Greg Steiner is President of Kaman Aerospace Corp. He spoke with Rotor & Wing in the lead-up to Heli-Expo about various topics, including some insights on company founder Charles H. Kaman, who passed away on January 31 at age 91.
Rotor & Wing: We were all saddened to hear about the passing of Charles H. Kaman. Please describe how his legacy and influence have shaped the company and contributed to the helicopter industry as a whole.
Steiner: His influence is the company. He was really quite a guy. Not very many people like that come along at any one time. His whole spirit of innovation and drive are really the heart of the company, so it certainly was a sad day. He hadn’t been active with the company for several years, but his spirit certainly never left. I’ve only been here three years but can tell you what his reputation was—a lot of what I’ve heard about Charlie is through guys like [Kaman Helicopters President] Sal Bordonaro or [Unmanned Aircraft Systems division General Manager] Terry Fogarty. They’ve both been here 25-plus years and worked with Charlie. This tends to be one of those companies with a lot of long-term employees. People came here and worked for Charlie and stayed, so there’s lots of great stories.
He was bigger than life and full of energy. People would describe—when he got an idea and said, we have to make this work, it was: “Bar the door, we’re going!” Nobody looked at calendars or watches. They were on a mission. People would use words like “inspirational” when they talk about Charlie and what a great leader he was. It’s really something. His reputation was one of a very dynamic leader, a very smart man with a lot of vision but [also had] the ability to make things happen. If he couldn’t get it, he invented it. Our whole bearings business was driven on the fact that he couldn’t get the bearings that he wanted for his helicopter, so he invented them and started a business out of it. That’s the kind of things that Charlie did!
Rotor & Wing: What are the latest trends you’re seeing in the U.S. and international helicopter industry?
Steiner: When we look at our portfolio, we have a little heavier content on the military and defense side. The one business that’s more commercial-oriented is the bearings business—they tend to run in the 60 to 70 percent commercial. Of the five businesses, the bearings business saw the most impact [from the recent global economic slowdown]. The rest of the businesses pretty much held their own, because in the defense world, if you’re on a program and it’s a good program, it tends to be fairly stable. We weathered this downturn pretty well—we didn’t really grow in the period, but we didn’t shrink either. We’re looking at the ability now, moving forward with the commercial markets recovering and some of the positions that we have, we’re now expecting to back into growth.
Rotor & Wing: What are the company’s goals for the next two to three years?
Steiner: We’re pretty optimistic. We’re on some good platforms that look like they’ll continue to survive budget cuts, and we like our capabilities going forward. We’re thinking that the commercial market will be reasonably robust, and some of the investments we’re making go toward increasing our penetration in the commercial market. We’d like to more aggressively grow that part of the business while we maintain and grab content from the military. We’re bullish about the next two, three, even five years.
Rotor & Wing: How is Kaman approaching this year’s Heli-Expo?
Steiner: Last year we talked about changes in the air, and this year we’re using phrases like, “full speed ahead.” Certainly the K-MAX will be featured there, some of the things we’re doing in the blade center of excellence and the capability that we’ll have in Mexico—it’s all driven around growth and expansion.
Rotor & Wing: Please provide an update regarding the K-MAX unmanned aerial system (UAS) program for the U.S. Marine Corps’ cargo resupply mission.
Steiner: It’s moving along quickly, and we’re getting a lot of interest—not only from the Marine Corps but within the Army as well. We’ve gone through the system requirements review and have the critical design review coming up within the next 30 days. Then we’re driving toward the [quick reaction] assessment in late summer.
Rotor & Wing: What is involved with the quick reaction assessment?
Steiner: As we understand it, we’ll go through a series of demonstrations as part of the assessment, and then the Marine Corps will make a decision. Right now, our understanding is they’ll pick one of the platforms, and deploy that to Afghanistan to pilot the concept for sure.
Rotor & Wing: What are the next steps after completing the quick reaction assessment?
Steiner: The way the contract is set up, there’s a whole series of 30-day options, so we can deploy for two or three months, or we could for six or eight months, depending on what the [military] would like to do. We see that happening pretty quickly.
Rotor & Wing: Is Kaman exploring any commercial applications for the unmanned K-MAX?
Steiner: We haven’t looked real hard at the commercial side of unmanned—that’s a very different world and would potentially have a whole lot of different requirements at the aircraft level. Our concentration for the future of the K-MAX has really been the military versions. The current program is very focused on cargo resupply. And we see some capabilities to expand the platform capability with add-ons. We can put other equipment on the aircraft, and it can be a relay [helicopter], it can be an observer—there’s lots of other potential rather than being just a single-mission aircraft. Those are the kinds of things we’re looking at for the future of the platform.
Rotor & Wing: Any future potential for commercial sectors, like firefighting or logging?
Steiner: The primary use of the [manned K-MAX] fleet now is logging, firefighting and heavy lift. Some of that is real precision work, and having the pilot in the loop there makes a lot of sense. And there isn’t the same level of inherent danger to the pilot as there is trying to resupply somebody in the mountains of Afghanistan. When you’re logging, nobody’s shooting at you.
Rotor & Wing: Please provide an update on the new Kaman Aerostructures facility in Chihuahua, Mexico.
Steiner: The first things that we’re qualifying are extrusions and fairly simple parts, and we have reserved a lot of room there to expand. We had the grand opening in November, and we’re getting tons of interest and are very close to closing a couple orders. So we’ll establish a pretty good footprint there over the next six months in feeding Jacksonville. [It’s] an Aerospace Group facility, so the other businesses are looking at it to support low-cost initiatives as well. We could see having an autoclave down there for the Composites Group, and we could see some of the helicopter work being done there, should we go back into production. The big thing that we talk about there is that being a feeder—we’re not taking jobs out of our U.S. facilities, this is allowing us to get more work, and some of it will feed the U.S. facilities.
Rotor & Wing: Why should operators continue to choose Kaman helicopters for their needs?
Steiner: Over the last few years, we’ve transitioned out of being a real OEM. We’re really not a full helicopter OEM—we’re not producing helicopters today. But we still have the capabilities of an OEM, and our primary strategy is to leverage that. We’re not as big and costly as a lot of the OEMs, yet we have the same level of capability and a strong history of innovation. Our primary goal going forward is to leverage these skills and concentrate on them. The whole idea of the innovations that we’ve done in blade work is now starting to drive a lot of businesses we’ve built up, [for instance] the center of excellence for blades. We’re doing 20 different kinds of blades there. We’re doing a whole bunch of blade assemblies for Bell, we do our own blades, we’re doing some for Sikorsky, we’re doing some for the early Cobras—so developing and concentrating that capability is important. Our ability to support our own fleet will continue to preserve that and we’d like to grow it as we look at the sale of the SH2GIs hopefully coming to fruition.