2901 Airport Drive
Robinson Helicopter Company of Torrance, California, is the world's leading producer of civil helicopters. The company delivered 390 new aircraft in 2000 and 328 in 2001, and has total sales exceeding $100 million annually. Robinson was among the first North American aerospace firms to be awarded ISO 9001 certification for helicopter design, manufacture, and service. To maintain the highest quality standards, the company performs most operations, including welding, machining, assembly, painting, and flight testing on site at its Torrance Airport plant.
Robinson Helicopter Company is the leading manufacturer of light piston-engine helicopters. It produces a greater number of civil helicopters per year than any other manufacturer, and 80 percent of those made in the United States. Robinson's two-seat R22 and four-seat R44 helicopters offer public and private users a low-cost alternative to jet turbine helicopters such as the Bell JetRanger. Unique in the multi-tiered aerospace industry, Robinson builds most of its own components.
Frank Robinson was born in 1930 and grew up near Seattle. He financed his education at the University of Washington by working on cargo ships, reports Forbes; thus, he did not graduate until he was 27. Robinson began his engineering career working on the CH-1 Skyhook for Cessna Aircraft Company. He later worked on rotorcraft research for manufacturers including McCulloch Motor Company, Kaman Aircraft, Bell Helicopter, and, finally, Hughes Aircraft Company, which he joined in 1969.
Robinson spent 16 years trying to convince his aerospace employers that such a market even existed. Robinson was not the first person who aspired to create an affordable helicopter for personal use. Designer Stanley Hiller had fanned the idea in the late-1940s, and some futurists' vision of the 1950s and 1960s included a helicopter in every driveway. However, it was the military, beginning with the Korean War, which made the most use of helicopters.
Against the advice of colleagues, Robinson struck out on his own in June 1973. Design work on his new lightweight helicopter consumed the living room and garage of Robinson's Palos Verdes residence, which was itself mortgaged to finance the aircraft's development. Robinson would also look close to home for key staff. His wife Barbara became marketing director, and three of the couple's six children would also eventually work for the company. Some dubbed them "Swift Family Robinson."
In 1975, Robinson had a working prototype of the first model, the R22, which had been constructed in a tin hangar at the Torrance Airport in southern California. It would take four years to gain FAA certification. The prototype was then sold to a flight school, a market he told the Los Angeles Times he had not even considered when he began to develop the aircraft. The R22 would eventually dominate the world helicopter trainer market. Radio stations, which used helicopters to report on traffic conditions, were another important early market.
Robinson Helicopter soon opened a plant at Torrance Airport. Initial financing was in the $2 to $3 million range. Frank Robinson told American Metal Market that $500,000 of this went towards computer-controlled machine tools.
The lightweight piston-engine helicopter could rival the performance of its turbine-powered rivals at a fraction of the cost. Powered by a 160-horsepower Lycoming engine, the R22 had a fiberglass fuselage and sold for a base price of $40,000. Fuel consumption of 20 miles per gallon was claimed for the R22, which was also said to be the quietest chopper around. The R22 would eventually claim world speed and altitude records for its class.
Robinson had projected sales of 500 units a year by 1982, reported American Metal Markets, but did not meet the figure due to a recession. After making eight aircraft in 1979, Robinson produced 78 units in 1980 and 176 the next year. The company by then had 150 employees.
Crisis and Recovery in the 1980s
Robinson continued to improve its products. In September 1981, it began offering a more the powerful R22 HP for a base price of $59,850. The Model R22 Alpha, with increased gross weight, was rolled out two years later. In August 1985, the company introduced the Beta model of the R22, featuring advanced avionics. A float-equipped version, dubbed the Mariner, was introduced later in the year and was priced at $94,850.
Besides the recession, product liability was another major factor in slowing sales across the entire U.S. general aviation industry in the early 1980s. Robinson, reported Forbes, did not carry liability insurance due to its supreme confidence in his product. Two early R22's were in fatal accidents, however, leading to a redesign of rotor blades. Sales plunged to just 64 units in 1983. Robinson was generally successful in winning lawsuits, having them dismissed, or settling them for reasonable amounts.
