In 1973, Frank Robinson was a single father raising three children when he quit his job to pursue the dream of designing and manufacturing an affordable personal helicopter. Today, Robinson Helicopter Company is the world’s most prolific producer of civilian helicopters. What began with one engineer working at his kitchen table has evolved into 1,200 employees working in a 480,000-square-foot plant in Torrance, California. At 76, Robinson pilots one of his own helicopters almost every day. He spoke with freelance writer Mark Huber last August.
A&S: What sparked your interest in helicopters?
Robinson: I was nine years old when I saw a newspaper picture of a Sikorsky VS-300 prototype hovering. I was intrigued that someone could make a machine that could stand motionless in the air. When I entered college [Robinson studied mechanical engineering at the University of Washington and did graduate work in aeronautical engineering at the University of Wichita], I took courses that would help me design a personal helicopter. When I got out of college in 1957, I joined Cessna as a flight engineer because they were making a small personal helicopter called the Skyhook. The Skyhook turned out to be a very sophisticated machine — in my view because Cessna wanted to get Army money — and in my view that was a mistake. It created reliability problems.
A&S: When did you decide to build your own helicopter?
Robinson: I started working on it before I graduated from college and kept at it while I worked for other companies. I bought machine tools and riveting equipment and set up workshops in my basement or garage, where I did a lot of experimenting. I was married at that time and it always created a bit of conflict — whether to spend money on an engine lathe or new drapes for the house. I continued to pitch the idea of a small, two-seat personal helicopter at just about every company I worked for, but I could never convince them. They were making a lot of money building large, expensive, and overpriced helicopters for the military. I was working on the Apache program at Hughes in 1973 when I decided to leave. That was the start of the dark years.
A&S:Why have you stuck with piston engines when just about every other helicopter manufacturer uses turbines?
Robinson: If I were building a high-performance military helicopter, hell, I’d put a turbine in it because you don’t care about costs. But for private use, piston engines have all the advantages: low costs, low operating expenses, and low fuel consumption. They have never been able to build a small, lightweight turbine that is as fuel efficient as a piston engine. A lot of people were exchanging [turbine engine] Bell JetRangers for our helicopters even before fuel prices went crazy.