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Robinson Copters Taking Off : After Struggling Since ’73, Torrance Firm Leads U.S. in New Chopper Volume

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

The days when a Jack Northrop or a Donald Douglas could start a company in Los Angeles to build aircraft have been gone for many decades, but somebody forgot to tell Frank Robinson.

Using his living room as a drafting center and his garage as a workshop, Robinson built a prototype of a low-cost helicopter that he could sell to a mass market around the world.

He left his comfortable job at a Los Angeles aerospace corporation and embarked on an odyssey to build aircraft for profit, an ambition that few industrialists have fulfilled.

After struggling since 1973, Robinson Helicopter Co. finally turned a profit in 1987 and last year became the largest-volume helicopter producer in the United States.

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It surpassed the Big Four of the helicopter industry--Bell, Sikorsky, Boeing and McDonnell Douglas--when it shipped 204 helicopters last year. It recently marked the shipment of its 1,000th helicopter since its founding. Even though it expects a 25% jump in sales this year, Robinson is still a minuscule operation, posting revenue of just $23.5 million in 1988.

“What I always wanted to do was build a small, individual type of helicopter,” the 59-year-old Robinson recalled during a recent interview in his modest office near Torrance Airport. “None of the larger companies were interested in building a small helicopter. They all wanted to concentrate on large, turbine-driven helicopters for the military.”

The two-seat helicopter Robinson produces, known simply as the R22, cruises at 110 miles per hour. It lists for $96,850, and the average sales price, with options, is about $105,000, making it one of the cheapest helicopters available on the international market, according to the company’s marketing vice president, Barbara K. Robinson, Frank’s wife.

“Nobody gets close to our price,” Frank Robinson said.

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Thanks in part to today’s relatively cheap dollar, Robinson is exporting about 80% of its production. The largest importer is Britain; other major buyers include Japan, Australia and France.

“Our market is the BMW and Porsche owner,” said David A. George, managing director of Sloane Helicopters, Robinson’s distributor in Britain. “We tell them instead of buying a Porsche, buy a helicopter. A lot of people will keep one at home and fly it to their office.”

George added: “These helicopters cost peanuts to operate. It gets 20 miles per gallon.”

More and more people have that very idea, as freeways around the world are coming to resemble the clogged arteries of Los Angeles. Robinson himself used to fly one of his helicopters to the driveway of his Palos Verde home until neighbors began to grouse--they even began a petition drive that went to City Hall.

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Under California law, a helicopter can land anywhere if it is at least 1,000 feet from a school and if the property owner has given permission, Robinson said. The Federal Aviation Administration requires only that helicopters be operated safely in landing.

The R22 is the quietest helicopter produced and can be easily operated in urban areas, Robinson asserted, which has been a major help to sales. But the roar of its engine can still drown out a conversation.

Other Users

In addition to recreational users, R22 customers include flight schools, radio stations, cattle ranches, the tuna fishing industry, police departments, photographers, rural physicians and pipeline companies.

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“Robinson has always had a good product,” said Ronald Bunch, director of heliports and technical programs at Helicopter Assn. International, a Washington-based trade group. “He has refined it and perfected it by concentrating on one market.”

In recent years, the R22 has had a good safety record, but in the early 1980s rotor failures caused two serious accidents, prompting the FAA to ground the craft. Since then, the R22 has had a better-than-average record on mechanical reliability but a higher-than-average number of accidents blamed on pilot error. That is because the craft tends to be used a great deal for training and by inexperienced pilots, according to Barbara Robinson.

At the heart of Robinson’s sales success is the high-quality and low-cost manufacturing system the company has established at its 70,000-square-foot Torrance factory. The plant buzzes with the activity of 310 employees, a stark contrast with the lethargic pace frequently seen at major aerospace plants in Los Angeles that do government work.

Unlike most major aircraft companies, which subcontract out up to two-thirds of the parts fabrication for their products and concentrate on assembly, Robinson builds the vast majority of its parts.

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The company builds its own rotors, transmissions, wiring harnesses, instrument panels, landing struts and passenger cabins. The helicopter is powered by a 160-horsepower piston engine, which the company buys from Textron Lycoming.

Quality Control

“We can control quality much better by producing parts ourselves,” Frank Robinson said. “Helicopters are much more complex than fixed-wing aircraft.”

Indeed, the dynamics of vibration and fatigue make it difficult for developing nations to manufacture helicopters the way they do fixed-wing aircraft, he said.

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Another guiding principle in Robinson’s success is the emphasis on keeping things simple.

“We don’t want to be aero-spacy,” he said. “We don’t want a cost factor like Northrop or Rockwell or Douglas. We couldn’t afford to produce this helicopter if we had those costs.”

Even though Robinson pays workers the same wages as the major aerospace firms do, he holds down costs by keeping his administrative staff to a minimum and avoiding the high-cost methods of bigger firms.

“We prefer people who don’t have aerospace experience. We can teach them to do the job our way. They tend to work harder. The worst thing is to hire somebody from one of the aerospace companies who just got laid off.”

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Robinson has a technical staff of four engineers, who are working on a new model that will seat four. He is not sure when it will be ready, but if it is nearly as successful as the R22, the company will have to expand its factory.

The company was launched on an investment of $2 million to $3 million, a combination of loans and investments. Sometimes, instead of receiving pay, employees were given stock in the company.

“It was made mostly on promises, I guess,” Robinson said.

When he recalls all the people who told him he would never make it, he leans back in his chair and just smiles.

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