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Saturday, March 1, 2008

Heli-Expo Show Day: Superpowers Meet — At Robinson

James T. McKenna

FRANK ROBINSON IS STRUGGLING TO BEEF UP HIS ALready-record production and prodding his engineers to accelerate development and certification of his first turbine-powered helicopter.

His efforts to boost production and meet steady and strong demand for his aircraft wasn’t helped by President Bush’s visit to the Torrance, Calif. factory last month, which bogged production lines down for a week or so with Secret Service preparations and the entourage of presidential aides, dignitaries, and reporters. But Robinson will accept that hit.

"He’s very personable," the founder of Robinson Helicopter said of the president, who was joined by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for the tour. "It was a real boost of morale for the workers to see him and shake his hand."

Bush used Robinson’s factory as a venue to stir up public and congressional support for foreign trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. Roughly 70 percent of the helicopters Robinson sells are exported.

Bush’s visit followed a sales year that again surprised Robinson and set a record for civil helicopter production by a single manufacturer. Robinson produced 823 helicopters last year, topping its own record of 806 set in 2005. A year ago, Robinson told Rotor & Wing that he had fully expected 2007 to mark a slowdown in demand and had planned for that. But demand picked up in late 2006 and continued strong into 2007 — but not at a record level at first. "Through most of 2007, we were falling behind the record year" of 2005, he said. "But in the last couple of months, everybody got fired up."

Robinson faces a problem shared by other manufacturers: a lengthy backlog of orders. "We’re all sold out for 2008," he said. "I much prefer to have the lead time down to 2-3 months." At this point, he said, demand shows no signs of slowing down. "2008 hopefully will beat 2007’s record," he said. "Sales have really taken off."

That is one reason Robinson is pushing his engineers to speed work on the five-seat, RR300-powered R66. "I just met with my top engineers, trying to build a fire under them."

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