Nobody has done more for the helicopter industry than Frank Robinson. The founder of Robinson Helicopter Company follows in the footsteps of Stanley Hiller Jr. and Arthur Middleton Young, believing that helicopters aren’t the toys of tycoons but useful tools for pilots of all classifications. Today, “Birdman,” as Robinson is known in industry circles, has built one of the most successful aviation companies in America.
Robinson was born in the state of Washington in 1930. He grew up during the Great Depression, and worked his way through college washing dishes, driving a cab and even doing a stint in the Merchant Marines. He graduated from the University of Washington in 1957 with a BS in mechanical engineering, and did graduate work in aeronautical engineering at the University of Wichita.
He worked at nearly every major helicopter manufacturer in the U.S., starting with Cessna in 1957, where he worked on the CH-1 Skyhook. He spent a year at Umbaugh working on its gyroplane and nearly five years at McCullough Motor Company doing design studies on low-cost rotorcraft. He was deemed a tail rotor expert during his term in research and development at Bell Helicopter. In 1969, he went to Hughes Helicopter Company to work on a variety of projects including a “quiet helicopter” program.
Robinson had his own concept, however, for a small, low-cost “personal” helicopter. Unable to interest any of his former employers, he founded his manufacturing company in 1973. The first R22 prototype was designed at his home and built in a hangar at Torrance Airport. It received its FAA type certificate in 1979 and first deliveries came the same year.
Today, Robinson’s R22 and R44 are the world’s most popular helicopters. By unit, they outsell competing products from Bell, Sikorsky, Eurocopter and Schweizer. Since 1987, RHC has produced more civil helicopters than any other manufacturer. Robinson oversees a staff of about 900 employees and still focuses much of his time on engineering, design and development.
“Keeping it simple in as many ways as you can is the secret of success,” Robinson says of the company’s triumphs.
He’s been widely lauded for his achievements with awards from Aviation Week & Space Technology, the American Helicopter Society and the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. He also gives a lot back to the industry that inspired him. His one million dollar donation to the University of Washington supports students from South Whidbey High School, where he grew up, and he has also donated significantly to the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum and the American Helicopter Museum in Westchester, Penn.
“I think there are a lot people who are like I am, who think that planes aren’t as much fun to fly as helicopters,” Robinson says. “I’d rather fly cross-country in a helicopter; you can get real low if you want and see everything. That’s not going to happen in a plane.”