Headwinds No Match for Local Propeller Company
March 11, 2016
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  • Spend some time inside Hartzell Propeller Inc.’s main office and manufacturing plant and it quickly becomes apparent that it’s a tight-knit company.

    An attentive visitor sees clues among the 275 people who design, make and service aircraft propellers here that show they have worked together for years and know each other well. They greet one another warmly and move easily in sync with one another. The atmosphere among employees is relaxed but purposeful.

    With an average length of service of 20 years, the employees have watched each other and the company grow and change with the times, says JJ Frigge, the executive vice president in charge of daily operations. When someone retires, it’s not unusual for that person to have spent 40 years with Hartzell, Frigge says.

    “It’s a family-run company with a family atmosphere,” Frigge said. “We’re very proud of that.”

    Still, the company that bears the Hartzell name no longer has a Hartzell leading it.

    The last Hartzell to lead the company was James Hartzell. He was named president in 1979. TRW of Cleveland bought Hartzell Propeller in 1981. Six years later, James Brown Jr., a businessman and former naval aviator, bought Hartzell Propeller from TRW.

    Today, Hartzell Propeller and two sister companies, Hartzell Engine Technologies in Montgomery, Ala., and Mayday Manufacturing in Denton, Texas, are subsidiaries of Tailwind Technologies Inc., based in Piqua. A third company, Hartzell Aerospace in California, was sold to ITT Corp. last year.

    One of Brown’s sons, Joseph W. Brown, is president of Hartzell Propeller and chief operating officer of Tailwind Technologies. He joined Hartzell in 1990. Another son, James Brown III, served as co-president of Hartzell and now is president of Tailwind Technologies.

    Headwinds no match

    That stick-together attitude could become more important as headwinds build for Hartzell and the general aviation industry as a whole.

    The 99-year-old privately held company does not disclose sales figures, but Frigge acknowledged that business this year likely will be flat.

    “In 2014, it rose about 8 to 10 percent. Last year, it fell about the same amount,” Frigge said.

    Shipments of piston-powered aircraft – Hartzell’s key market — fell for the first time in five years last year, down 6.5 percent to 1,056 planes, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. Total worldwide deliveries fell 4.6 percent in 2015 to 2,267 planes worth nearly $21 billion.

    The only segment that saw sales growth was business jets, up 1.6 percent, the association said.

    Association President and CEO Pete Bunce attributed the declines to “plummeting energy sector revenue, economic uncertainty and currency fluctuations in such key (general aviation) markets as Brazil, Europe, Russia and China.”

    Hartzell Propeller controls about 80 percent of the market for prop-driven planes with engines that produce between 80 and 2,200 horsepower. The company makes about 40 aluminum alloy and composite propellers per day.

    Hartzell works closely with about 100 airplane makers and modifiers, Frigge said. About half of the company’s total sales come from aircraft manufacturers, modifiers and hobbyists. The other half comes from aftermarket parts and service work.

    The company also makes special props for air show performers such as Sean Tucker and the Red Bull competition airplanes.

    Choreographed sequence

    On the 185,000-square-foot shop floor, propellers are made in a tightly choreographed sequence involving computer-controlled accuracy and years of hands-on human experience.

    The process for a metal prop begins with the arrival of blank aluminum alloy blades that arrive from an Ohio supplier. They are set in computer-controlled machines and milled to the proper shape.

    After the blade leaves the milling machine, a worker carefully grinds the tips smooth. The blade is then sent to a robotic sanding station, which recognizes about 300 different blade profiles and sands each blade accordingly.

    The robot does the work of about 20 men. But Frigge said no one at Hartzell has ever lost his job to a robot. “We train the people to do different things,” he says.

    “We’re not a union shop, so everyone takes control of their own growth and development, and we’ve always provided lots of opportunities,” Frigge said.

    The finished blades are painted on a robotic paint line. The completed blades are inspected, and if they pass inspection, receive the decal that proudly distinguishes them as a Hartzell propeller. The blades are attached to a hub and made ready for shipment or sale.

    Maintenance in-house

    The props sell for between $6,000 and $300,000, depending on the number of blades and propeller’s complexity. Hartzell tries to keep about 140 props in stock, Frigge said.

    “It’s important that we have inventory and the right inventory,” Frigge says, particularly for its Top Prop program.

    “That’s where someone takes his prop in for an overhaul, then finds out he needs a few new blades and a new hub,” Frigge says. “So, it’s a better value just to get a whole new prop” that helps the plane perform better. “We want to make sure we have those in stock.”

    The company does repair work for governments, companies and individuals. Hartzell tries to turn around a repaired prop in 10 days, Frigge said.

    Most composite blades can be repaired unlimited times because epoxy and resin are added to them as part of the repair process. Metal blades, however, lose material whenever they are sanded smooth again and can only be repaired a few times before they no longer meet specifications, Frigge said.

    For most repairs, the customer will fly the plane to the airport near the Hartzell plant. The plane will be hangered there while the prop is removed for service. Once the work is completed, the prop is reinstalled on the plane, and the pilot returns to the airport and flies the plane home.