Estimated reading time 16 minutes, 8 seconds.
Photos by Dan Megna
Next year, Robinson Helicopter Company (RHC) will celebrate its golden anniversary — 50 years since Frank Robinson embarked on his odyssey to design and produce a simple, affordable, high-quality “personal helicopter.”
Frank held the reins of RHC for 37 years, overseeing the development and production of the two-place R22, the four-place R44, and the turbine-powered R66. In August 2010, six months after introducing the newly-certified R66 at HAI Heli-Expo in Houston, Texas, Frank stepped into retirement. His son, Kurt, took his place as the company’s president.
This past summer, I was invited to the company’s headquarters in Torrance, California, for an informal chat with Kurt. The setting, however, was not an executive office or the company boardroom. Instead, the two of us boarded a beautiful blue and silver R66. With Kurt at the controls, we set off for a leisurely flight along the coast, from the bustling Long Beach Harbor to the unspoiled shoreline of Rancho Palos Verdes.
Vertical: Fifty years is quite a legacy for your family and the company. What do you think were the major milestones in the evolution of Robinson Helicopter?
Kurt Robinson: In the ’80s, the R22 became the most popular light aircraft in production. We actually had years where we produced almost 500 helicopters. In the late 1990s/early 2000s, the R44 came along and surpassed the R22. For many years, the R44 was Robinson’s best-selling helicopter.
Now you have the R66, which is doing well. Actually, last year — for the first time — the R66’s total sales were greater than the R44 Raven II’s. I suspect that trend will continue, as R66 sales this year have been particularly strong.
Globally, we’re over 13,000 [Robinson aircraft produced]. I’m not sure when we’ll hit 14,000, but we’re not far off.
V: It has been a dozen years since the R66 was introduced. How has the company grown and changed as a result, and what new markets has it opened up?
K.R.: Without a doubt, adding the R66 — a turbine helicopter — to the lineup moves us more toward commercial operators, as opposed to just private owners. Obviously, private owners, enthusiasts and flight schools are markets that we love. The R66 allows us to expand into markets where people are doing more demanding agriculture and tour work. The company has evolved around the world — we are becoming much more commercially-oriented.
Operators are doing a lot of farm and agriculture work, everything from cattle herding [to] crop spraying…. They’re doing a lot of tour work all over the place, survey and power line patrol — all those things that need to be done. Then there’s what I refer to as [FAA part] 135 work. In other words, “I need to be picked up at one location and dropped off at another location.”
There are also tour groups where they use multiple helicopters and go on expeditions. That’s really a sweet spot for some of our dealers. I think people really love going to some of the outer reaches of the world, where not many people are.
Last year, we delivered 244 helicopters — approximately 70 percent of those went overseas.
We export all over the world. In fact, at this point in time, we have helicopters everywhere they should be. They’re flying in areas where there’s a lot of space and a lot of need for helicopters — all through Africa, Europe, China, all through the Asia markets, Malaysia, New Zealand, [and] Australia.
A market that has been very strong in the last couple of years has been Latin America — Brazil in particular, but also Argentina, Chile, [and] Mexico. Throughout Latin America, our helicopters are really well known, and with 42 established service centers in that region, it makes it easy to service and maintain them. Our helicopters have gained a good reputation for reliability, which we really focus on.
V: How did Robinson Helicopter make the leap from 40 years of analog cockpit gauges to the advanced glass panel displays? How have customers responded?
K.R.: That was one of the biggest things that happened since 2010. Obviously, we put a turbine helicopter on the market, but then there was this transition that started in 2014, switching from analog to digital instruments. Companies like Garmin and Aspen have done a wonderful job digitizing instrumentation.
It’s really important when a person gets in an aircraft, when they look at that airspeed indicator or the altimeter or the tachometer, they should not know whether they are looking at an analog or a digital instrument. You want that feel and familiarity to be the same.
Pete [Riedl, Robinson vice president of engineering] really understood and knew that we needed to go to the glass cockpit — to the digital age. Pete has guided us for the last 10 years into that realm, and that was absolutely the right call. It’s funny, in 2014 or 2015, when I first showed [people] ships with the Aspen or the Garmin [glass panel] installed, they didn’t like it. They said, “I want my steam gauges. I want my standard instruments.”
And, of course, it takes a few young people or more adventurous people to say, “That’s kind of cool. How do you use it? I’m into technology.” And now, of course, most ships are fairly loaded. It’s very rare for us to do an R66 that doesn’t have an autopilot, the Garmin [GDU] 1060, the [GTN] 750. People also like their air conditioning. They like their comforts of home when they fly.
