Defense Media Network

Less Than a Year After His Death, Charlie Kaman’s Helicopters Achieve Another First

On Dec. 17, 2011, the Marine Corps 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing used a Kaman K-MAX unmanned helicopter to make the first unmanned helicopter cargo delivery on a battlefield. The K-MAX unmanned helicopter was built by the company founded by Charles H. Kaman, and it is part of a demonstration using an unmanned aircraft to haul payloads between a main operating base and a forward operating base – reducing the need for ground convoys that are vulnerable to improvised explosive devices.

Kaman K-225

Kaman K-225, the world’s first helicopter with a turbine engine. Test pilot William R. Murray is at the controls, 1949. Photo courtesy of the Naval Helicopter Historical Society (NHHS)

Charlie Kaman, one of the last great aviation pioneers of the twentieth century, died on Jan. 31, 2011 in Bloomfield, Conn. at age ninety-one. The Marines’ remotely piloted cargo helicopter assessment is only the latest of hundreds of innovations bearing the Kaman name. Even those who pilot his helicopters may not know that Charlie Kaman was an accomplished musician, guitar maker and service dog breeder.

Kaman was a 26-year-old engineer in 1945 when he founded Kaman Aircraft Company in the garage of his mother’s West Hartford, Conn. home with $2,000 invested by two friends.

When Kaman piloted his company’s first helicopter, the K-125, in the nocturnal hours of Jan. 15, 1947, “it was pitch dark, sleeting ice, and the conditions couldn’t have been worse, but we got six feet off the ground and hovered successfully,” Kaman said in an interview years later.

Today, the K-MAX being evaluated by the Marines – and used in the civilian world – is simply Kaman’s latest aircraft.

HH-43B Huskie

U.S. Air Force fire protection specialists fight a fire as an HH-43B Huskie helicopter hovers overhead to create a continuous downward air current, assisting the crew members. The crew was assigned to Detachment 8, 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron, Cam Ranh Bay Air Base, Vietnam. U.S. Air Force photo

For his first helicopter, Charlie Kaman carved the rotor blades in the basement of his mother’s house. He used parts of a 1933 Pontiac to design a test rig. Kaman’s early K-225 helicopters, inspired in part by the work of Germany’s Otto Flettner, who became a friend in postwar years, are now an obscure part of history, although three examples remain in museums today.

Kaman’s trademark is the use of twin intermeshing, or “synchro-fit,” rotors employed with every Kaman helicopter except the SH-2 Seasprite.

Kaman’s best-known design, the H-43 Huskie, with its Navy and Marine HTK and HOK versions, incorporated his intermeshing rotor principle. A few of these 1950s-vintage helicopters are still being used in Arizona for agricultural work and in Oregon for logging.

Kaman experimented with almost everything in the field of vertical flight, including compound helicopters, converta-planes, jet driven rotors, rotor chutes, drones, and many others. A list of achievements by this innovator includes:

  • the first servo-controlled rotor
  • the first gas-turbine powered helicopter
  • the first twin-turbine powered helicopter
  • the first production all-composite rotor blade
  • the first remotely controlled helicopter
  • the first remotely controlled helicopter to deploy at sea
  • the first helicopter (the Huskie) to go through its service life with no accident or loss of life attributable to the aircraft design.
SH-2F Seasprite

A close-up view of an SH-2F Seasprite light airborne multi-purpose system (LAMPS) helicopter as the pilot prepares to land it aboard the destroyer USS Thorn (DD 988) during Operation Unitas XXV, June 1, 1984. DoD photo by PHC Terry Mitchell

The Huskie resulted from a 1956 competition by the U.S. Air Force for a Local Crash Rescue Mission (LCRM) craft. The LCRM helicopter was intended to maintain “ready alert” to proceed to a crash site with rescue personnel and equipment to suppress a fire and achieve a rescue. Eventually, half a dozen versions were built, culminating in the HH-43F, which carried out more rescues in Vietnam than any other helicopter type.

Kaman pioneered the concept of the unmanned helicopter. In 1950, he flew a remotely-controlled HTK-1 and was quoted as saying it would be useful in a nuclear emergency. In the early 1960s, seeking to develop a system to communicate with U.S. strategic missile submarines, Kaman tested his Shipboard Very Low Frequency System) aboard two QH-43G Huskie drones which were taken to sea on the cruiser USS Wright(CG 2). Though the Navy eventually chose a different system that uses an antenna trailing behind a fixed-wing E-6B Mercury, not a single mishap occurred during extended Huskie sea trials; the system proved to be operationally feasible.

During Operation Desert Storm, the Kaman name was found on the Navy’s LAMPS Mk. 1 (SH-2F Seasprite) helicopter. Seasprites detected floating mines and helped EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) teams to neutralize the mine threat. The SH-2G model, or LAMPS Mk. 2, served until 2001. LAMPS was the Navy’s acronym for Light Airborne Multi-Purpose System.

The HU2K-1 Seasprite prototype flew on July 2, 1959. Following a change in designation, the first UH-2A entered Navy service on Dec. 18, 1962.

The Seasprite was the mount of the only Navy helicopter pilot to be awarded the Medal of Honor, Lt. Clyde E. Lassen, who flew a UH-2 to rescue two downed Navy F-4 Phantom crewmembers in North Vietnam.

Kaman K-Max in Afghanistan

A detachment of Marines from Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 1 in Afghanistan completed their first unmanned aerial system cargo delivery in a combat zone, Dec. 17, 2011. The unmanned helicopter moved about 3,500 pounds of food and supplies from Camp Dwyer to troops at Combat Outpost Payne. The helicopter, an unmanned variant of the K-MAX, completed the delivery in about an hour and a half. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Justin M. Boling

The prototype K-MAX made its initial flight on Dec. 23, 1991 at Bloomfield, flown by Kaman test pilot Al Ashley and powered by a 380-hp Lycoming 17A gas turbine engine. The K-MAX has a high aspect ratio tail fin with a movable rudder surface tied directly to rudder pedals. The pilot’s compartment is designed to be removed so that the aircraft can be flown as a drone. In a press briefing in 1992, Charlie Kaman called K-MAX “the start of a family of hardware designed to show off hi-tech.” He said he preferred the intermeshing rotor configuration and expected pilotless versions of K-MAX to be used in fisheries law enforcement and anti-drug efforts as well as military uses. Kaman said the K-MAX could loiter at 10,000 feet for “close to half a day at a time” and that it has “near infinite life” on its transmission and rotor blades. Often called “Leonardo da Vinci in a business suit,” Charlie Kaman was a good enough guitar player to perform with Tommy Dorsey and to supply guitars of his design to Carly Simon. In his spare time, Kaman and his wife bred German Shepherds and created the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation, specializing in service dogs for the blind.

Kaman’s inventions and innovations will be with us for a long time to come – testimony to the brilliance of a pioneer whose name deserves mention alongside Sikorsky, Piasecki and Hiller. Said Hal Salem, a former Huskie pilot: “We would not have today’s helicopter industry without Charlie Kaman.”


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...