When an engineer proposes a truly new solution to an entrenched problem, a chorus of naysayers inevitably arises from the midst of any nods of appreciation. The FAA, in fact, has produced processes for accepting such departures from common thinking—often found under the “alternate means of compliance” route in aircraft certification—but those manufacturers that have pursued such paths to certification can certainly expect pushback from the crowd. If you consider this for a moment, that pushback often means either the company is genuinely headed down the garden path or it’s onto something truly different that’s never been done before.
Frank Robinson was a child of the Great Depression. While not necessarily a condition to determine either success or failure, the environment experienced by his generation caused many to fall prey to resignation because of forces beyond their control. Still, in a fortunate number, the tough circumstances bred a determination to fight past them. To distill a worthy résumé down to its watershed moment in 1973, Robinson resigned from the last of his roles as an aerospace engineer for others (among them: Cessna Aircraft Company, Bell Helicopter and Hughes Helicopter Company), and set out on his quest to design and bring to life a low-cost, approachable rotorcraft to the flying public. It was a wide-open space, and Frank charged right in. As a result, if you’re learning to fly helicopters today, you’re overwhelmingly more likely to learn in a Robinson than any other ship on the market.
As we stood out on the ramp following our walk through the factory, Kurt Robinson, Frank’s son, gestured across Torrance’s runways to the building that once housed the company’s original factory—once Frank had moved headquarters from the family home in nearby Palos Verdes. Frank is no longer involved in the daily operations of the business after retirement 10 years ago; Kurt assumed the role of president in August 2010 and provides the vision for Robinson moving forward.
The company now produces the single-engine piston R22 Beta II, R44 Cadet and Raven II, and the turbine- powered R66 models, with a variety of versions fine-tuned to specific missions, such as law enforcement and news reporting. Unique to the series are several features designed to make the helicopters less expensive to acquire and operate, easier to enter and exit, and more likely to teach the student rigorous aircraft control than others in their class.
Most notable when you first enter the cockpit are the flight controls, which take the form of a T-bar rather than the common floor-mounted cyclic stick. The design allows for control of the aircraft from both the left and right seats—meaning instructors can orchestrate some control even with the bar angled to the right (the normal pilot-in-command position in most helicopters).
The Robinson series also features a low-inertia rotor design, with a semi-rigid, two-blade main rotor and a tail-mounted, two-blade anti-torque rotor. Low rotor rpm is always a concern for rotorcraft pilots, but it takes on special importance for those of the Robinson series aircraft. More on that a bit later.
The R22 Beta II is powered by a derated Lycoming O-320-J2A, which normally produces 160 hp but was walked back—or derated—by the company for a number of reasons. A derated engine isn’t working as hard, so it tends to last a bit longer, all other factors considered. Plus, by derating the engine’s performance at sea level, the helicopter maintains the same performance at altitude—ostensibly reducing the hazard of high-density-altitude operations, especially for low-time pilots.
Over the years, a multitude of features have been added to the aircraft, such as the crashworthy bladder fuel tanks now available on the R22 Beta II, R44 models and R66. The safety improvements generally reflect a balance between keeping costs in line and implementing the latest upgrades. However, on the upper end of the model range, a wide variety of the latest glass-panel navigators and other avionics are available.
The price of an R22 starts at $304,000 with basic standard equipment, a figure that makes it more than competitive with new, entry-level Part 23 airplanes. The R44 Raven II begins at $481,000, and the R66 is at $906,000. With such relatively low costs of acquisition, along with operating costs that average $100 per hour less than others in the class, the R22 and R44 have been extremely popular with flight schools.
However, one vital parameter to factor into the ownership equation when investing in a Robinson goes back to the overarching philosophy of commitment Frank instilled. The aircraft comes in for a planned factory (or service center) overhaul at 2,200 hours, or 12 years. The factory overhaul isn’t cheap—it runs from $160,000 for the R22 Beta II and $247,000 for the R44 Raven II to $326,000 for the R66—but the result is a nearly as-good-as-new helicopter on the other side.
Kurt doesn’t apologize for this; on the contrary, he sees it, as you might guess, as a benefit to both the customer and company. “The overhauls done at the factory are more extensive than field overhauls [because] the aircraft and engine are completely torn down, inspected and reassembled on the production line—including new paint and interiors—and essentially come out looking like new aircraft.” It’s another aspect of the control exercised on the helicopter’s life: to bring a ship back to home base and put it through an extensive tear-down and rebuild under the same level of supervision in which it was built.
