Pupil defeats master in light helicopters

(The following article first appeared as a Comment in 12 March 2013 Flight International)

Three years after Frank Robinson retired from leading his eponymous light helicopter company, his competitors are only now starting to play catch-up.

Bell Helicopter did nothing as Robinson launched work on a light turbine in 2001, and remained frozen as he made a deal with Rolls-Royce to develop the RR300 engine in 2005 and got the R66 certificated in 2010.

The R66 was aimed squarely at the end of the market Bell dominated with the B47 and B206 JetRanger. Bell, however, was preoccupied with ushering the V-22 tiltrotor into service and shoring up its neglected line-up of light and medium-twin helicopters.

That created an opportunity Robinson seemed to covet, for a simplified light-single helicopter. Market appeal had already been established by Eurocopter: 500 EC120s were delivered between 1998 and 2008.

However, the R66′s simplicity and, by implication, bottom-dollar price tag have made it a market leader. In only the second full year of production, Robinson delivered 191 R66s in 2012, weekly output ramping up from three to six during the year. That success has not escaped Bell’s attention, and it is poised to respond.

The Fort Worth-based manufacturer must re-learn how to design, certificate and build a popular helicopter priced below $1 million. If it succeeds, it can thank a former employee – Frank Robinson worked at Bell for two years nearly half a century ago. ■

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