Robinson Helicopter Company founder Frank Robinson passed away on Saturday at his home in Rolling Hills, California. He was 92 years old. In addition to founding the company, Robinson is known for designing and manufacturing the R22, R44 and R66 helicopter models. Over the course of his life, he received awards and honors including the Daniel Guggenheim Medal, Lifetime Aviation Engineering Award, Howard Hughes Memorial Award and the Doolittle Award.
“On November 12, 2022 Robinson Helicopter Company bid a final farewell to its founder, Frank Robinson,” the company said. “One of the most recognizable names in the helicopter industry, Frank Robinson was a pioneer, a man not driven by reward or accolades but by a vision that redefined the industry and forever changed general aviation.”
Robinson was born in 1930 in Carbonado, Washington. He held a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (BSME) from the University of Washington and attended Wichita State University’s aeronautical engineering graduate school. After working for companies including Bell and Hughes, he founded Robinson Helicopter Company in 1973. The company, which has delivered over 13,000 helicopters to date, handed off its first production helicopter in October 1979. Robinson Helicopter Company, from which Robinson retired in 2010, is currently under the leadership of his son, Kurt.
These great men risked all to develop aircraft during the Depression, Wars, Booms and Busts. When their name was on the product, it was imperative that the aircraft they designed and produced were of good quality, reliable and safe. These newfangled, carbonated jobs display conglomerate logos and acronyms on their airframes. Clyde Cessna should be barrel rolling in his grave.
I was fortunate to hear this remarkable man speak at a Royal Aeronautical Society lecture in London. He even graciously answered a question from me. He changed the lives of many thousands of people by introducing them to helicopters, by making them light and simple. The R22 weighed half of the Enstrom I learned on – and it burned half of the fuel. His designs were a game-changer. Such engineering giants don’t come around often – I think he is up there with the best.
Definitely one of the aviation greats, job well done sir. RIP.
RIP – a true innovator.
I’ll never forget meeting Frank for the first time in Miami at the HAI helicopter symposium in 1993. I was a ground systems tech for the FAA but flew helicopters for fun. I attended the symposium and they put FAA on my symposium badge. And I didn’t give it a second thought. Seeing all the new helicopters as a pilot I was like a kid in the candy store jumping from helicopter to helicopter.
I came upon the Robinson helicopter display and saw for the first time the R44 helicopter. I looked at the guy standing at the new helicopter and asked if I could take a look? I quickly began opening panels asking about a specific bearing in the drive system. The guy at the display said, you know quite a bit about these helicopters. I explained that only a couple years earlier I had to crash land one in Washington DC when the drive tension bearing burned up in flight.
There is a procedure to check these bearings before flight with a temp sensing strip and a warning light when the tension system is activated. The belts may need tensioning during flight and will activate momentarily. But, if it comes on for more than 6 seconds (now changed to ten seconds) it means the bearing is gone and you need to land immediately if not sooner. This bearing on the R22 is right next to the fuel tanks. When the bearing goes, it is metal to metal and glowing red hot quickly.
The run on autorotation was uneventful and we exited and ran from the helicopter before the rotors stopped. In our minds we knew what was happing and didn’t want to be in a helicopter when it explodes.
I told this story to the guy standing at the display with enthusiasm. Pointing at the bear involved and asked… I see more belts have been added and this bearing looks different, What was changed? The guy standing there clearly wasn’t a sales guy. He began to tell me in detail how the bearings were now roller bearings as he looked at my badge that said FAA. I then said… wouldn’t roller bearing create more heat and fail faster? I noticed the sales guy was looking very concerned. This was R44 #1 and had just got certified by the FAA.
When I noticed he was looking at my badge I immediately explained I was just an interested pilot and my job was to maintain radars, communication, and navigation systems for the FAA, not to inspect planes. I then said I was just interested and if he could pass on the information to the engineers back at Robinson.
You see, I looked at his badge and it only showed ‘Robinson’. So naturally, I thought it was a sales guy from Robinson. No, he pointed out. You are talking to the right guy. “I’m Frank Robinson”.
Boy did I feel like a idiot. I’m trying to explain Helicopter systems to Frank Robinson, the guy who designed the helicopter. I went from smart a$$ questioning kid, to idol worshiping, thanking him for making an affordable helicopter so I could learn to fly one.
Learning to fly a helicopter is expensive… but learning in a Bell 206 was never going to happen under $50,000 back then in the late 80s. Impossible for the average guy without going into the military.
I’ve been out to the Robinson Safety school since then. Great experience.
Frank was a great influence on my my. Without him, I never would have become a commercial helicopter pilot.