Helicopter pioneer Kaman dies at 91

Washington DC
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Charles H. Kaman, pioneering designer of both helicopters and guitars, died at his home in Bloomfield, Connecticut 31 January. He was 91.

Kaman was a 26-year-old engineer when he founded Kaman Aircraft Company in 1945 with $2,000 from two friends. First based in the garage of his mother's West Hartford, Connecticut home, Kaman set out to demonstrate a new rotor concept he devised to make helicopters more stable and easier to fly. His idea was based on "servo-flaps" -- small ailerons added to the edges of the rotor blades to improve stability. He also proposed intermeshing rotors, which would increase lift while eliminating the tail rotor.

The company rapidly diversified, branching off into nuclear weapons testing, commercial helicopter flight, the development and testing of chemicals, and helicopter bearings production. Kaman Aircraft, now Kaman Corporation, claims numerous records and firsts, the company says, including the first gas turbine-powered helicopter, the first twin-turbine-powered helicopter, the first remotely controlled helicopter and the first all-composite rotor blade.

"He led a remarkable life as an inventor, entrepreneur, musician, humanitarian and visionary. His career was, in many ways, the epitome of the American dream," says Neal J. Keating, chairman and CEO of Kaman.

Born on 15 June 1919, Kaman grew up in Washington, DC. He dreamed of becoming a professional pilot, but being deaf in one ear, ended up on an engineering track, earning a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering from Catholic University in 1940. He took a position in the propeller performance unit at Hamilton Standard. While working on propeller dynamics, he met and worked with Igor Sikorsky, who was developing helicopters for another division of United Aircraft. He left to start his own business.

His fledgling company got its first big break in 1948 with the US Navy purchase of two helicopters for evaluation. The SH-2 Seasprite flew more than one million hours of service with the navy. Later, the Kaman H-43 "Husky" flew more rescue missions during the Korean and Vietnam wars than all other helicopters combined, according to the company and remains the only military helicopter to serve throughout its service life with no loss of life or accidents attributed to its design. In 1992, Kaman introduced the K-Max "aerial truck," now used in logging, construction, mining, firefighting, oil and gas exploration, and other high-altitude work. An unmanned version of K-Max has also been developed for for military cargo resupply and other missions.

In 1997, Kaman joined Sikorsky and other aviation legends as a recipient of the National Aeronautic Association's Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy. He headed the company for more than half a century before retiring as chief executive of Kaman Corp. in 1999, and as chairman in 2001.

In addition to aviation, Kaman's other passions included was the guitar. In 1966, he founded Ovation Instruments, the company that would become the Ovation Guitar Company, and developed an acoustic guitar using aerospace materials, featuring a rounded back design. Though the company focused on acoustic instruments, in 1972, Ovation introduced one of the first production solid body electric guitars with active electronics, the Ovation Breadwinner. Ovation guitar players include John Lennon, Melissa Ethridge and Jimmy Page.

He and his late wife, Roberta, also created the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation, which breeds and trains German Shepherd dogs to work as guide dogs for the blind.