Hartzell, Robert N.
Robert Hartzell was born on June 3rd, 1886, in Greenville, Ohio, the only son of George and Deborah Hartzell. The family moved to Oakwood in 1906, not far from the future home of Orville Wright. Like some other young people of that era, Hartzell developed a keen interest in aviation.
Hartzell studied engineering at the University of Cincinnati from 1915 to 1917. He left before earning a degree to enter his father’s woodworking business in Piqua, Ohio. World War I brought an embargo on lumber shipments overseas, hampering George Hartzell’s business. To stay solvent, the company manufactured rifle gunstocks for the military and supplied lumber to companies making wooden airplane propellers.
Knowing of Robert’s enthusiasm for aviation, Orville suggested this might be a good time to get into the propeller business.
Robert set up shop at an old desk factory. Needing help, he hired Mr. Stone who had a small propeller shop in St. Louis. It soon became apparent that Stone didn’t know much more than Hartzell did about building a functioning propeller. Hartzell then hired Fred Charavay as his chief engineer, after which they began making real progress.
With America’s entry into World War One, the demand for military propellers surged. Hartzell’s company went to work producing the first propellers for the Liberty Engine, used on a variety of aircraft. Their first big order came from the Navy for its flying boats.
As quickly as the military orders grew, they tapered off at war’s end.
However, Hartzell’s interest in aviation went beyond building propellers. He wanted to fly. After the war, he secretly purchased a surplus Curtiss JN4 “Jenny” to start a barnstorming business. His father, learning of the plan, deemed it impractical, and encouraged Robert to instead build an airport on 50 acres of land south of Dayton. Renting space to working pilots proved successful – and kept Robert off the barnstorming circuit.
In November of 1920, Robert married Miriam Herrman of Dayton. The couple would have four boys and a girl.
Robert wasn’t finished with airplanes, however. With the propeller production reduced, Hartzell decided to design and build the company’s first airplane, the FC-1. The plywood plane took First Place in the Flying Club of St. Louis Trophy Race at the 1923 International Air Meet.
In 1924, he entered an improved model, the FC-2, in the International Air Races in Dayton, besting competitors flying both WACO and Curtiss airplanes. Despite such triumphs, Hartzell, wanting to avoid conflict by competing against his own propeller customers, stopped making airplanes.
The 1920s were lean for all of the aviation industry, and Hartzell diversified to survive. In 1927, smaller propellers found an additional use as ventilating fans, spawning a new company called The Hartzell Propeller Fan Company. Other products included wood phonograph cabinets and steering wheels.
Hartzell continued to supply propellers to manufacturers and developed propellers for the Navy Dirigible Program, including the Macon and the Shenandoah.
With the onset of World War II, demand from the military again soared. Hartzell quickly evolved from making walnut propellers to producing metal propeller blades as a subcontractor to Curtiss Wright and Hamilton-Standard.
It was during this time in the 1940s that Hartzell purchased a farm to create the Piqua Airport, near his factory, and later turned it over to the city.
Postwar, Hartzell developed the technology to produce controllable-pitch aluminum hub propellers, becoming a leading manufacturer. This included a line of controllable pitch, constant-speed, and full-feathering varieties for the expanding light aircraft market.
Hartzell metal propellers were used on the early models of the Navion, Cessna, Piper Apache, and Beech King Air Series, among others.
A composite propeller blade, using a proprietary fabric-based plastic material, was first developed in 1940 and patented in 1949 as Hartzite.
Due the light weight, low-cost, and efficiency of its products, during the 1960s and 70s Hartzell controlled over 90 percent of the light, twin propeller industry business and nearly 100 percent of the turbo-prop light twin-engine market.
Over these next few decades, Hartzell continued to develop composite propellers including five- and six-blade models for larger, higher horsepower commuter planes. These quieter yet powerful propellers enabled further development of larger turbo prop planes.
Through the years, the company grew, divided into four corporations in 1964. Robert passed away on December 11, 1968, and the business leadership transitioned to his family.
In 1981, the family sold the Hartzell Propeller Company to TRW, and in 1987, the company was purchased by James Brown, Jr. Today, the Hartzell Propeller Company continues Robert Hartzell’s legacy of innovation – “Built on Honor” – into the future of powered flight.
Robert N. Hartzell is a 2015 enshrinee of the National Aviation Hall of Fame.