Robinson Helicopter Founder Retires

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The man who made certified helicopters reasonably affordable is retiring, although a little later than he intended. Frank Robinson, whose piston-powered R22 and R44 helicopters are the best sellers in their class worldwide, had hoped to retire on his 80th birthday last January. Instead, he turned the company's direction over to his son Kurt on Aug. 10. "I felt I needed to keep myself available to handle a lot of management concerns," he told the Los Angeles Times. He also wanted to see the completion of the R66 turbine-powered model.

The Robinson story is one of those increasingly rare tales of a bootstraps entrepreneur who ends up being a world leader in his field. Robinson was an engineer working for other helicopter companies when, in 1973, he saw the need for a safe, reliable and affordable light helicopter. The two-place R22, whose prototype was built in Robinson's garage, is the best-selling helicopter in the world and a mainstay of the training industry. The four-place R44 is not far behind and is an increasing popular news-gathering and law-enforcement platform. It was not an easy journey and Robinson is the first to admit the company was on the brink of failure in the early years. "We tend to refer to all those years as the dark years," Robinson said. "It was touch and go whether the company could survive."