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Hartzell Propeller President JJ Frigge Featured on Airplane Geeks Podcast

Date: October 25, 2022 Category: Blog Tags: , , , , , , , , ,
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EAA AirVenture is always a wonderful time to connect with aviation friends old and new. At Hartzell Propeller, we particularly look forward to opportunities to share our latest innovations and company updates with pilots and aviation enthusiasts from around the world.

At this year’s event, Hartzell Propeller President JJ Frigge sat down for an interview with Airplane Geeks Podcast’s entrepreneurship and innovation correspondent, Hillel Glazer, as part of the Beyond the Press Release series. Their in-depth conversation covers technical details about Hartzell Propeller’s propeller design, manufacturing, and certification capabilities, the Top Prop propeller conversion program, and a look into Hartzell’s history and passion for aviation innovation.

You can listen to the podcast (#716) here or keep reading for an abridged transcript of the episode.

Hillel Glazer: If I were a pilot with a Hartzell propeller, on say, a 50-year-old plane, what is Hartzell doing today for customers like me?

JJ Frigge: We have a very strong interest in keeping airplanes in the air. So if you have a 50-year-old airplane with a 50-year-old propeller, we still have parts for that propeller. If you need it overhauled or repaired, we have the parts you need to complete that propeller overhaul and get airborne. However, if you’re interested in something newer, something that performs a little better, or something lighter, we also have options for that. Over the past 105 years, since we started making propellers for the Wright Brothers, we have consistently innovated our way to new and better propellers using technology and our analysis and flight testing capabilities to design better airfoils. In many cases, you may have a standard paddle-style prop from 50 years ago that you could upgrade to our scimitar aluminum propeller design, or in some cases, you can upgrade to a lightweight carbon fiber aircraft propeller that will perform better and has a little bit less weight on the nose.

We all know that in a certificated world, everything about the plane goes through a lot of testing, certification, regulation, and paperwork. Let’s say I have the engine that came with my plane, and the propeller on it was matched at the time of type certification. So if I wanted to go into something lighter, better designed, better performance, what’s the process for that?

At Hartzell, with our engineering team and design team, we’re staffed to support the type-certificated propeller that goes on the original airplane. We also have the capability to design stand-alone propellers that we can then issue an STC on our own, a supplemental type certificate, which is basically a new propeller onto an existing airframe. It’s a way for us to bring refreshed propeller options with better performance to existing aircraft. We call that our Top Prop propeller conversion program. We have over 100 different options, so based on what airframe and engine you have, we can find a propeller via an STC that will provide better performance for your airplane.

So if I have a standard, off-the-line aircraft with its original engine or the type of engine the airplane with certificated with, does it have to go through that entire process to get a new propeller?

A propeller is a type-certificated product under FAA certification standards Part 35. What that means is each aircraft propeller needs to be type certificated on its own accord — unless you have an experimental airplane and then we’re into a whole different world. But let’s talk about the standard Cessna, Beechcraft, Piper, all the airplanes that fall into the standard type-certificated world. Hopefully, when that airplane came off the production line, it had a Hartzell propeller on it with the engine and the airframe. We do go through quite a bit of engineering design work, certification work, and then flight testing to issue a Supplemental Type Certificate for that airplane and engine combination with the airplane propeller that we’re certificating.

So if someone’s plane came off the line with a different propeller that wasn’t a Hartzell, is it automatically a tougher road? Or do you have props available for that?

No, it’s definitely not a harder road. That’s where we like to focus, putting Hartzell propellers onto airplanes that don’t have Hartzell props. We are definitely able to do that through our engineering process and our certification process. We’ve been able to bring quite a few new aircraft propellers and better technology to market in that area.

Is it competitive? Let’s say a prop is going up for overhaul and it’s time to get a new one, is that the point at which they should start having a conversation if they wanted to switch to a more updated propeller from a different manufacturer?  

Yes, that’s absolutely right. That propeller overhaul event or repair event is typically the most competitive cycle in the aircraft’s life. We want to win on performance, quality, and support, and we also want to win on lead times, availability, and value, which all matter to our customers.

About how soon before going into that overhaul event should they start the conversation? You don’t want to wait until it actually gets off the plane before you start talking about it, right?

That’s right, but sometimes you’re hoping you can just get an overhaul and you realize that it’s been 10 years since you’ve even looked at the prop and you’re having some major parts fall out of spec. So, for example, instead of a $4,000 overhaul, it might be a $12,000 overhaul, but for $13,000 you could have a whole new prop.

It really varies based on what the aircraft owner is thinking going into the event, but the good news is that we like to have very short lead times at that point of sale. We’re typically able to ship within a week of a call or an order, but because demand is so strong right now, we’re a bit extended on lead time. Our goal is to ship within a few days.

For those of our listeners who aren’t super familiar with the world of aircraft propellers, why don’t you describe some of the biggest differences between the propellers of 50 years ago and the propellers of today that are going on newer aircraft?

What I like to say is that physics doesn’t change. The aerodynamic principles that applied 50 years ago, 80 years ago are still there, but how we’re able to innovate is by using better materials and having better analytical tools. We’ve evolved from a natural wood propeller — walnut is what we started with back in 1917 — to aerospace-grade aluminum, which we still use today, to now carbon fiber that’s enabled us to make propellers with a wider chord, thinner airfoil, and better performance from a sweep and design standpoint to enhance aircraft performance across all flight spectrums, whether that’s takeoff, climb, or cruise.