A Mature Company
In order to mitigate any negatives that might have arisen from Robinson’s unique design, both Frank and Kurt—and the Robinson leadership—have opted for control, which plays well into the rotor-pilot psyche, where absolute attention to detail is critical in most every flight regime. The fact that the company has fared well into its maturity speaks to the success of this effort.
Paramount to this good outcome is the pilot’s education and training, and Robinson’s mission in mentoring its pilots and owners takes the form of regular safety programming available year-round at the factory in Torrance. The company implemented the Robinson Pilot Safety Course in 1982 to address the relatively high rate of accidents suffered in instructional operations using the R22. They felt that instructors experienced in heavier helicopters failed to transition well to the much-lighter, more sensitive-on-the-controls Robinson. The training also disseminated critical education following the Special Federal Aviation Regulation 73 under Part 61 issued by the FAA in 1995, which required awareness training specified in the document from a qualified instructor also authorized under SFAR 73.
Today, company safety officer and instructor Tim Tucker leads the charge, and more than 22,000 pilots have completed the manufacturer’s course. Tucker, who serves on the US Helicopter Safety Team, also worked with the FAA during its most recent revision of the Helicopter Flying Handbook. Kurt says: “We’re promoting the safety, and looking at it, we’ve got almost 13,000 aircraft flying. This is what we see, this is what we hear. We tell all the pilots in the course, ‘We just want you to know what we know.’”
Kurt speaks from his own experience as a pilot of the value of the safety course, which includes 1½ hours of flight over the course of its 3½ days. “You know as a pilot that, OK, you’ve learned it, you passed the test, but do you know it? Do you really know it? Can you really apply it? Can you really feel that shake and that vibration and understand that, hey, I might have a low-rotor-rpm situation here?” During the course, pilots fly with a Robinson flight instructor who goes through all of the emergency maneuvers, including the low-rpm recovery, all of the things that you should know. It started out as a course for instructors but spread to owners and others who wanted to benefit from it, so Robinson kept growing the program to fit the demand.
The Production Process
The first R22 prototype flew in August 1975, and the model received its initial FAA type certification in March 1979. That TC was revoked in 1981 following the delamination of a main rotor blade that had suffered contamination during the bonding process at an outside vendor. To correct the problem, Robinson instituted a more stringent quality-control process, fixed the main rotor blades on the 33 aircraft in the fleet at the time, and started on the road to bringing more and more of the processes and parts production under its control. Today, the company manufactures 80 percent of the parts used on its helicopters in-house—with the notable exceptions being the engines and avionics.
The investment to produce such a high percentage of parts in-house is exemplified through acquisition of steadily advancing CNC machines, including those utilizing water-jet cutting action. The machines use pure cold water (sometimes with the addition of abrasives for particularly hard materials) to precisely cut complex shapes. The adaptability of the machines to produce a variety of parts increases their cost-effectiveness. We watched the process during our visit and found it mesmerizing.
To visualize how the production process works at Robinson, we can follow a critical—and quite beautiful—component of the helicopter, the main rotor-blade root fitting (whether from the R22, R44 or R66), from its initial aluminum forging through to its final assembly as one component of the rotor blade.
At the beginning, and following its inspection, the raw forging gets a rough cut (that doesn’t look rough at all) into the first shape intended for the completed part. Based on the size of the final rotor, a raw forging is manufactured for each aircraft blade. The smaller parts for the R22 scale up to those for the R44, with the largest reserved for the R66. The piece undergoes a second and third cutting and polishing, using standard CNC milling machines.
Each step undergoes its own quality control, and the pieces move in batches—or “lots,” usually in quantities of 50 or 100 pieces—through the process. After testing and a final check of quality, the completed root fitting is ready to be assembled and bonded along with all of the other blade components into a raw blade. Following final assembly, the blades are finished, painted and put in racks, stacked up and ready for placement on the hub according to the next orders in sequence.
Followers of the lean-manufacturing philosophy and practice may be momentarily aghast at the inventory on the factory floor, but Robinson feels that having those parts ready to go—and completely under their supervision throughout the entire process—is a good tradeoff for the costs sunk into the materials and labor consumed. Having the inventory also means the company can respond quickly to Aircraft-on-Ground requests and keep its customers flying by shipping out any required parts.
