In an industry that almost seems to pride itself on its ability to lose money doing just about anything, Frank Robinson is thriving in one of its toughest niches. Last year Robinson Helicopter's R44 model was the best-selling nonmilitary helo in the world. No. 2? The Robinson R22. All told, Robinson outsells all other North American manufacturers put together. Close to 6,000 Robinson helos sit on flight lines around the world -- an astounding figure considering that a run a tenth that size is more than enough to make an aircraft a bestseller.
Robinson spent the 1960s as an engineer for Bell and Hughes and other makers of multimillion-dollar helicopters, trying along the way to interest one of them in his vision for a reliable "personal" helicopter affordable for flight schools, small businesses, and even individuals. In 1973 he gave up and decided to go out on his own, founding Robinson Helicopter in his living room. The R22 prototype was flying two years later, and when the production model was introduced it quickly broke all records for small- helicopter performance. Sales took off.
The appeal wasn't so much the R22's low price tag -- at about $125,000, it was the first helo that could compete on price with a small airplane -- as it was the machine's reliability and ease of maintenance. Unlike airplanes, helicopters rely on staggeringly complex gearboxes to cushion the engine from the large and rapidly varying forces on the rotor blades. This complexity translates to a need for frequent maintenance, along with high operating costs and high failure rates. Robinson slashed the number of parts in the power train by about a third, making simpler, airplanelike maintenance possible. For even better reliability, he tinkered with the designs of everything from rotating hydraulic valves to the pilot's control bar. And unlike other manufacturers, he insisted on making most parts in-house, where he could demand millionth-of-an-inch tolerances.
But accident rates in his helicopters were still too high. The problem, reckoned Robinson, was that the Federal Aviation Administration was making it too easy for airplane flight instructors to become helicopter instructors, leading to legions of poorly trained pilots. "Airplane pilots have exactly the wrong reactions in emergency situations," says Robinson. "It's easier to teach someone off the sidewalk to fly helicopters safely than it is an airplane pilot." So he lobbied the FAA to quadruple the minimum number of hours of training needed to get an instructor's license, as well as double the hours before a pilot could solo. Still dissatisfied, he started a safety course that has become the gold standard of helo training, open to all pilots -- today it has a five-month waiting list and is required by most helicopter insurers.
At 75, Robinson seems to be just getting warmed up. To increase market share even more, he has brought out specially designed and equipped helos aimed at lucrative niches such as newsgathering and law enforcement. About 1,000 employees are now turning out 15 or so R22s and R44s each week at Robinson's plant, for customers in more than 60 countries. Sales were up 50% to record-setting levels in each of the past two years. "And we might do even better this coming year," says Robinson. The lesson here? Safety might not be so bad for profitability after all. And when a smart engineer tells you he has a vision, listen up.
David H. Freedman