R.I.P. Frank Robinson (and a few notes from the safety course that he loved)

I arrived in Los Angeles for the Robinson Helicopter Company’s safety course on November 13. The engineer who founded the company, Frank Robinson, died the day before at age 92 (AVweb). Frank democratized helicopter flying with his reasonably priced machines that were simple to operate and maintain. I had a few conversations with him over the years and he was always generous in sharing his time and direct in sharing his point of view.

Frank’s son Kurt Robinson now runs the company and he welcomed us to the class: “We want you to know what we know.” He stressed how important the safety course was to his father, a point later backed up by Bob Muse, a legendary LA helicopter pilot and teacher. “Frank missed fewer than 5 safety courses over the years,” Bob noted. “He would reschedule vacations and business meetings so that he could welcome every class of pilots. Frank loved aviation and the company. It was never about money.”

Bell and Airbus (“Eurocopter”) pilots enjoy heaping scorn on Robinsons, but we learned from Bob and Tim Tucker about how the pilots and engineers at all of these companies cooperate and fly each other’s machines. Robinson has been a leader in some safety areas, e.g., crash-resistant fuel bladders and standardizing on the Vuichard technique for recovery from vortex ring state (most likely encountered during a downwind steep approach to an off-airport landing zone).

Some of Bob’s points:

  • we overemphasize autorotations in training; it is rare to see accidents that are caused by something that would require an auto
  • seek recurrent training every 6 months, which is what the most experienced pilots will get
  • look at NTSB Safety Alerts
  • take phones away from mechanics; interruption by phone call is a common reason for a procedure step to be skipped

The previous generation’s aircraft mechanics have been retiring and are being replaced by younger less intelligent less conscientious Americans. Maintenance-related crashes are nearly twice as high a percentage of the total (still less than 10%, however) compared to 10-20 years ago. The biggest causes of Robinson accidents are wire strikes and weather, each contributing roughly 30 percent.

A huge number of safety-related initiatives and FAA regulation updates that would improve safety have been delayed by two years or more due to coronapanic. Everything that was on track to be approved in 2020 is still pending. One big change would be to revoke SFAR 73 and update the Robinson POH to add similar requirements, e.g., 20 hours dual before going solo, to the limitations. The requirements would then apply to international customers as well (currently about 80 percent of Robinson’s production is exported).

The latest Robinsons all come with dome light cameras (see Time for a robot assistant up in the dome light of the cockpit? for what I think it should do, but of course it doesn’t!). These have been very helpful in investigating accidents. (As with seemingly everything else in aviation, it was already obsolete when installed. The limit on memory card size is 128 GB, which is good for 10-15 hours. There is also an internal 16-hour memory that the pilots can’t access and that is recorded to even when the camera and audio are switched “off”) The dome light camera also provides some interesting cautionary videos. In one video a Bell 407 pilot, who previously did a lot of flying in Robinsons, is getting current again in the R44. She pulls the mixture, thus shutting off the engine, instead of the carb heat. She then immediately pushes the mixture back down, but the engine quits anyway. If they’d crashed, it would have been due to an “unexplained power loss.” (As it happens, the instructor in the left seat pushed the collective down and did a nice autorotation to the side of a railroad track. We then see him frantically pulling on the rotor brake. It turns out that a train was coming!)

My favorite video featured Julie Link on a sightseeing tour in Hawaii. The R44’s engine quits (the mounting block for the magnetos failed; apparently they’re both on the same piece of metal) and she does an autorotation to a field with two tourists in the back who don’t seem to be aware that things have become perilous. After they land, we hear her say “The engine stopped. It happens. It happens to me a lot.” (She previously did a heroic autorotation in an R22 to a street in Honolulu (Daily Mail).)

Once established in an auto, if the low RPM (97%) horn goes on, I like to take out half of the collective check that is in. Bob says to push it all the way down so as to build that reflex and then pull it back up slightly after the RPM is back to 100 percent.

Bob recommended watching a U.S. Army video on mast bumping.

Robinson now offers a polycarbonate windshield that will ruin a bird’s day, but not yours. We talked to a guy who owns 13 R66 (the turbine-powered Robinson) helicopters and he said that the view is distorted (he also said that he’s had disabling engine problems with 4 out of 13 Rolls-Royce turboshaft engines!). Robinson says that they scratch just as easily as the standard acrylic windshields, but the scratches cannot be repaired.

Those are some of the things that Frank Robinson might have wanted you to know! It is sad that he is gone, but he did pack a lot of achievement into his 92 years. He is the only person in world history who built a sustainable piston helicopter business.

After the class, I joined a former student from MIT who was picking up his new R44 Raven II helicopter. We flew from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. together and the only squawk was that the left front door became a little tougher to latch after about 15 hours (we picked it up with 4 hours on the collective Hobbs). It is tough to think of another aircraft manufacturer that delivers this kind of quality, especially down in the piston ghetto. I think it is reasonable to say that the more than 13,000 helicopters Robinson has built are Frank Robinson’s true memorial.

5 thoughts on “R.I.P. Frank Robinson (and a few notes from the safety course that he loved)

  1. Is the Vuichard technique safe? Dan Gryder looks at 3 recent fatal accidents where that may have occurred while practising it (including a Bell test pilot). He concludes with Airbus saying VRS should always be avoided, rather than practising to recover from it:

    • Otto Pilot – I agree with you. I am not a pilot, but what Dan Gryder says makes a lot of sense to me.

  2. “The previous generation’s aircraft mechanics have been retiring and are being replaced by younger less intelligent less conscientious Americans.”

    Who are these less conscientious Americans? Are they Americans? Has uncontrolled immigration negatively affected the quality (and wages) if aircraft mechanics? Is affirmative action in play in the aircraft mechanic field (as it is with pilots)?

  3. “A huge number of safety-related initiatives and FAA regulation updates that would improve safety have been delayed by two years or more due to coronapanic.”

    The FAA employees have been (pretending) to work from home for almost three years. A former coworker is employed by NASA and has been (pretending) to work from home for 32 months. She was laughing that she, basically, does one email check-in every day and, recently, reports to the office once per month.

  4. That was a wonderful and respectful Memorial to a man who devoted his life to his vision of creating an aircraft that people could aspire to and achieve, while teaching so many others along the way. I’ve known of a few people like this, including one in New Hampshire who builds (of all things) speakers that sound wonderful and represent his visiton of high quality sound with excellent customer service and dedication to their satisfaction. https://www.humanspeakers.com/human/america.htm

    I hope that’s still possible in 20 years, not to speak of 50. They are still out there if you look for them (I think of your pool cue craftsman too) too and they deserve all the support they can get. R.I P. Frank Robinson. (BTW Huw Powell has a reputation for being, erm, ‘direct’ as well but it comes with the territory.

    I enjoyed this one a lot.

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