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New Robinson Leader Looks Forward to the Future
  • 07 May 2024 02:42 PM
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New Robinson Leader Looks Forward to the Future

By Kenneth I. Swartz
Vertiflite, May/June 2024

New Robinson Helicopter CEO David Smith. (Robinson photo)

For Robinson Helicopter Company, 2023 was a good year with a total of  296 aircraft delivered, despite supplier constraints. The deliveries included 118 turbine R66s, 163 R44s (101 Raven II, 52 Raven I, and nine Cadet models) and 15 R22s, with 64% of the aircraft  exported. Robinson’s number one export market in 2023 was Brazil, followed by Australia and Canada, with demand from Mexico showing a recent increase. In addition, the company delivered 400 field overhaul kits last year to service aircraft that reached 2,200 flight hours or 12 years of service.

Robinson has built 13,800 aircraft since the R22 was first certificated in 1979, and will deliver its 14,000th aircraft sometime this year. The deliveries include 1,300 turbine-powered R66s, which, according to Rolls-Royce, has logged 1.8 million flight hours “without a single engine failure,” said Kurt Robinson at the company’s annual Heli-Expo press conference (see “Heli-Expo Finale,” pg. 34).

Robinson has a strong backlog and aims to produce three R66s and four R44s every week, and one R22 every two weeks.

Employment at the vertically integrated company based in Torrance, California, increased from 1,000 to 1,100 in the past year “and we’ll keep adding employees and increasing production until we can get the [delivery times] down,” Robinson said.

At Heli-Expo, the company displayed factory-new examples of the R22, R44 Raven II and R66 — all featuring symmetrical
horizonal stabilizers (see “Rotorcraft News,” Vertiflite, Nov/Dec 2023). These were developed after many years of research and development. The upgrade to the R66 was certified in September 2023 and the R44 in February 2024, while R22 certification is expected soon. Robinson is developing field kits for the stabilizers, which it will sell at cost so they can be retrofitted on aircraft in service around the world.

Other popular products Robinson has developed include optional impact-resistant windshields for the R22, R44 and R66, and a new 4K-resolution cockpit video camera, which has become a useful tool for pilot training and maintenance troubleshooting and produces videos that a tour operator can provide passengers.

After reporting on the health of the family-owned company, Robinson announced that after 40 years with the company that his father Frank founded in 1973, he was stepping down. Effective immediately, David Smith, who had been serving for the past year as VP of Operations, was the new President and CEO of Robinson. Kurt Robinson will transition to an advisory role and remain on the board of directors.

The last leadership transition at the company occurred in 2010 when Frank Robinson retired, and Kurt Robinson was elected president and CEO by the board of directors. Smith becomes only the third to lead the company in its half-century of existence.

A 20-year veteran of the helicopter industry, Smith joined Robinson in March 2023 from Bell Textron where he was most recently VP of Operations Modernization and General Manager of Bell’s new generation manufacturing facility in Wichita, Kansas. Prior to this, he was CEO of Textron’s TRU Simulation + Training unit, after a previous 10 years at Bell, where his roles included serving as chief engineer and then program manager of the Bell 505 Jet Ranger X. Smith joined Bell in 2005, after graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with an aerospace engineering degree, to support a variety of projects as part of the Bell Xworx experimental design team. He also has an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin.

Smith said that when he made the move to California, he was also joining a company that had a family culture that extended from the employees through to the dealers, services centers and customers, and he plans to maintain that culture moving forward, which also includes being a vertically integrated company.

Smith said that beyond increasing production, he wanted to grow Robinson’s product portfolio, including expanding the R22s role as a training helicopter “and an entry point where pilots learn to fly,” entering the autonomous market with new partnerships and developing larger helicopters.

Former CEO Kurt Robinson with the new symmetrical horizonal stabilizer on an R66. (VFS staff photo)
Former CEO Kurt Robinson with the new symmetrical horizonal stabilizer on an R66. (VFS staff photo)

As part of its static display at Heli-Expo, Robinson hosted Rotor Technologies with its R550X, an uncrewed aircraft based on the R44 Raven II, and announced a partnership between the two companies. One of the biggest potential markets is agriculture spraying, which is suffering from pilot shortages, where the helicopter’s synthetic vision, camera, and lidar systems can improve safety.

Robinson grew its engineering team by 50% in 2023, said Smith; “one of the reasons for that is we want to invest in technology that targets [noise and emissions] challenges in helicopters. So, blade shapes, tip shapes, things that can help with noise that we know the industry has progressed. [And] when you consider that a helicopter with an alternate power plant can pair better with a jet-fuel powered R66, and you can have those side by side and run a fleet with standardized pilots, standardized operating procedures, and very limited operational differences, that’s a better future for safety.

“One of the challenges of the [advanced air mobility] environment today is there’s so many variations with so many different control approaches and so many different cockpit designs. Standardizing fleets is going to be even more challenging in the future. And that is one of the reasons that aircraft crash today. So, for us, we think we have a compelling advantage as folks can buy into the 22, the 44, the 66, and in the future, alternate powerplant-driven Robinson products. And I think all of those will fit into our portfolio in time.”

About the Author
Ken Swartz is a senior aerospace marketing and communications strategist, running Aeromedia Consultants. A long-time consultant to the aviation, aerospace and vertical flight industry, he’s held management positions in the regional airline, helicopter and aircraft manufacturing industries for 30+ years, and has reported on vertical flight since 1978. In 2010, he received the Helicopter Association International’s “Communicator of the Year” award. He can be reached at kennethswartz@me.com.

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