Play On Charles Kaman in the mid-1970s, with one of his Glen Campbell model Ovation guitars
Had history taken a different turn, Tommy Dorsey's famous 1940s swing band would have gained a guitarist, and the aviation industry might have lost a pioneer. But Charles Kaman turned down an invitation to join Dorsey's orchestra and instead chose to pursue his passion for helicopters. In 1945, a 26-year-old Kaman started the Kaman Aircraft Company from the garage of his mother's Connecticut home, with $2,000 in funding and an idea for a new rotor system that would make helicopters more stable and easier to fly. Over the next half-century, Kaman built his company into a billion-dollar aviation and defense conglomerate, which he helmed until age 80. He died on January 31, at 91, as the result of pneumonia.
"He was a consummate engineer," says Russ Jones, the company's former chief investment officer and treasurer. "He was the kind of guy who would get down on the floor on his hands and knees to look at schematics. He just loved it. I was there 35 years, and I never knew him to take a vacation."
Born in Washington, D.C., in 1919, Kaman was a teenage aviation enthusiast as well as an accomplished guitarist. After graduating magna cum laude from Catholic University and deciding against the life of a traveling musician, Kaman took a job with Hamilton Standard, where he worked alongside helicopter pioneer Igor Sikorsky. Kaman left Hamilton in 1945 to launch his own company. He developed the first gas-turbine-powered helicopter, and his rotor advancements led to a number of performance and altitude records.
The company came into its own during the Cold War. Introduced in 1957, the Kaman SH-2 Seasprite line flew more than one million hours for the Navy, conducting antisubmarine warfare and search-and-rescue missions. During the Korean and Vietnam wars, the Kaman H-43 Husky, easy to spot with its signature dual-intermeshing rotors, flew more rescue missions than all other helicopters combined. All told, it is estimated that Kaman helicopters were responsible for saving more than 15,000 lives.
Kaman remained an avid guitarist throughout his life, and his passion for music and engineering found a perfect pairing in 1964, when he and a small team of engineers set about making a better acoustic guitar. Using the lessons learned in removing vibrations from helicopters, the team reverse-engineered a round-back guitar made of composite materials that would put more vibration into the guitar to give it a richer sound. Kaman founded Ovation Instruments in 1966, and Ovation guitars developed a following that has included the likes of Glen Campbell, John Lennon, and Bob Marley.
"Charlie's engineering ability was incredible," says Rick Hall, Ovation's product manager. "But he was a guitar player before he was an engineer. It's very rare to see someone who could use both sides of the brain as well as he did."
Staff editor KASEY WEHRUM has written for Inc. magazine on subjects ranging from the businesses behind professional bull riding to gadget inventor and father of the infomercial, Ron Popeil. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Worth, Budget Travel, and on MSNBC.com. He lives in Brooklyn.