Frank Robinson was born in Washington State, the youngest of four children. He grew up in a small town during the depression and worked his way through college. He aimed his education specifically at helicopter design, receiving his BSME degree from the University of Washington in 1957, with graduate work in aeronautical engineering at the University of Wichita.
Robinson began his career in 1957 at Cessna Aircraft Company working on the CH-1 Skyhook four-place helicopter. After 31/2 years at Cessna, he spent one year at Umbaugh on the certification of its gyroplane and 41/2 years at McCulloch Motor Company doing design studies on inexpensive rotorcraft. Robinson then worked at Kaman Aircraft for one year on gyrodyne-type rotorcraft, followed by two years in R&D at Bell Helicopter where he earned a reputation as a “tail rotor expert.” In 1969, he moved to Hughes Helicopter Company to work on a variety of R&D projects, including a new tail rotor for the Hughes 500 helicopter and work on the “quiet helicopter” program.
Unable to interest any of his employers in his own concept for a small, low-cost helicopter, Robinson resigned from Hughes in 1973 and founded Robinson Helicopter Company (RHC). RHC’s first business address was Robinson’s home where the two-seat R22 helicopter was designed. The first R22 prototype was built in a tin hanger at the Torrance Airport, and Robinson himself flew it on its first flight in August 1975. After 31/2 years of testing and technical analysis, the R22 received its FAA Type Certificate in 1979. The first production R22 was delivered in late 1979, and the R22 soon became the world’s top selling civil helicopter. In addition, the R22 holds major performance records in its weight class including speed and distance.
In the mid-1980s, Robinson and his staff of engineers began development of the four-seat R44 helicopter. FAA certification was received in late 1992, and production deliveries began in 1993. By early 2001, more than 1000 R44 helicopters had been delivered in 50 countries, with the R44 becoming even more popular than the two-seat R22. Since 1987, RHC has produced more civil helicopters than any other manufacturer. As President and Chairman of RHC, Robinson oversees a staff of approximately 1200 production and management employees. Engineering, design, and development remain Robinson’s primary interests, although other management responsibilities consume much of his time.
Robinson is an experienced helicopter pilot and flies the R22 and R44 helicopters regularly for personal and business purposes, including experimental test flying. He is a full member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots and a Fellow of the American Helicopter Society. In 1991, Robinson received the Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Washington School of Engineering. In 1992, he received Aviation Week & Space Technology’s Laurels Award honoring individuals who have made “significant contributions in the global field of aerospace.” In 1993, Robinson received the helicopter industry’s highest technical honor, the Dr. Alexander Klemin Award, which is given by the American Helicopter Society for “notable achievement in the advancement of rotary wing aeronautics.” In 1997, the Society of Experimental Test Pilots selected Robinson as the recipient of its prestigious Doolittle Award for “Outstanding Professional Accomplishment in Aerospace Technical Management and Engineering.” In 1998, Robinson was named Entrepreneur of the Year in the manufacturing category for the U.S. Western Region. In 2000, Robinson was inducted into Aviation Week’s Laureates Hall of Fame as a “Laurels Legend.” In 2001, the Federation Aeronautique Internationale presented Robinson with the Paul Tissandier Diploma for his “years of contributions to the field of rotorcraft aviation.”
Having achieved much success, in 1998, Robinson donated $1 million to the University of Washington to establish an endowed tuition scholarship fund based on financial need for students graduating from South Whidbey High School, where he grew up. As a young man, it took Robinson nine years to work his way through college; he established the endowment to help other needy high school graduates from his home town pursue a college education, but who are unable to do so without financial aid. He also donated $1 million to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum and another million to the American Helicopter Museum in Westchester, Pennsylvania.
Today, Robinson remains active in his company which has concentrated on refining the R22 and R44 designs to enhance their performance and further reduce the maintenance requirements for both aircraft. Some recent product developments include rotor blades for the R22 and a more powerful, fuel injected engine for the R44.
FRANK D. ROBINSON
Awards, Honors, and Memberships
1990 Igor I. Sikorsky International Trophy American Helicopter Society
& 91 “presented to the designer or builder of a pure helicopter establishing an official world record during the preceding year in the official Class E-1 categories prescribed by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale for maximum speed, altitude, distance, or payload, speed over a closed-circuit distance, and/or around-the-world speed.”
1991 Distinguished Alumni Award University of Washington
School of Engineering
“for notable achievement in the field of engineering.”
1992 Laurels Award Aviation Week & Space Technology
“for having made significant contributions to the global field of aerospace.”
1993 Dr. Alexander Klemin Award American Helicopter Society
“for notable achievement in the advancement of rotary wing aeronautics.”
1997 The Doolittle Award Society of Experimental Test Pilots
“for outstanding professional accomplishment in Aerospace Technical Management and Engineering.”
1998 Entrepreneur of the Year Ernst & Young, et. al.
Western Region, Manufacturing
to recognize “excellence and entrepreneurial accomplishment.”
2000 Laurels Hall of Fame “Legend” Aviation Week & Space Technology
Inductees are chosen from past Laurels winners meriting exceptional recognition for “significant contributions to the global field of aerospace.”
2001 Paul Tissandier Diploma Federation Aeronautique Internationale
for “his years of contributions to the field of rotorcraft aviation.”
(Awarded to those who have served the cause of general aviation by their work, initiative, devotion, or in other ways.)
2004 Godfrey L. Cabot Award Aero Club of New England
Awarded for “unique, significant and unparalleled contributions to advance and foster aviation flight.”
2004 Howard Hughes Memorial Award Southern California Aeronautic Association
Awarded to an “aerospace leader whose accomplishments over a long career have contributed significantly to the advancement of aviation or space technology.”
Society of Experimental Test Pilots
American Helicopter Society
Engineer, President, Chairman and Founder of
Robinson Helicopter Company (RHC)