Helicopter industry mourns loss of pioneer, inventor Charles Kaman

 - March 7, 2011, 3:50 AM

The helicopter world lost an icon when pioneer, inventor and philanthropist Charlie Kaman died January 31 at the age of 91.

Charles Huron Kaman earned an aeronautical engineering degree from Catholic University in 1940 and later was employed at United Aircraft’s Hamilton Standard division, where he worked with Igor Sikorsky. In 1945, at age 26, he founded Kaman Aircraft in his mother’s garage, serving as its CEO until 1999 and chairman until 2001. Today Kaman Aerospace has annual revenues of $1.2 billion.

Under Charles Kaman’s leadership, the company invented rotor blade servo flaps, intermeshing main rotors that eliminated the need for a tail rotor, composite main rotor blades, the first single and twin gas-turbine powered helicopters and the first remotely piloted helicopter.

The company flew intermeshing rotor helicopters as early as 1947 with the Kaman K-125, then in 1951, it introduced the first gas turbine-powered helicopter-- the K-225. Kaman’s legacy helicopters include the H-43 Husky, which flew more rescue missions during the Korean and Vietnam wars than any other helicopter, the SH-2 Seasprite and the K-Max “aerial truck.”

Charles Kaman also founded Ovation Instruments in 1966, producer of the iconic rounded-back acoustic guitar that bears the company’s name, and a flat-bodied model with active electronics called the Breadwinner. Kaman incorporated aeronautical engineering principles, a unique semi-parabolic shape, patented composite materials and manufacturing techniques into his instruments. Ovation guitars became a staple of the 1960s and 1970s rock music scene and were played by artists including the Beatles' John Lennon and Jimmy Page of the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin.

Ovation later became the Kaman Music Corp. (KMC) and branched out beyond guitars into percussion, hardware and amplifiers. It was also the exclusive distributor of Sabian cymbals. KMC was sold to Fender Musical Instruments in 2007 for $117 million.

In 1960, Kaman and his wife Roberta created the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation to breed and train Bavarian German shepherds to act as guide dogs for the blind. Fidelco continues its work today, spending an average of $45,000 to breed, train, place and maintain each dog at no cost to the client. Recipients of Fidelco dogs today include U.S. servicemen who have been blinded by roadside bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq.

During Charles Kaman’s tenure, Kaman Aerospace moved beyond helicopters and became a diversified aviation, defense, industrial and research corporation. Its portfolio of products includes aircraft bearings and components; complex metallic and composite aerostructures for fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft; and safe-and-arm devices for missile and bomb systems.

Charles Kaman was the recipient of the Department of Defense Distinguished Public Service Medal, the National Medal of Technology and the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and the Naval Aviation Hall of Honor and was an Honorary Fellow of the American Helicopter Society and the Royal Aeronautical Society. He also was awarded honorary degrees from the University of Connecticut, the University of Hartford and the University of Colorado.

“He led a remarkable life as an inventor, entrepreneur, musician, humanitarian and visionary,” said current Kaman CEO Neal Keating. “His career was, in many ways, the epitome of the American dream.”