V: Robinson Helicopter has grown from just a small core of individuals working out of the family home to today’s 618,000-square-foot (57,400-square-meter) facility and 1,000 employees. What have been some of the keys to keeping pace with the company growth and maintaining quality?
K.R.: When you have a variety of helicopters with a lot of different options, it’s more efficient to bring processes in-house. It doesn’t save money, but it allows us to control the scheduling. And these days, with so many vendor issues, it’s really helpful to be self-sufficient. More importantly, we control the quality. That is the mantra of what we’re trying to do — keep everything simple and keep the quality and reliability high.
Right now, we’re in a growth mode. We’re trying to add more employees and bring more things in-house. We are continually adding machines and equipment to the factory.
V: How has Robinson Helicopter been impacted by recent supply chain issues?
K.R.: It’s been challenging for everybody, but it’s not like [it’s] something we haven’t dealt with before. We actually tend to carry high inventories [of raw materials]. The ironic thing was, in the first period of Covid, we really weren’t that impacted. However, as vendors started missing delivery dates, we started having issues. We have really felt it in this last year or so.
We have some pretty strong longtime suppliers. Nobody likes to not be able to fulfill their promised delivery dates. But, by the same token, if they can’t get the raw materials to make their products, there’s nothing they can do. So, we all needed to work together.
Clearly, last year was difficult for everybody. Some of our delivery dates had to be adjusted, but I see the light at the end of the tunnel. Our overall production is slowly ramping up. It is also important for us to support the field and supply parts. I see things getting better.
V: Your production volume obviously requires a large workforce with a wide diversity of skillsets. What are you doing to attract, recruit and retain your staff?
K.R.: Hiring has always been a challenge. While we are a family-owned corporation, we offer great benefits. We compete with everybody else. I have the same benefits as everybody in our company, so I have a keen interest in making certain that we provide really good programs.
We have an enormous number of people that have been here 10, 20, 30 years. I even have some people now that are 40 years — and I’m creeping up on that mark myself.
When Frank first started the company, he was of the mindset that everyone here should be able to raise a family. That’s from the entry level maintenance or stockroom person all the way up to the engineers and the people in the offices. We focus on that, and I think we’ve done quite well. It’s something I’m really proud of and something I want to make sure we continue.
V: What was Frank’s philosophy as it related to the company?
K.R.: Frank always taught us, “The goal is to expand the marketplace. Don’t go where everybody else has been. Develop products that can serve a new and a different market. Bring the costs down and widen the audience.”
Clearly, with each of our helicopters, we could raise the price and still do well. Maybe we’d have higher short-term profitability, but it reduces the market size.
We’ve always tried to follow Henry Ford’s concept. We look really hard at our products and ask: “How can we reduce costs? How can we be more efficient? How can we expand the market?” That’s what we do.
It’s kind of interesting; in each of the products that we’ve built, the markets told us what was needed and where we needed to go. As we move forward, that is what will determine our direction.
V: What do you see in the near term as the outlook for your company?
K.R.: [Natural] growth right now is very strong. I see that for the next three to five years. I think there’s tremendous opportunity all over the world. Obviously, if you look at the industry itself, it’s creating better accessibility, more places to land. I think noise has always been an issue, but it’s something that can be managed.
We’re always evolving. We’re always looking for what needs to happen. We want to keep improving the products we have. The goal is to broaden the audience. We don’t want to build an elaborate or expensive helicopter. We want to take the technology that we have and make it affordable for everyone.
V: You’re the president of a large aerospace firm. How do you find time to get away from the office to keep your piloting skills sharp?
K.R.: My kids just graduated from college and things are going well with the company, so I decided to get back into flying. A little over a month ago, I got my medical back and started flying quite a bit. I got checked out with an instructor, got a few hours to get back up to speed, and now I’m flying two, three, four times a week — which is wonderful. It really is. It feels great to be back.
I attended our safety course last week, and when talking to the students, I made the comment that I flew last weekend. And it hit me — it’s like “Gosh, I haven’t been able to say that in a while.” It is nice to say it and be a part of that group again.
My time off was good. It actually made me appreciate how much I enjoy flying and what we’re trying to accomplish as we move forward. That’s something I’ll continue to do.
For me, the most fun about flying is when you do cross-country, when you have a destination. I’ve flown to Canada, [and] I’ve flown to the East Coast a few times. Particularly if there are one or two helicopters flying with you — there is something about it. Especially when you see people at smaller airports and smaller locations, it’s just a wonderful environment. You really do get to see the world from a big easy chair.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed.
Great job on this story Dan. I have never flown a Robinson or knew much about the helicopter or the company until now!
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