The Air Affair : Wingnut Chronicles

Rotor Heads: Touring the Robinson Helicopter Factory

July 9, 2009

This week my employer compelled us to take a week-long summer vacation. So of course this meant more time for airplane flying. But rather than just bore holes in the sky, I decided to do something I have wanted to do for a long time.

The Robinson Helicopter Company in Torrance, California builds more helicopters than any other company in the world. More than 8,000 Roboninson helicopters have been produced. The Robinson factory is one of the last survivors of the once prolific aerospace industry in Southern Californa. Robinson offers public tours of its factory, so during our summer vacation my co-worker and fellow pilot Raimonds and I decided to take this rather unique sightseeing opportunity.

We flew down in a rented Cessna 182 from Palo Alto, Raimonds doing most of the flying, while I worked on my aerial photography. Since we planned to fly through the L.A. special flight rules area, this would be a good opportunity to get some low altitude shots of the Southern California area.

The factory lobby is only a few minutes walk from the Torrance Aiport terminal building, and we arrived right on time. We were part of a group of about 20 taking the tour that day.

Except for the engines, nearly every part of the helicopter is manufactured right on site. The factory employs all the latest high-tech manufacturing technologies. The most interesting was a pair of electro-chemical machining stations. The process is basically the reverse of electroplating: an electric current and a fine wire electrode disolves away metal to sculpt components. For example, turning a block of steel into a precision transmission gear.

Other helicopter-making machines include two "gun drills" which create the main rotor drive shafts, and water jet cutters shape sheet metal panels. Workers use panels the size of dining room tables turned on edge to create the aircraft wiring harnesses. The electrical systems can be complex, since Robinson is the only helicopter manufacturer to offer factory support for news and police versions, with all the associated gadgetry.

Three heli-size paint booths are used to apply any of 80 factory colors to finished fuselages. (see the color selector on the Robinson web site) After completion, each helicopter is flown the FAA-mandated four hours of test flying, so during working hours on weekdays, the Torrance airport is literally buzzing with activity.

We also got a long-range glimpse of the R66 prototype, Robinson's new turbine-powered helicopter. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take any photographs, except for one in the delivery area.

The tour was definitely worth the day trip to Torrance. The tour is free of charge, but reservations are required. Contact Robinson Helicopters for tour schedules.

Update: Flying magazine published an article about the Robinson factory, including a photo series of the factory floor.

Aerial view of the Robinson factory on the Torrance airport

R66 prototype parked among other finished helis waiting for their test flights

Raimonds and I in the delivery area, where brand new helicopters await delivery to their new owners.