A man of vision and a true aviation pioneer… remembering Frank Robinson
15 November 2022
There’s an interesting comparison to be made between the current day developers of electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing (eVTOL) aircraft and the old school way of bringing a new type of aircraft into reality. I’m thinking of Frank Robinson here, the founder and engineer behind Robinson Helicopter Company.
Frank has just died, at the age of 92, and he leaves a sound legacy – a strong company that’s delivered more than 11,000 Robinson helicopters to customers around the world, now headed up by his son Kurt, and with a modern efficient factory.
Frank worked for some top aviation companies including Cessna, Bell and Hughes, but couldn’t get any of them interested in taking up his idea of a two-seat, relatively inexpensive personal helicopter. So, he put his house on the line, left a comfortable, well-paid staff job when in his early forties, and set up his own company – in his garage.
It took him six years to bring the R22 to fruition, convincing the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) that a personal helicopter was possible and safe.
That R22 transformed the helicopter training market and was followed by the four-seat R44, still piston powered, and then, in 2010, the Rolls-Royce turbine powered R66. I was there at the Torrance, California factory in 2010 when the R66 was given its official public debut and Frank had ‘rock star’ status in the helicopter world.
By then 80, he was a difficult chap to interview one-to-one, but during the HAI Heli-Expo being held at the same time, he gave a rousing – and funny – speech to the industry.
What Frank thought of the current multi-million dollar funded eVTOL projects I don’t know. But I do know he was cautious with company time and money when it came to innovation. He wanted to be sure Bell was winding down the JetRanger before he committed to the R66 Turbine (the JetRanger being the nearest rival).
He wanted to be completely satisfied that glass cockpits had something to offer helicopter pilots before installing them.
That kind of suggests that developing an eVTOL with no firm timeline, no proven technology in any part of the airframe, power unit or energy supply (i.e., batteries), would have met with derision from the engineering focused Frank Robinson.
RIP Frank, a true aviation pioneer.