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Sunday, May 1, 2011

In Their Words: Remembering Charlie Kaman   

Longtime colleagues of visionary pioneer share insights about one of the helicopter industry’s pillar personalities.

By Andrew Parker, Senior Editor

Intuitive, dedicated, pragmatic, innovative, committed, diversified, and a pioneer, hero, visionary and people person. These are all words close colleagues used to describe Charles H. “Charlie” Kaman, the founder of Kaman Corp. who passed away on January 31 at age 91. 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 roundtable discussion about the helicopter industry legend’s impact on the company and the rotorcraft community. Find the full story and interview here.

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.

The 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 helicopters.

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 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.

Rotor & Wing: 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.

Aviation wasn’t Charlie Kaman’s only passion. He also formed Kaman Music, which designed and built the Ovation series of guitars, and founded Fieldco Guide Dog Foundation.

Rotor & Wing: 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!). I slipped one more time, and he got irritated that I called him Mr. Kaman. The business was his life.
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