Robinson Helicopter (RHC) has appointed David Smith as its new president and chief executive, becoming the first leader in the airframer’s 50-year history not to bear the family name.

Smith, currently RHC’s vice-president of operations and a former Bell veteran, succeeds Kurt Robinson, son of founder Frank, who moves into an advisory role while retaining his place on the firm’s board. The company announced the transition at the Heli-Expo show in Anaheim on 27 February.


Bell veteran Smith has been Robinson’s operations chief since 2023

Explaining the decision, Robinson says: “We are poised for growth here – but it felt like we needed some help and expertise as we get to the next level.”

Having joined the company in early 2023, Smith’s aim is to help the company enter its “next phase”, he says.

Over the next 12 months, the company will implement a “major production ramp” to reduce lead times for the turbine-powered R66 and piston-engined R44 Raven, currently sitting at around 15 months.

“We think that’s too far out – customers are not buying because of it,” says Smith.

“We are pretty much sold out this year and I don’t like that,” adds Robinson.

The goal, Smith says, is to raise production of the R44 to four per week, and of the R66 to three per week, giving respective annual totals in the region of 210 and 160.

Last year, RHC delivered 163 R44s – a mix of Cadets, Raven Is and IIs – plus 118 R66s, data from the General Aviation Manufacturers Association shows.

RHC is working with its key supply chain partners to ensure the ramp-up is as smooth as possible. Notably, deliveries from engine suppliers Rolls-Royce and Lycoming have been “lumpy”, says Smith, due to disruption further down the supply chain.

But he thinks the market could even support higher output on a “sustainable basis”.

Looking further out, Smith has begun preparing the company for whatever comes next, with a notable increase in the firm’s engineering head-count “so we are capable of developing the products of the future”.

While he will not be drawn on what the next product will look like, Robinson continues to examine the potential and maturity of advanced powertrains and autonomous flight-control systems.

Electrification in particular holds strong appeal for Smith. “I see real promise to the idea of a zero-emission solution for specific missions,” he says, while acknowledging that will likely come at the expense of range.

“We are going to be active in the development of an electric helicopter so when we are ready, we can go to our customers with the best-value solution.”

R220Y-c-Rotor Technologies

Source: Rotor Technologies

Robinson has been collaborating with Rotor Technologies to test autonomous flight-control system

Tests of an R44 powered by a Magnix electric motor have previously been conducted by Tier 1 engineering and Smith sees significant advantage in modifying an existing platform.

It is, he says, more cost-effective and safer “for a helicopter OEM to work some electrification into their portfolio rather than develop a completely new design”.

In parallel, RHC is also contemplating the addition of higher levels of autonomy to its helicopters to boost safety.

It has been providing engineering support to New Hampshire-based Rotor Technologies, which is developing a pilotless conversion of the R44 it calls the R550X.

While Smith says it will continue to support the development, he is guarded on whether the new flight-control system could be offered as a line-fit option, noting that “we don’t know enough about the performance of the final design”.

Nonetheless, he is confident that both powertrain and flight-control advances – to be delivered via a partnering approach – can be introduced.

“Going forward we’ll become more active in these spaces. But I do think there is a longer timeline than most start-up companies expect.”

On that basis, he is sceptical of the still-nascent advanced air mobility industry. Focused on clean-sheet electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft with radically different architectures, the sector’s leading proponents see service entry as early as next year.

But Smith thinks an electric-powered R66 equipped with an advanced cockpit could offer a simpler solution.

“We have the better path to scale, have the customers to buy them, and know how to certify them,” he says. “We are the best, most-credible eVTOL manufacturer on the planet immediately.”

“The fact that we haven’t jumped in [to eVTOL] immediately should tell you something,” adds Robinson.