People build their own aircraft for all sorts of reasons, but high on the list is a desire for a machine you just can’t buy from a factory. And that’s exactly why Frank Robinson built his own helicopter. And that was 10,000 Robinson helicopters ago.
Frank worked for several helicopter manufacturers, including the biggies of Bell, Hughes, and Kaman. He was also at Cessna when the company created the Skyhook, a helicopter of unprecedented performance and flying qualities. The Skyhook was so stable that it earned single-pilot IFR approval without an autopilot or artificial stability system, which was a first, and as far as I know, is the only helicopter so approved.
But the Skyhook was done in by unreliability of a brand new engine design from Continental. Power failure caused tragic crashes and Cessna bought back the Skyhooks it had delivered and destroyed them. I have heard that a Skyhook remains at the Army’s aviation museum at Ft. Rucker, Alabama, which would make it the one and only.
As helicopter technology matured the major makers focused on building ever larger, more powerful machines – and much more expensive, too – because the military market was far and away the most significant. The other large market segment was for utility use such as servicing offshore oil rigs, or lifting stuff on slings. The potential market for a personal helicopter was simply ignored by everybody except Frank.
When Frank couldn’t convince any established helicopter manufacturer to consider a small, low-cost personal aircraft he quit his job at Hughes in 1973 and set out to build such a helicopter himself. His vision was for a lightweight, two-seat helicopter that would cost about same as a basic piston single-engine airplane and would have a life between overhauls of 2,000 hours.
Frank worked out of a dilapidated shack on Torrance Airport in Southern California to build the first R-22. The design was his own, and so was much of the original parts manufacturing. Legend has it that he “baked” tail rotor blades in the oven in his kitchen at home to cure them. The R-22 was in every respect a homebuilt of original design – except that from the beginning Frank intended to put his helicopter into production.
In less than two years Frank had the R-22 flying. But it took three and a half more years of flight and structural testing to convince the FAA to certify the machine for production. Frank did all of the development test flying, too. The FAA put Frank under the microscope just as they would any homebuilder who wants to certify his creation.
In 1979 Robinson Helicopter company delivered its first R-22, and it quickly became the best-selling helicopter in the world. The little R-22 was immediately accepted into the training business, but also was a hit with individuals, particularly internationally. From the beginning Robinson helicopters exported many, and in most years, a majority of its helicopters.
As you would expect, the ride was not smooth for a guy with the audacity to create his own helicopter company. Early on there were a couple of main rotor blade failures that almost put the company under. Frank found the cause of the failure, changed production procedures, and the company was saved.
The R-22 accident rate in pilot training was unacceptably high, so Frank asked the FAA for a special rule that would require instructors to have minimum amounts of experience in the R-22 before flying with students. It worked. The accident record fell. He also created a Robinson pilot school and signed up an insurance underwriter to cover only those pilots who attended the factory school. The safety record improved further.
By 1993 Robinson was delivering the four-seat R-44, a grown up version of the R-22 that was also entirely Frank’s design. And just last year the company delivered its first turbine powered model, the R-66. And Frank was a principal test pilot, as well as creator, for each model.
Years ago the name on an aircraft manufacturer’s hangar belonged to an individual who had the skill and vision to create successful airplanes. Those companies grew into large operations where no one named Beech, or Boeing, or Cessna, actually designed and flew new aircraft. But Robinson is different. There is a person who, with his own hands, created helicopters that would outsell all others.
Frank is now retired and has entered his 80s, and the next Robinson model will not come totally from his own vision and experience, but what a legacy – 10,000 helicopters – to homebuilding he has created. When no company would build what he knew would succeed, he did it himself.