What D0 Dogs, Guitars, And Choppers Have In Common?

It's a warm July morning, and Charles H. Kaman is standing in the old tobacco fields of northern Connecticut watching a test pilot fly about in a brand-new, light helicopter. Kaman designed the chopper himself. The gleam in his eye says as much. Kaman has been fascinated with flight since he was a boy in Washington, D.C. Then, the fields were local playgrounds, and the aircraft were balsa-wood models powered by rubber bands.

Charlie Kaman may be the founder and CEO of Kaman Corp., an $810 million conglomerate in Bloomfield, Conn. But the 74-year-old engineer is still a wide-eyed inventor first, executive second. In the 1940s, he helped pioneer the development of the helicopter by giving the machines flaps that added stability. Along the way, he designed the Ovation acoustic guitar--the first to use composite materials in place of wood. He also succeeded in breeding a strain of German Shepherd dog largely free of debilitating hip dysplasia. "He's a modern-day Leonardo," says investor Jonathan Bush, brother of the former President. "He's as accomplished a person as I have known in my life."

SLUMP TIME. Kaman Corp. will need all of its founder's vision and skill in the coming years as it attempts to navigate in a world of shrinking defense spending and weak commercial aviation markets. Kaman rode high on the Reagan military boom, helping develop nuclear weapons and antisubmarine technology in addition to helicopters and aircraft parts (table). Sales and profits doubled between 1980 and 1990. Now, however, defense cuts and the airline slump are boding ill. While the $810 million in projected 1993 sales would top 1992's results, that still trails a peak of $827 million in 1990.

So Kaman is back at the drawing board. His goal is to launch a lightweight commercial helicopter designed to ferry payloads rather than people. Among its uses: pulling logs out of forests to avoid using environmentally destructive roads. Based on simple concepts, the K-Max chopper is a single-engine machine that will be leased for about $1 million a year for up to 1,000 hours of use. "It's an extremely viable product," says analyst Mark Bobbi of Forecast International, an aviation consulting firm based in Newtown, Conn. "The question is: Will it be cost-effective?" That won't be known until the K-Max hits the market early next year. As yet, there's no real competition.

To build the machine, Kaman is drawing on a lifetime of aerospace achievement. His K-225--the first gas-turbine-powered chopper--now sits in the Smithsonian Institution's National Air & Space Museum. "There's a whole goddamn 50 years of experience in there," Kaman says of his newest creation. Those in the know believe that could give the K-Max an edge. "If anybody can pull it off, Charlie can," says Harry Gray, former CEO of United Technologies Corp., the parent of a rival helicopter manufacturer.

AUDACITY. Kaman grew up in Washington, the son of a German immigrant. The elder Kaman was a construction supervisor who oversaw work on the Supreme Court building and Union Station, despite his second-grade education. Charlie had loftier ambitions. A botched tonsillectomy had left him deaf in one ear and kept him from fulfilling his dream of becoming a professional pilot. So after graduating from Washington's Catholic University in 1940, he went on to build flying machines. Kaman took a job at United Aircraft (now United Technologies), where helicopter pioneer Igor Sikorsky held court. By 1943, he had become the head of aerodynamics.

In 1945, Kaman had the audacity to suggest a way of improving the stability of United's helicopters. He favored putting flaps on the main rotor and doing away with the tail rotor altogether, thereby making the choppers easier to control. Don't bother, he was told, the company already had one hotshot inventor and didn't need another. Kaman's answer was to form his own company around a homemade test rig that he had built from junk parts. It featured the engine of a 1933 Pontiac and the rear end of an old Dodge.

Over the years, Kaman built a succession of helicopters. The Husky was used in Vietnam to rescue downed pilots, and the SH-2 antisubmarine aircraft is still being used by the Navy. Kaman moved into other defense work and built up a business distributing industrial parts. But his inventiveness didn't stop with just machines.

A longtime guitar player (he once turned down a $75-a-week job with the Tommy Dorsey band), Kaman's Martin acoustic developed a warped neck in the early 1960s. Seeking help, he visited the Martin factory in Pennslyvania. At the time, Kaman's board was urging him to diversify away from heavy dependence on the Pentagon. "We looked at boats, tennis racquets, and golf clubs, but nothing fit," Kaman recalls. Then he saw the "primitive" methods used to make quality acoustic guitars. Kaman's modern production techniques, he figured, could be used to make the instruments more efficiently.

GOOD VIBRATIONS. Kaman offered to buy Martin, but the owners were happy with the way they made guitars. Undeterred, he used a knowledge of harmonics gained from building helicopter rotors to design a guitar that could use composites instead of wood and still have a natural sound. "In a helicopter, you take vibration out," he explains matter-of-factly. "In guitars, you put it in." So was born the best-selling Ovation guitar, with its famed round-back design.

It was the same need to fix a nagging problem that led Kaman to design a new canine. A dog-lover who had German Shepherds as pets, he was aware that years of inbreeding had left many with a hip-displacement problem that shortened their lives. Working with a Hartford orthopedic surgeon, Kaman approached the problem like an engineer rooting out a bad engine part. "It's a loose bearing that doesn't work right," he explains.

The first step was to trace the genetic lineage of the shepherds. By applying rigorous breeding standards and weeding out dogs with weak muscle structure, Kaman and his wife, Roberta, were able to breed a largely disease-free strain of dog. They then went a step further, forming the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation. Supported by contributions, Fidelco raises the animals as seeing-eye dogs for the blind.

Even Kaman's yard poses an engineering challenge. When he isn't at the office or working with his dogs, he has been spotted astride a bulldozer, moving boulders around his 25-acre homestead in nearby Farmington. To halt the soil erosion on his uneven acreage, Kaman built a 300-foot, New England-style stone wall using no mortar. "I made no drawings, I just did it straight out of my head," he says. Anyone who has watched Charlie Kaman over the years would have expected no less.

      REVENUES* $810 million   PROFITS* $18 million
      AEROSPACE Prime contractor for Navy's SH-2 antisubmarine helicopter. Supplies 
      components for Patriot missile, software for Air Force's Space Command, and 
      parts for Boeing aircraft and GE jet engines. Developing the K-Max, a 
      lightweight commercial helicopter designed to lift heavy loads.
      MUSIC Builds Ovation round-back acoustic guitar. Distributes amplifiers, PA 
      systems, and instruments to music stores.
      INDUSTRIAL Supplies bearings, sensors, chains, and other parts for use in 
      process control and factory automation.
      *Estimates for 1993 DATA: VALUE LINE, KAMAN CORP.
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