & Wing International
Found inFeature

A Helicopter for the Masses

A 43-year-old engineer’s 1973 mid-life crisis sparked the success of the lower-cost civil market.

When Frank Robinson left Hughes Tool Co. in 1973 to start Robinson Helicopter, it wasn’t some great leap for mankind.

The Vietnam War left OEMs focused on designing military helicopters. Dominated by government/military work, they developed bureaucratic structures and high overhead costs.

The civil market was small and not a big OEM focus. Helicopters were complex and expensive to purchase and to fly. Reliability was measured in maintenance required for each hour of flight. Frank envisioned something simple, reliable and economical to fly — something he could afford.

When Frank presented his ideas to employers at Bell Helicopter and Hughes, they couldn’t imagine building a helicopter at the price he’d hoped. Frank realized the only way a small civil helicopter might succeed was if it were not part of a large government contractor. So he started a company focused on civil helicopters, like a typical 43-year-old engineer going through a mid-life crisis.

Frank didn’t create the civil market, but he did help it grow. The R22’s success through the 1980s was largely attributable to its reliability and low cost. The training market existed, but the piston-engine R22’s introduction lowered the total cost to fly and train. As a result, more people got licenses, and helicopters were used in new and different ways.

What surprised Frank was the civil market’s growth outside the U.S. The R22 became an export king to Australia, Canada, Europe, South Africa, South America and Japan, to name several markets.

Robinson Helicopter President/Chairman Kurt Robinson said his father, Frank, envisioned a simple helicopter that was affordable and easy to fly. Photo by Frank Lombardi

During the 1980s and 90s, other OEMs targeted the civil market, but they trended toward the upscale side. Large corporations, police, emergency medical services, news organizations and global oil demand greatly expanded the market. Due to the size and reliability required of the aircraft built, turbines ruled. Frank wanted to go upscale also, but he wanted lower costs than the single-engine turbine. There was a considerable price gap between the two-seat R22 and the five-seat Hughes 500 or Bell 206. He wanted a helo that appealed to executives, businesses and farmers on smaller budgets.

Staying with the reliable Lycoming piston engine, Robinson released the four-place R44 in 1993. It did well initially, but sales took off in 1999 with the introduction of hydraulic controls, which made the R44 feel and fly like a turbine. Through 2009, Robinson delivered more than 4,000 R44s.

In the 2000s, customers asked for more — more seats, cargo space, lifting capacity, altitude. When Rolls-Royce approached Frank with a smaller, reliable, lower cost turboshaft, he saw a way to expand the market further. Robinson certified and delivered the first five-place R66 in 2010.

Since the first delivery in 1979, we have delivered more than 12,000 Robinsons all over the world. The market has certainly grown and will continue to. Tomorrow’s helicopters will contain glass cockpits, autopilots and even pilot-less controls. How fast the market changes and grows will depend on how reliable and economical we can produce them. The secret is to keep helicopters affordable enough so someone like Frank could buy one. RWI