RIVERSIDE — In ceremonies at the National Museum of the United States Air Force last week, a Piqua legend and the company that he helped build took their well-deserved place in aviation history as Robert N. Hartzell was enshrined in to the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
The annual “Oscar Night of Aviation” saw four men added to the rolls of aviation pioneers and legends, joining Orville and Wilbur, with other notables including Neil Armstrong, Chuck Yeager, Jim Lovell, and Piqua native Dominic Gentile, among others. In addition to Hartzell, the Class of 2015 included Robert Cardenas, Gene Kranz, and Abe Silverstein.
It all began with the Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur, who from the bicycle shop in Dayton designed and built the world’s first heavier-than-air flying machine, then successfully flew their aeroplane off the sands of Kitty Hawk, N.C., on Dec. 17, 1903.
A few years after that, a young man from Greenville, Robert Hartzell, began working at his father’s woodworking business in Piqua after he left the University of Cincinnati, where he was working on his engineering degree, in order to help his father. His father’s company was then engaged in producing gun stocks and providing lumber to companies making wooden airplane propellers for the effort to win World War I.
Robert had become friends with Orville Wright years earlier. Wright personally encouraged Hartzell to begin building airplane propellers. The fighting in Europe spurred the young businessman as he set up shop in an old desk factory in Piqua.
As World War I came to a close, Hartzell’s interest in aviation went beyond manufacturing propellers and he began taking flying lessons. He purchased a surplus Curtis JN4 “Jenny” and began barnstorming. His father encouraged young Hartzell to instead build an airport south of Dayton.
Hartzell married his sweetheart, Mirian Herrman, of Dayton in November of 1920. The couple would go on to have five children, four boys and a girl.
During the 1920s, Hartzell continued to work on design improvements to Hartzell Propellers and also built the company’s first airplane, the FC-1, a plywood aircraft that brought home first place at the 1923 International Air Meet in St. Louis.
In 1924, Hartzell entered the FC-2, an improved model, into the International Air Races, in Dayton, beating both WACO and Curtis aircraft.
It was at that point that Hartzell decided to stop building airplanes that were in competition with his customers, choosing instead to focus on propeller development and production.
The Hartzell Propeller Fan Company was born as Hartzell began to diversify his production as he began selling smaller propellers as ventilating fans.
As war loomed again in the late 1930s, Hartzell saw that the future lay in metal propellers rather than the traditional walnut. He began producing the metal blades for Curtis Wright and Hamilton-Standard.
During this same period, Hartzell purchased land north of the city of Piqua to build an airport near his production facility. The property was later turned over the Piqua and is today the Piqua Airport.
Hartzell’s next innovation was a controllable-pitch, aluminum hub propeller for the rapidly expanding light aircraft market. Among the customers for this new propeller were Navion, Cessna, Piper and Beech King Air.
His innovative engineering led Hartzell to develop a composite propeller blade, using proprietary fabric-based plastic materials which he patented in 1949 as “Hartzite.”
Moving into the 1960 and 1970s, Hartzell Propeller controlled more than 90 percent of the light, twin-propeller business and nearly 100 percent of the turbo-prop light twin-engine market.
Not long before Hartzell’s death in 1964, the company was divided into four separate corporations.
It was this sort of innovation and production savvy that saw Robert Hartzell join his friend Orville Wright as a member of the National Aviation Hall of Fame Class of 2015 on Oct. 2, at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, on the “Oscar Night of Aviation.”
Hartzell’s sons took over the business following their father’s death. The Hartzell Propeller Company eventually sold to T.R.W. and then to Jim Brown, whose family still operates the business in the manner in which Robert Hartzell began in 1917 with the company’s first propeller.
Hartzell Propellers are today found on a wide variety of personal and business aircraft, including high-performance air show airplanes belonging to Michael Goulian and now-fellow-NAHF enshrinee Sean D. Tucker.
Today, as they were throughout the last century, Hartzell products are all “Built On Honor.”
Reach Mike Ullery at (937) 451-3335