Driven by foreign sales, production was soon returning to normal. Robinson was already exporting half of its production in the mid-1980s. The rotorcraft were quite popular with cattle ranchers Down Under. After breaking even for a couple of years, Robinson Helicopter turned its first profit in 1987.
Revenues reached $23.5 million in 1988, when the company sold 204 units. A fully equipped R22 sold for about $105,000 then. A weak dollar was good for exports, which accounted for 80 percent of sales. By this time, Robinson was selling more helicopters than anybody else, including Bell, Sikorsky, Boeing, and McDonnell Douglas. Robinson had 310 employees at the time.
Two More Seats in the 1990s
While California's giant military aerospace firms idled plants after the fall of the Soviet Union, Robinson Helicopter was thriving. The company delivered 384 R22's in 1990; sales were $48 million. The company had sales of $50 million in 1991, when it shipped a record 402 helicopters. Employment would soon pass 400 workers.
Frank Robinson had begun to work on a design for a four-seat helicopter in the mid-1980s. The first prototype took to the air in March 1990. With its four-seat capacity, the R44 was expected to sell well in the executive aircraft market. Its greater size also opened new possibilities in police work, agriculture, and fish spotting. Robinson began taking orders for the R44 in March 1992 at $235,000 for a fully equipped model. In contrast, the Bell Jet Ranger, a five-seat, turbine-powered helicopter, cost $600,000. The R44 also boasted low operating costs and required less frequent servicing than typical helicopters. In fact, its maintenance schedule was similar to that of light fixed-wing aircraft--an overhaul only every 2,000 hours (later extended to 2,200 hours).
The first production R44 Astro was delivered in February 1993. Robinson was planning to establish a production line for this aircraft in Santa Maria until the city of Torrance offered the company a good rate on a lease of additional land. Santa Maria's purportedly cumbersome licensing process helped seal that decision. Robinson had also looked at locations in the South and Midwest. Robinson moved to a new 260,000-square-foot plant in July 1994.
Sixty workers were soon laid off, however, due to a sales slowdown. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) soon began investigating the R22 after a wave of crashes. These were eventually attributed to pilot error.
The year 1996 saw the introduction of the R22 Beta II, which had a new engine and offered improved hover performance for a base price of $135,000. Robinson brought out a special police-oriented variant of the R44 in mid-1997. Its nose turret could be fitted with infrared sensors or a video camera. The R44 Newscopter debuted around the same time, outfitted for television news coverage.
The company continued to grow in the late 1990s. During this time, the R44--more versatile with its four seats--became the world's top-selling helicopter. (The R44, which featured new hydraulic controls after 1999, was then priced around $300,000.) An overflowing order book called for a major expansion of the Torrance plant. Robinson had 800 employees in 2000.
New Horizions Beyond 2000
Production fell from 390 aircraft in 2000 to 328 in 2001; Robinson still out-produced Eurocopter, its closest volume rival, which saw output rise fifteen percent to 280 units. There was an overall downturn in the U.S. helicopter industry due to a strong dollar, a recession, and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Frank Robinson made large donations to two aviation history projects. In 2000, he gave $1 million to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum to fund a rotary-wing aircraft display at its new Dulles Airport facility. Two years later, the American Helicopter Museum received another $1 million to purchase its building in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
Like other manufacturers, Robinson had an eye on the emerging Chinese market, which was expected to field 2,000 helicopters by 2010. Russia was another important new territory. In the United States, Robinson was behind an initiative to place lightweight helipads atop business buildings and in industrial parks. In early 2002, a Honda dealer in Santa Ana, California, began installing the first at his auto lot. He planned to commute to work in his R44.
Principal Competitors: Bell Helicopter Textron, Inc.; Enstrom Helicopter Corporation; Eurocopter Group; Schweizer Aircraft Corp.