Franklin D. Robinson, godfather of popular helicopters, passed away

On 12th November this year, the world of aviation was struck by the news that Franklin Davis Robinson, originator of one of the most popular and successful families of helicopters in the world, had sadly passed away.

Franklin Davis Robinson was born on 14th January 1930 in Carbonado, Washington, USA. The fascination with helicopters, in their future designer, was sparked in 1939, when then nine-year-old Frank saw a picture of Igor Sikorsky and his VS-300 rotorcraft in the Seattle Post Intelligencer newspaper.

In 1957, Robinson graduated with the degree of Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Washington. Shortly thereafter, he began graduate work as an aeronautical engineer at the University of Wichita.

The first aerospace company Franklin Robinson worked for – yet in 1957 – was Cessna Aircraft Company, with which he was involved in development of CH-1 Skyhook helicopter. After three and a half years, Robinson moved on to Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation, where he spent a year on certification of Umbaugh U-17 prototype helicopter.

Then, Robinson joined McCulloch Aircraft Corporation, where for four and a half years he was involved in designing the company’s inexpensive lightweight helicopters. Later, he also worked for Kaman Aircraft for one year, being involved in development of a gyrodyne-type rotorcraft. At Bell Helicopter company, where he spent two further years, Robinson became known as ‘tail rotor expert’.

Frank Robinson, Founder of Robinson Helicopters, in October 2010 (photo by Waerfelu, Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0)

In 1969, Robinson joined another well-known helicopter company, Hughes Helicopters. There, he was involved in a variety of research and projects, including development of a new tail rotor for Hughes 500 helicopters, and ‘The Quiet One’ programme. The project was focused on creating a helicopter, finally known as OH-6A Loach. It was a modified, quieter version of the already popular OH-6 military rotorcraft, however this time intended for CIA and famous Air America airlines to perform classified missions during the Vietnam War.

In 1973, unable to convince any of his then co-workers to the idea of a small, lightweight, personal helicopter, Franklin Robinson left Hughes Helicopter. Later that year, he founded his own aerospace enterprise, Robinson Helicopter Company (RHC) with its seat in Torrance, California. In a few years, the company became one of the most recognised helicopter manufacturers in the world.

A small, two-seat helicopter designated R-22 was the first rotorcraft designed by the Robinson’s company. Its first prototype was built in a hangar at Torrance Airport and made its first flight in August 1975, being piloted by no one other than Franklin Robinson himself. In 1979, the helicopter went into serial production and then hit the market.

In the 1980s, Franklin Robinson and his engineering team at RHC began work on another helicopter, the slightly larger and already four-seat R44. On 31st March 1990, that new rotorcraft took-off into the air for the first time. Production of the Robinson R44 began in 1992, and the helicopter was introduced to the market in the beginning of the following year. It is just that rotorcraft that became, so to speak, the true flagship aircraft of the Robinson Helicopter Company.

Robinson R-44 Raven I

On 10th August 2010, Franklin Robinson announced his resignation as President and Chairman of the company he founded. It is interesting to note that he was going to retire in January, on the day of his eightieth birthday. Eventually, he decided to postpone his retirement until completion of development of the next helicopter, designated R66 and being the first and only turbine engine-powered Robinson rotorcraft. With the R66 receiving FAA certification and subsequently entering serial production, the Robinson Helicopter Company founder took a well-deserved retirement. By decision of the Board of Directors, the functions previously held by Franklin Robinson were taken over by his son, Kurt Robinson, who continues to hold them to this day.

Franklin Davis Robinson enjoyed a well-deserved retirement for another twelve years. Regrettably, one of the most recognizable helicopter pioneers in the world passed away peacefully at his home in Rolling Hills, California, on 12th November 2022, at the age of 92.

With his company, Franklin Robinson was the vision-driven pioneer and aerospace engineer who defined and shaped the general aviation helicopter industry. The rotorcraft created and developed by Robinson Helicopter Company have gained extraordinary worldwide popularity because of their simplicity, reliability and broad versatility. To date, the company has sold over 13,000 examples of the R22, R44 and R66 helicopters. They can be found at airfields and heliports in basically all regions of the world.

The list of awards and honours Franklin Robinson received for his contribution to aviation and the global helicopter industry is a very impressive one. The most notable honours include Igor I. Sikorsky International Trophy – American Helicopter Society (1990 & 1991); Laurels Award – Aviation Week & Space Technology (1992); The Doolittle Award – Society of Experimental Test Pilots (1997); Named Laurels Hall of Fame Legends – Aviation Week & Space Technology (2000); Howard Hughes Memorial Award – Southern California Aeronautic Association (2004); Cierve Lecturer – Royal Aeronautical Society (2010); Inducted into the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (2011); Lifetime Aviation Engineering Award – Living Legends of Aviation (2011) and Daniel Guggenheim Medal – AHS International (2013).