Hartzell Preserves Aviation’s Heritage and Keeps Top-Flight Jobs in the U.S.
November 5, 2014
  • Share
  • In 1978, GAMA member manufacturers shipped 14,398 piston singles, 2,634 piston twins and 548 turboprops (essentially all of them twins). Those 17,580 aircraft required 20,762 propellers, made predominantly by Hartzell, McCauley (owned by Cessna since 1960) and Sensenich.

    Three years later, when TRW signed the check to buy the propeller company from the Hartzell family, the tally of props shipped on new airplanes had dropped to 11,528. When business executive and former naval aviator Jim Brown wrote TRW a check to buy Hartzell in 1987, the tally associated with new airplane deliveries that year was about 1,300 propellers, a sorry 6 percent of what it had been 10 years earlier. Hartzell’s sales revenue from all sources when Brown bought the company was in the neighborhood of $26 million. The Browns aren’t saying what revenue is today, but they’re still in business and management gives the impression it’s not uncomfortable with the books. However, executive v-p JJ Frigge points out that the company maintains “a healthy skepticism about the market in general” and keeps close tabs on the competition.

    GAMA’s 2013 new-airplane shipment statistics show that new airplanes last year required a tad shy of 2,000 propellers. However, GAMA now includes in its ranks more companies (agricultural aircraft manufacturers and non-U.S. aircraft builders, relevant here; and helicopter makers, not relevant here) than it did in 1978, 1981 or 1987.

    Be that as it may, the turboprop is enjoying something of a resurgence in general aviation, as well as at the regional airlines, as operators gain a keener appreciation of its economies and value; and of course there is the market for the active GA fleet, piston and turbine, which still wears out or dings propellers that need to be overhauled or replaced. Half of Hartzell’s business today comes from aircraft OEMs, modifiers and homebuilts; the other half comes from aftermarket parts and service. Seventy percent of revenue is derived from the U.S.

    Jim’s son Joe Brown, group president of Hartzell and 2014 vice chairman of GAMA, said his company commands 80 percent of the market for the horsepower band it serves (80 hp to 2,200 shp, with anywhere from two to six composite or aluminum blades and steel or aluminum hubs), shipping 3,700 props annually, half of them for export, and about 60 percent of the total market for aircraft propellers, which spans the Dowty and Hamilton Standard props on the biggest commuters and military transports, all the way down to light sport aircraft.

    A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Middlebury College, Joe Brown joined Hartzell in 1990 and has been involved primarily in manufacturing, quality, inventory control, information technology, purchasing and accounting. As he conducts a tour of company headquarters in Piqua, Ohio, he reveals his passion for lean manufacturing and waste reduction, self-directed work teams, cellular manufacturing, and the technologies of enterprise resource planning and Cad/Cam.

    Given the choice of having cheap, inexperienced labor make his propellers in a foreign land or finding a way to keep production in the seasoned hands already in Piqua, Brown said he soon concluded there was only one correct course: pursue a technological solution to achieve the latter and still turn a profit. He kept the cream of the Piqua workers (some of whom are third-generation Hartzell employees) and says he pays them well to operate and oversee the finest automated, computer-controlled manufacturing tools money can buy to build propellers properly, reliably, repeatably, efficiently and economically. Brown notes with some pride that while there might be fewer jobs at Hartzell than there used to be before the clever machines moved in, the jobs that remain are well paid and they’re still in Piqua.

    Crudely shaped aluminum alloy forgings, delivered weekly by a supplier in Ohio, are secured inside a CNC milling machine and undergo a spectacular transformation to emerge as propeller blades ready to be smoothed, detailed, plated, anodized, polished and painted. They are then mated with the propeller hub–also milled from a solid block of metal by another computer-controlled machine elsewhere in the building–and the whole assembly is balanced so precisely that a dollar bill weighing 0.03 ounce/1 gram placed near the tip of one blade will take the propeller assembly (a three-blader weighing 75 to 100 pounds) outside factory balance tolerance. The balancing room is isolated from the shop-floor airflow because that too would disrupt the process. The blades, hub, mechanisms and finished propeller are checked at every step, and then packed and shipped off to start their life as what used to be aptly called airscrews.

    Even with all the automation now installed, there are still 300 employees in Piqua, half of them in manufacturing, 40 in engineering, 30 in sales, marketing and support, 30 in parts and service, 15 in quality control and 35 in other functions, including five tech reps who provide 24/7 support and five tech writers. Ninety percent of parts orders are shipped the same day from Piqua. The company has a factory service center in Piqua and 20 authorized service centers in 11 countries, and Joe Brown lays claim to Hartzell’s having “more intellectual property with the FAA than any other company in the world.” Composite Blades

    At a separate location in Piqua is Hartzell’s testing and research center, in one corner of which are the battered, shattered and tattered remains of blades that were tested to within a whisker of utter destruction but held together. The accompanying photos tell the stories of blades hit by carcasses shot from the chicken gun and blades struck by laboratory lightning.

    Hartzell produced the first certified composite propeller blade in 1978, but Joe Brown recalls that it was the regional airlines that drove the shift toward composite props, beginning in the late 1980s. Composite props are considered more durable operationally because they are more damage tolerant. “A metal blade is a tuning fork that can be affected by nicks, more so than a composite blade, and overall the cost of operating a composite-blade prop is lower,” he notes, adding that equivalent composite blades are 35 percent lighter than metal ones. “The fifth blade on the five-blade prop that comes with the new TBM900 was free in terms of weight versus the metal four-blade prop it replaces.”

    Brown sees composite as a better choice for every conventional propeller application, but for outright performance (such as the Red Bull racing spectacle, which Hartzell supports) “go with metal. Metal is less costly, and for blades you can’t make them thinner than in metal.” That said, however, Hartzell’s carbon-fiber composite blades are considerably thinner than wood-core composite props, and Brown puts cross-section slices of his and their blades on the table to prove it (see photo). The airfoil sections are as different as a DC-3’s and an F/A-18’s.

    A laminated wood blade is significantly thicker than a Hartzell composite blade, and therefore creates more drag. The wood blade has to be thicker because carbon fiber is five times stronger than beech and 10 times stronger than spruce.

    Hartzell has 19 certified applications for its composite props, and it says there are blades with more than 50,000 hours logged still flying on commuters. Certification testing has included 75 bird impacts and 20 lightning strikes in the lab.

    Hartzell is a rarity in this business today: a true family enterprise that is passionate about flying. The company has a flight department with three TBMs, each of which logs 400 hours a year; an employee flying club with a Sundowner and a Dakota; 20 active pilots on the payroll, six of whom built airplanes; an EAA chapter based at Hartzell Field; an IMC chapter in the process of launching; and a summer training camp for airshow pilots Sean Tucker and Mike Goulian.

    In an industry that seems too frequently these days to have pulled away from its roots, Hartzell Propeller is proof that a family with strong values can successfully combine high-tech with old-fashioned wholesomeness. Long live the airscrew.