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David Smith named CEO of Robinson Helicopter as company eyes future growth

By Elan Head | February 27, 2024

Estimated reading time 12 minutes, 41 seconds.

Kurt Robinson is handing over the reins of Robinson Helicopter Company (RHC) as the rotorcraft manufacturer launches an ambitious journey to significantly expand its product line and global presence.

David Smith, who joined the company last year as vice president of operations, has been named president and CEO effective immediately. Smith came to RHC from Bell, where he spent the majority of his career in various engineering leadership roles. He also served as chief executive of TRU Simulation + Training, an affiliate of Textron Aviation.

The transition has been planned for some time. The formal announcement at HAI Heli-Expo 2024 coincides with the launch of a new video series, “Climb Higher,” that aims to spotlight RHC customers around the world while positioning the company as the leading developer of affordable, reliable, and practical helicopters — priorities that will also guide its push into new markets.

“We want to grow,” Kurt Robinson told Vertical in a joint interview with Smith in advance of Heli-Expo. “We’ve increased engineering and it’s time to bring in some people that will help us grow, and that’s David. Certainly he has all the credentials and we’ve now worked together for about a year, and he’s the right guy.”

Robinson took over RHC from his father, founder Frank Robinson, following the latter’s retirement in 2010. Smith becomes only the third person to lead the privately held company in its 50-year history.

It is a pivotal time for RHC and the broader helicopter industry, as new technologies involving autonomy and electrification threaten to upend some traditional helicopter operations and business models. RHC’s challenge is to build on its existing strengths while placing smart bets on how the industry will evolve in the future.

It’s a challenge that Smith embraces. “One of the things that drew me to Robinson and why I love this culture . . . [is that] the innovation and desire to solve problems is number one,” he said, emphasizing the company’s core focus on engineering. “I think we offer a unique value that fills several different performance categories that we’re not currently in and we would love to over time . . . go after more of those markets.”

Roadmap for growth

According to Smith, RHC is looking to three broad areas for its future growth: regional expansion, new products, and innovative technologies.

Robinson helicopters are already widely distributed around the world, but the company sees particular opportunities to expand its presence in China and India, where the civil helicopter market remains underdeveloped relative to those countries’ populations. To do this, RHC plans to ramp up its support for existing dealers while simultaneously growing its local networks.

For example, Smith said he has been working closely with India’s sole RHC dealer, Sumit Sawhney of Maharaja Aviation. “We’re going to start to reinforce his efforts to grow within India. And that will require focused support expansion, focused certification efforts to validate some of the products that had not found a home yet in India, like the [R44] Cadet.

“There will be other efforts that we need to go after to look at specific equipment improvements that they would need in their region, but we’re excited about India,” Smith said. “I think that will probably take shape over the next two to three years. You’ll see a significant increase in our presence there and likely an increase in aircraft deliveries.”

Over a longer horizon, RHC also plans to certify new aircraft while continuing to develop improvements for its existing R22, R44 and R66 product lines. Here, the company has its eye on utility missions that have been largely neglected by other original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in the civil rotorcraft space.

“You see the technology trends moving towards higher and higher sophistication composite structures, higher and higher sophistication avionics,” Smith said. “Many of those technologies have a very specific end use, whether it’s VIP flight or air medical flight, but what they sometimes neglect is field support in remote environments, the things that Robinson has excelled at. And the world really, really needs the ability to have easily repairable aircraft in remote locations like the Outback or developing regions like Africa.”

Could this mean a helicopter design that departs from the classic Robinson look? Possibly, although Kurt Robinson pointed out that the R22, R44 and R66 “all look similar because they’re incredibly efficient.”

“If your goal is not looks, it’s to make it the most practical efficient aircraft you can — well, we’ve been doing that with all of our other aircraft,” he said. “And so I would guess you’re going to see similarities.” Yet, he clarified that this does not mean Robinson will necessarily be limited to its signature two-bladed teetering rotor system.

“We had to prove that we weren’t tied to piston engines . . . when we went to the turbine [R66],” he said. “Really the same thing is true about the rotor system. If, depending on the application that we choose, a three-bladed rotor or four-bladed rotor makes more sense, there’s nothing that would prevent us from doing it. But you start out with the fact that you know a two-bladed rotor system is going to be less expensive and hopefully more reliable, less moving parts. So whatever you develop from that, there has to be a reason for it. And if we have that reason, absolutely.”

RHC is also looking even further into the future toward the arrival of more autonomous and electric aircraft. For the time being, however, it plans to prepare for this future through strategic partnerships, rather than growing these capabilities in-house. At Heli-Expo, RHC is sharing its booth space with Rotor, a startup that is developing an uncrewed version of the R44 for missions including firefighting, crop spraying, and logistics.

“We are not a startup here, and so we’re not necessarily going to be . . . an active participant in the development of those aircraft technologies,” said Smith. But, “there are things we can do to help make the industry move faster towards these advancements. So where we see alignment between the values and the end goals of these companies, there are areas where I think partnerships with Robinson are going to be formalized, and will allow some forms of support where we might be more engaged in helping them see around the corners of certification.”

Ramping production

Even as RHC looks ahead to future growth, it has its hands full keeping up with current demand, with the backlog for new R66 helicopters stretching well into 2025. The company delivered 258 aircraft in 2022, just shy of 300 in 2023, and is targeting closer to 350 deliveries in 2024.

“Our output has increased substantially, both new aircraft we’ve increased quite a bit and then also in overhaul kits and the field support, but we keep getting orders and it’s driving us nuts,” Kurt Robinson said. This presents a bottleneck for near-term growth in China and India in particular.

“Problem number one is we have a backlog that’s far enough out to where even if I wanted to give them aircraft, they have a long line to wait in,” Smith said. “So ramping production is a necessary element of any of these growth plans.”

Like all OEMs, RHC has struggled with the widespread staffing and supply chain issues that ensued in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Although the acute shortages have eased considerably, the company has recently seen more quality issues from suppliers, some of those attributable to the retirement of experienced personnel.

“These are components that you’re used to getting for years and years, but suddenly you’re finding problems with them and you’re rejecting more parts and you have to be more vigilant,” Robinson said. “When you call the vendors, they’ll tell you, ‘Well yeah, I had a key person there but they retired on me or I lost these people.’”

He noted that the situation appears to be stabilizing as new hires get up to speed. “I think that mirrors what we’ve seen,” Smith added. “We’ve been able to staff pretty successfully last 12 months, and now we are just getting past the training stage with some of our employees that were hired during that ramp. So we’re seeing improvements in quality in our work in-house, but it is still the beginning of hopefully building 20- to 30-year employees.”

RHC currently has around 1,100 employees and is aiming to double its headcount and output as it grows in the years to come, Robinson said. He confirmed that the company has new investors supporting ambitious growth plans, but they have chosen to remain unnamed for now.

Although Robinson is stepping down from the role of president and CEO, he won’t be stepping away entirely, as he will transition to an advisory role and remain on the company’s board of directors.

“One of the great things that we’ve got with this type of setup is Kurt lives local, he’s on the board. There will still be a lot of involvement and support,” Smith said. “We have a lot of involvement from folks that have seen what Robinson’s journey has been like the last 30 or 50 years and that helps set us up better for these major growths and changes the industry has ahead of it.”

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