Charles H. Kaman, the brilliant helicopter pioneer who founded the company that bears his name at age 26 and later launched the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation and developed Ovation guitars, died Monday.
Kaman, a longtime resident of Farmington, died after a long illness at Duncaster in Bloomfield, his home for several years. He was 91. The cause of death was not specified.
Kaman was one of a small group of mid-20th-century inventors, including Igor Sikorsky and H. Joseph Gerber, who shaped Connecticut industry through a combination of technological advancements and business acumen.
The eager engineer who graduated at the top of his class from Catholic University of America in 1940 got his start at United Aircraft's Hamilton Standard division working on propellers, where he rose quickly. There he met and was inspired by Sikorsky, whose business was also part of United Aircraft (now United Technologies Corp.)
Early helicopters could be unstable, making them difficult to fly. Kaman developed a new rotor concept that he believed would give the "whirly-birds" greater stability in flight. He presented the idea to his boss at United Aircraft, but was told the company already had its helicopter inventor — Sikorsky.
Kaman left the company in 1945, and, with a $2,000 investment from two friends, launched Kaman Aircraft Co. in his mother's West Hartford garage.
The combination of pluck and a hands-on work ethic set the template for a billion-dollar empire. He would head the company for more than half a century before retiring as chief executive of Kaman Corp. in 1999, and as chairman in 2001. Today the company is worth $765 million.
"It was a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-work culture," said Robert Garneau, describing the company he joined as controller in 1981.
Although Kaman insisted on technological excellence, "people were always very important to him," said Garneau, who became chief financial officer, a position he held until his retirement in 2008. "He would go out on the floor and mix with people. He knew most of the people working there. It was his strong personality that allowed him to survive and flourish."
At 6 feet 5 with a deep voice, Kaman was a huge presence who could tell stories, as he did in a late-'90s visit to The Courant, when he brought his aging German shepherd, Otto.
"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," said Neal J. Keating, the Kaman Corp. chairman, president and chief executive officer, in a written statement Monday.
"In the end, Charlie Kaman was all about human potential. Of all his technical accomplishments, he was most proud of the more than 15,000 lives that Kaman helicopters were estimated to have saved in rescue missions over the second half of the 20th century," Keating added.
But he was also about speaking his mind. Regarding the defense industry in Connecticut in 1997, the then-77-year-old chief of Kaman said to the Courant columnist Patricia Seremet, "It's only going to get worse. The American public can't afford what the Pentagon wants."
Among Kaman's numerous awards was the National Aeronautic Association's Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy, the nation's most prestigious aviation award. In 1996, three years before Kaman retired, President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Technology.
By 1951, he had developed the first helicopter powered by a gas turbine engine. Three years later, he introduced the first helicopter that could be fully operated by remote controls — an innovation that is only now coming into regular use.
"When he came up with an idea, he stuck with it and followed it through," Garneau said.
During the 1990s, Garneau traveled extensively with Kaman to Europe, Alaska and the West Coast — wherever Kaman's K-MAX helicopter, which could lift 3 tons and fit into tight spaces, might find a niche.
"He sensed that it was a machine that would open up areas of the world where they needed a workhorse helicopter," Garneau said. In Alaska and parts of the Pacific Northwest, the helicopter was used by logging companies to remove newly cut timber from forested hillsides.
The K-MAX did not become a big seller, but in a triumph of Kaman's foresight, the U.S. Navy ordered two unmanned K-MAX helicopters two months ago for use by the Marines to resupply troops in Afghanistan. The company is working with Lockheed Martin on that project, which Kaman first envisioned in the early 1990s, when the K-MAX was developed.
Born on June 15, 1919, in Washington, D.C., Charles Huron Kaman was said to have two hobbies when he was young — building model planes and playing guitar. He would later turn down an offer to join Tommy Dorsey's orchestra, but he used his helicopter knowledge to design the round-backed Ovation guitar. Guitars were a part of Kaman Corp. until two years ago, when the company sold Kaman Music to Fender Musical Instruments Corp.
In the 1950s, he added breeding shepherds to his list of interests, and, in 1960, he founded what would become the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation. Since 1981, nearly 5,000 puppies have been born at Bloomfield-based Fidelco, 80 percent of which become guide dogs. Each year the nonprofit organization places about 75 dogs free of charge to qualified candidates.
Kaman's wife, Roberta (Hallock), and his first wife Helen (Sylvander), died before him. He is survived by sons C. William Kaman II of Jacksonville, Fla., and Steven W. Kaman of Los Angeles; a daughter, Cathleen Kaman Wood of Santa Fe, N.M.; and three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.