Frank Robinson, founder of Robinson Helicopter Co. in Torrance, retired Wednesday as president and chairman of the board.
He was succeeded by his son, Kurt Robinson, who began working at the company in 1987.
Robinson Helicopter is now the world's biggest manufacturer of civilian helicopters, having surpassed such well known makers as Bell, Boeing and Sikorsky.
Frank Robinson, 80, founded the company in 1973 after working as an engineer for several helicopter manufacturers. He was 43 then and had four kids but quit his job to focus full time on his concepts for relatively inexpensive, personal choppers.
He built a two-seat prototype, later named the R-22, in his garage. It took four years for the Federal Aviation Administration to certify the helicopter.
"We tend to refer to all those years as the dark years," Robinson said. "It was touch and go whether the company could survive."
Eventually, the R-22 became the world's most popular trainer model at flight schools. In the early years of the company, Robinson did many of the test flights for prototypes himself.
"I'm an engineer first of all, as opposed to a businessman," he said. "Although I obviously had to run the company from a business point of view."
In recent years, the recession affected both the company and Robinson's retirement plans. Last year, production fell 52% to 433 helicopters from 893 in 2008.
Robinson initially planned to retire on his birthday in January but remained on the job a bit longer. "I felt I needed to keep myself available to handle a lot of management concerns," he said.
He said he also stayed to see the completion of the R-66, a five-seat model scheduled to go on the market this year.