Military, Products

Ode to Charlie: Kaman Founder Remembered

By By Andrew Parker, Senior Editor | April 27, 2011
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Intuitive, dedicated, pragmatic, innovative, committed, diversified, pioneer, visionary, hero and people person. These are all words colleagues used to describe Charles H. “Charlie” Kaman, the founder of Kaman Corp. who passed away on January 31 at age 91. In addition to inventions in the aerospace industry, Kaman also designed the Ovation series of guitars and founded Fieldco Guide Dog Foundation with his wife, Roberta.

Kaman K-225 on display at the National Air & Space Museum in Dulles, Va. Built in 1949 mainly for commercial crop dusting, the helicopter was the first to fly with a gas turbine-driven transmission. The design served as the basis for the HTK, HOK and H-43 series of military variants. Photo by Andrew Parker

During Heli-Expo in March, Rotor & Wing Senior Editor Andrew Parker sat down with four top executives from the company—Kaman Helicopters President Sal Bordonaro; K. Drake Klotzman, manager of business development for the helicopter aftermarket group; Mark Tattershall, director of marketing and business development; and George Schafer, business development manager at Kaman Aerospace—for a discussion about the helicopter industry legend’s impact on the company and the rotorcraft community.


Rotor & Wing: How would you describe his management style?

Bordonaro: One of the unique things [at Kaman Helicopters] is that we have an average tenure of 15 years, and so it was all about his commitment. He was a seven-days-a-week guy. He rarely slept. But the bottom line is we fed off his commitment and his dedication, and he created a culture that encouraged us to have that same kind of commitment and dedication, because he made us believe in what we were trying to do—and that culture still stands today.

He had three pillars. One is technical pre-eminence. The next one was fiscal constraint, and the other one was people, dedication and commitment.
Clearly, the company has had a conservative balance sheet throughout the years, so as far as fiscal constraint, we’ve made the right decisions on how to grow the business. People, dedication and commitment—these guys emulate that (pointing to Klotzman, Schafer and Tattershall). We as a company emulate that, because we believe in the foundation that Charlie provided us. And that foundation is still very strong within our organization today.

Klotzman: We were talking about this the other night. We’d have a weekly meeting in the board room, and there would be us, the young guys—and then all the upper management and Charlie. At one meeting he dismissed all the upper management and he looked at George and I, and a couple of others, and said: “You guys need to stay.” After everybody left the room, he said, “Now when all those other guys are gone, and it’s just you and me running this company, I want you to know how to do it.” That’s the way he passed it on—he made you feel like you were an essential part of his team, his culture.

R&W: What was he like when working on a particular project, such as the K-MAX?

Schafer: He was the type of person that would say, “We have a problem, we need a solution.” We’re in “crisis mode,” was the common term he used. So that would get everybody juiced up, and pony up to do their part to come up with a solution. It came not only from the design team, but also the manufacturing—the guys on the floor, who had to build the parts and get them on the aircraft, and then the pilots. It was a whole family effort. We were usually operating in crisis mode, just because that energized people to get stuff done faster.

R&W: What was he like as a person, outside the office?

Schafer: Charlie was mostly about business, that’s what he loved. It was hard to get to that personal level, because his mind was always wrapped around his work. That was his love of his life, I think. It drives people—when you get involved with a passion, and that’s what you do for a living, and it’s your company, how could you not foster that, and be involved 24/7? He was very easy to get along with, very easy to talk to. He would come up to the shop floor, and talk to whoever, and he’d want to know what was going on, not only with your work but would ask timely questions. He was concerned about people having enough time off, and getting enough time with their families. So he was well aware of the toll it takes on a person to dedicate yourself to a project. He was cognizant of that.

Bordonaro: There was an instance where he was actually ready to go in the operating room—he was making calls back to the facilities, saying, “We gotta do these things,” before going in for a hip operation. That kind of tells you that his business and what he invented—that was his life. Even before going in for an operation, he’s more worried about what needs to happen for the company.
When I first started my career, he was personable, too. I thought he was a hero, an inventor, and I would say Mr. Kaman, and he got upset (call me Charlie!) and I slipped one more time, and he got irritated that I called him Mr. Kaman. The business was his life.

R&W: What are some of the anecdotes about Charlie? What stories stick out in your head?

Schafer: This is not so unique, but it’s one that comes to mind—being there pretty much all the waking hours of my life from 1990 to 1994 developing the K-MAX with him, because if I wasn’t, he was calling me at home, asking, “Why aren’t you in here?” We were there on a Saturday morning, designing some of the control systems within the K-MAX, and he’d come down with his cheese and crackers, and he’d start shooting the breeze, and ask what we’re working on. I’d start describing what—“Well, just go ahead and do it, make a decision and go,” he’d say.
We recognized back then that it was an opportunity of a lifetime to work with the CEO of the company, a pioneer in the industry, to work on a program from the ground up. A new helicopter was a unique opportunity for engineers because most of the developments that are being done are just reworks of existing things.

Klotzman: I also remember is that if you weren’t there, he’d call you. When you’re a young engineer, to have the CEO call you, it’s a little bit of an ego boost, to begin with. Anyway, he calls, and we’re talking, and he’d say, “we’ve got to do this, we’ve got to do that, I want you to come in tomorrow to do this and that.” We’re talking for about an hour, and just the way his mind works, he would then ask, “I didn’t interrupt your dinner, did I?” Well, yeah … but that’s just the way he worked. He was so passionate about solving a problem the he would just pick up the phone and start talking.

Working with Charlie wasn’t like it was the CEO. He was just another engineer. He’d come to your desk, and sit down, and say, what are you working on? You’d reply, “well I kind of had this problem,” and he’d say, “let’s look at it.” After a while, it’s just another one of the guys that was working on the program.

I’m having fun in my job now, but I go back and tell everybody that was the most exciting part of my career, working with him and seeing the way that his mind worked, and how he could take an idea, like the K-MAX and take it to fruition.

R&W: What are some of the other inventions that people might not realize?

Bordonaro: He didn’t invent this, but he and his wife [founded the Fieldco] blind dog facility. He was giving back to the community in raising German Shepherds for the blind. So it wasn’t all just associated with business. He had problems with the bearing systems on a helicopter, and he created a bearings division. That’s the kind of guy he was.

The other part of it is, he understood, because the defense industry was cyclical, his approach was diversification. He wanted to diversify the company so that there’s a balance from the defense cycle, so he had a commercial business, he established the music division, etc. Of course he was an avid musician. Even being in a home until recently, he would still play guitar regularly.

He decided to build his own guitar after not getting what he wanted from existing guitars on the market. Not too many people can do that anymore, you know?

Klotzman: Everything was derived from, somebody having a problem. He had a solution, and now I’ve invented this—I’ll make a business around that. Same thing with the guitar business—he wanted to solve the problem of how to make this composite guitar. In wooden guitars, the sound changes, and he wanted to make a guitar that had consistent sound quality throughout its life. So he invented the Ovation guitar.

R&W: What are some of the other stories you heard from people during his memorial and after he passed?

One of the things his obituary pointed out was that the HH-43B had such a great safety record, and when he developed the H-2 (Seasprite) as a SAR helicopter, he took great pride in the number of lives that the vehicles saved. We didn’t hear that from him every day, but we kind of just took it for granted to be reminded of those things, and the impact that it really had, trace back to the reasons he developed the helicopter. He always had that very top-level, pragmatic [outlook]—here’s why we’re doing this, it’s to save lives.

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