So, what’s it like to operate a modern aerospace manufacturing plant in Southern California? Kurt points out, “I breathe the air too,” regarding his attitude toward the parameters necessary to work within the state’s business environment. He notes that, for 18 years, he lived within a 15 minute walk of the plant on the airport. His investment as a local feels personal and committed—and appears to have paid off with in a good partnership with the city of Torrance and the airport’s neighbors. He casts the relationship as opposite the situation at Santa Monica, which he talks about with regret. The company continuously works toward being a good neighbor. “We’ve been operating at this airport forever, and you’d be stunned at how few noise complaints we get, though we operate every day,” he says. “That’s because we have very strict procedures for our pilots and how they operate.”
Robinson understands too that certain environmentally friendly adaptations to the facilities have commercial benefits. One example: skylights. About 90 percent of the time, the daylight illuminates the manufacturing floor without more than supplemental artificial lights, according to Robinson. Not only does this save on energy costs, but the natural light feels better for those in the building. A lot of employees have been here 25 years, with Kurt noting that generations often work together and in succession.
A pet concept of Frank’s that Robinson carries forward through to this day is bringing rotor flight to more people with better, close-to-home access. Over the company’s 40-plus years, different ideas have sprung to life to help solve the problem of access now that Robinson seems to have answered the affordability question.
During our visit, several Robinson team members anticipated the uptick in visits they would see—both from customers and prospects—as a result of Helicopter Association International’s annual convention, which ran from January 27 to 30 this year in Anaheim. One concept the company was in the midst of preparing to debut at HAI: an elevated landing pad, which could be installed in residential or industrial areas that normally wouldn’t have room for such a platform. To demonstrate the idea, company pilot Scot Woolums landed the subject ship from our photo shoot—a brand-new R66—on the platform, with an employee’s Ford Mustang parked underneath. The promotional photo tucked into a real-estate brochure for a fly-in community was easy to visualize.
But for Kurt, the appeal of flying takes him far from the Los Angeles Basin and those urban corridors where helicopters see such utility. “To me, the most fun flying is getting out of the cities and [getting into] the middle of nowhere,” he says. “That’s always the fun thing where you land, and you’re like, ‘I wonder if anyone has ever even been here.’” Now, with satcom devices you can put in your pocket, the prospect of getting out there remotely has an additional level of safety—and looks to be expanding.
There’s yet another much-needed change that Kurt looks to in the industry. “What I do think will be a big advancement for the helicopters? What’s been missing is single-engine IFR helicopters.” That certification will open up new areas of safety and utility for the fleet, but the regulatory structure needs to catch up in order to achieve this. In 1999, the FAA changed its policies to follow much-stricter guidelines for the certification of a single-engine helicopter to operate under IFR. The old regs include weather-station and facility requirements that do not take into consideration the advancements in avionics, weather reporting, and other tools that have greatly increased the capability on board a given helicopter and accessible to the pilot.
Will the drive toward urban-air mobility force the issue? Perhaps. No plausible solution for VTOLs would be workable under VFR-only conditions. But Kurt feels there will long be a pilot in that mix—for many of the same safety reasons he’s committed to promoting the Robinson Pilot Safety Course. “You still want a pilot on board who can take control and who can use their judgment. Really, what we really push on everybody is judgment. I have no idea what kind of a pilot you are, you’re the only one who knows. And you have to [acknowledge] that, and you have to set your limits, and you need to do that now, while you’re on the ground, before you go up.”
The commitment with which Frank Robinson founded the company more than four decades ago endures, with industry veterans Flying interviewed confirming one assessment: There wouldn’t be a private pilot helicopter industry if it wasn’t for Robinson. That legacy looks poised to continue.
First Rotor Lesson: Learning to fly in the R22
It’s natural to find the differences between your preflight of a helicopter and that of an airplane, but the similarities leapt out at me soon after I started into my first lesson on the Robinson R22 Beta. For this 30-plus-year fixed-wing pilot, the rotorcraft transition has always been a little further down my bucket list than a seaplane rating or a new jet type. Now, I’m not so sure.
Neal Lanning—instructor, examiner and part owner of Advanced Helicopter Concepts in Frederick, Maryland—started off my lesson by pointing out that the engine we were looking at was essentially the same Lycoming O-320 I’d seen on many singles over my tenure (just derated and really exposed for easy inspection). After checking, among other things, the engine-, gear- and transmission-oil levels and the all-important pair of V-belts—which translate the engine’s power to the main rotor—we moved onto the before-start checklist in the cabin.
I sat in the right seat—pilot-in-command position for most helicopters—which felt normal to me from my instructing background. After engine start, the similarities ended for a while as Lanning engaged the clutch and the main rotor began to turn.
Over in the practice area, the infield between runways at the Frederick Municipal Airport, Lanning walked me through the flight controls. First, those pedals on the floor in front of me. They looked like rudder pedals, and the general action is the same, but their function is very different because they regulate the anti-torque tail rotor on the empennage. The yoke-shaped cyclic control unique to the R22 gives the instructor the ability to fly from the left seat and stay on the controls while the student practices. That’s a very good thing, indeed, because my first shot at hovering came next.
I can think of quite a few humbling moments in my aviation career, and from friends who’ve gone through the transition, I expected hovering to rank high among them—and even more so in an R22 because its handling is on the sensitive end of the range. I knew this going in—and still managed to overcorrect and “fall out” from the hover many times before just starting to get the hang of the inputs needed. It helps if you think in the direction you want to go, anticipating rather than correcting and avoiding any sizable displacement of the stick.
With the collective now in hand, we worked on forward motion, picking up speed, then climbing out of the traffic pattern to sample flight at the nosebleed altitude of 900 feet msl. That altitude kept us well below the fixed-wing traffic, and we left the airport vicinity to try cruising for a bit. In this regime, I felt back in a similar place, with a stick in hand, flying a Citabria or the like. I loved looking at the city below from such a low angle—the perspective that’s only fleeting in an airplane, unless you’re in trouble or engaging in untoward low-altitude maneuvers.
When it was time to return to the pattern, we kept well inside and below the airplanes approaching the airport. Lanning took the controls to demonstrate the other maneuver that had held a bit of trepidation for me—the autorotation. However, once the autorotation is practiced and smoothed out, it’s the standard emergency procedure that an engine-failure simulation becomes for airplane pilots, or a rope-break exercise for glider pilots.
Back on the pavement, I stepped out over the skids with the joy still lingering on my face. Another facet of aviation to savor and challenge me, the rotorcraft rating just moved up my life checklist a few notches.
An Ascending Need
Hillsboro Aero Academy has truly been there from the beginning, when it comes to the R22. “Our history is their history,” says Jared Friend, general manager and chief instructor for the organization. Launched in 1980, the school began with one R22 and has built its fleet to 19 R22s and 2 R44s that it uses in year-round training at its base in Troutdale, Oregon. “We work very closely with Robinson, growing up with them through the years.”
Friend began with Hillsboro Aviation in 2005, and he served as the company’s safety manager during part of his tenure. In 2014, Hillsboro became the first helicopter-training organization to gain the International Standard for Business Aircraft Operations accreditation. Fitting in with the safety culture promoted in tandem with Robinson makes a lot of sense.
Hillsboro counts roughly 100 students on its current roster, which is lower than average. Friend attributes this to the shortage of pilots on the fixed-wing side. “There’s a bit of a vacuum on the rotor side, with operators hurting for pilots,” he says. The good news? Full-program financing is back on the horizon for students making the transition or initial certification. Jobs are readily available in several different sectors for those graduates, like Joey Meddock, completing the program.
Meddock’s relationship with helicopters started in a bold fashion, as he stood (in a harness) on the skid of one flying into position over the ocean, wielding cameras for a watersports photo shoot. When he sought a career change, flying rotorcraft drew him in because of that potential for adventure, along with the fact that he knew he wouldn’t get airsick, given his background. “I’m always looking to do something new, something outside,” he says.
As of early 2020, he’s finishing up his commercial pilot course at Hillsboro and is serving as their social media coordinator. He credits the 12- to 15-month training program with getting him to his goal. “It was pretty quick considering what you’re rewarded with on the back side,” Meddock says.
He advises those looking to start into a rotorcraft-pilot course to begin their education before showing up for the first lesson. “For someone with zero aviation background, it was daunting,” he says, referring to the concepts, terms and acronyms required to absorb before understanding can occur. “Now I’m always ready, always trying to educate myself.” That’s why he enjoys working at the academy. “Being surrounded by like-minded people…and hearing the instructors explain things in a different way” has increased his understanding.
As for the flying part? “I’ll never forget my first time learning to hover,” he says. “It’s humbling. Even on a perfectly calm day. There was one day when it kind of clicked, rather than overthinking, overcorrecting.” He also suggests a geography lesson if you’re training in a location that’s new to you. “Know the terrain, know the area.” Because as a helicopter pilot, you’ll need an intimate familiarity with that terrain—to be sure.
This story appeared in the March 2020 issue of Flying Magazine