Our engineering team designs analytically the prop that is specifically tuned for the mission. We know a Mooney pilot wants to go fast, a Cub pilot wants to get off the ground quickly, and a backcountry pilot wants to climb out, so we’re able to tune the prop for specifically what that mission profile looks like for that application.

At what point does Hartzell get involved with, say, an engine maker or airframer in the introduction of a new plane? When do they start talking to you guys?

Ideally, we’re one of the big three. We consider ourselves to be staffed to be involved in upstream process with the aircraft manufacturer and the engine manufacturer. The prop is really the third piece from a mechanical standpoint. Again, we’re designing around the drag of the airplane, the horsepower of the engine, and what mission profile the manufacturer wants for the prop. Do they want it to be a climb prop or a cruise prop? Do they want to go fast? Do they want to get off the ground quickly? We have a staff of 40+ engineers in our company, and ideally, we’re able to be involved in that upstream process so that we can influence the design.

Speaking of design, there’s kind of a truism in aviation and aerospace that if it looks pretty, it works pretty. And you can definitely see that the new propeller designs are works of art. What’s the latest material or manufacturing process you’ve been able to take advantage of that may not have existed even five or so years ago?

That’s a great question. We continue to evolve. Carbon fiber composite technology is exploding in terms of growth and demand in the market. So even a handful of years ago, we had just six people working in our composite building. Now we have 60 and are on our way to more. The composite market segment provides lower weight, it’s a little bit smoother and quieter than some of our traditional metal propellers, and it looks really sexy on the ramp. As you said, some of these things are a work of art, and when we put a little sweep on the blades, it looks five knots faster just on the ramp.

So, with the introduction of composites into the manufacturing and development of a new blade, that wasn’t possible just a few years ago. Composites weren’t where they needed to be. How long ago was it that you really could take advantage of composite materials, and how much of the actual blade is composite?

We actually have two different composite propeller manufacturing processes. Our legacy business, something that goes all the way back into the late ‘70s from a certification standpoint, used more of a pre-pregged laminate where the resin is impregnated into the sheets of laminate and we lay that up over a form core. And you’re talking a couple dozen layers of lay up, and then it goes into a pressure vessel with some heat, and it basically cooks through the heat cycle.

Today, what we’re doing is a dry carbon fiber sock, again over a form core, with some stainless steel parts and a nickel-cobalt leading edge. What we’ve done uniquely at Hartzell is to keep manufacturing complexity and cost in the moderate to mild range, but also develop and deliver a type-certified propeller blade. That’s important because the vast majority of our customers are wanting something that passes FAA certification criteria, and certainly, that’s a requirement for any type-certificated airplane.

What I would say is the key for us is continuous improvement. We’ve consistently edged out our portfolio and gotten a little bit better technology-wise over the past 15, 20, 30 years, and we’re on our next-generation composite aircraft propellers. As we look to the future, we’re actively now starting to work on what’s our generation three going to look like? How can we get a little bit lighter? How can we get a little bit less expensive? How can we still maintain those certification criteria, because quality and safety are our number one goals.

How much can you stretch current designs and improvements before you have to go through a whole new type certification process?

We are having that conversation as we speak. Our engineering team is looking at our current processes and asking how can we lean that out with some automation. But we’re also looking at what does a clean-sheet design look like, because that’s where the market is going. With advanced air mobility and electric-vertical takeoff, you’re going to need potentially 6, 8, 12 propeller units per vehicle in some cases where you’ve got distributed power. And, certainly, cost is going to be a big factor.

However, again, type certification and safety is going to be the number one criteria. So we’re looking at taking our core design principles that we have today and applying them in a new way to develop a whole new process that we know we can follow from a roadmap and technology standpoint.

So I imagine that because of the certification processes and everything, it’s not just that the design has to be certificated so to speak, but so do the engineering and manufacturing processes, all that has to meet regulation.

That’s right. You can design it all you want, but if you can’t make it, you’ve got problems. So we also integrate designing for manufacturability into our process and loop that cycle back with not only our engineers on the design side but also our certification team and our production team to make sure that we’ve got something that wins all the way through that lifecycle.

Let’s learn a little about you. How did you end up in this role? Are you a pilot?

Unfortunately, not. When I was a kid, I had the Navy and Air Force airplanes and pilots on my wall, and that’s who I wanted to be. But in today’s world, with a family and a lot of responsibility, I just haven’t gotten over the hump of getting my flight training finished yet. It’s on the list, it’s just not quite high enough right now.

Were you always an “avgeek?” Is this the pinnacle of your aspirations or did you fall into it?

I’m from Southwest Ohio, midwest born and raised, and the Dayton Air Show is a big deal. Looking back, we’d go see the Navy airplanes, Air Force airplanes, the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds. Again, it was something that I really, really liked when I was younger, but I didn’t pursue that in high school or college. I started my career at Procter & Gamble, which is a big manufacturing company in the Cincinnati area, and spent about ten years there. Then I decided that the opportunity with Hartzell Propeller was something that was really interesting to me. I was coming in as a marketing and general management track, actually the Controller. I worked my way up over the past 10 years here at Hartzell, into the President’s chair two and a half years ago. I guess that’s a long-winded way of saying there were some early indications that this would be something I really enjoyed, but I sort of found my way back into it.

Let’s do the math, so two and a half years ago was 2020, that wasn’t anything like a tumultuous time in anyone’s life, right?

January of 2020 was when I was promoted. COVID broke 60 days later, and you know, the world’s been different ever since.

A lot of people say that when you have to buckle down and rethink everything, a lot of tragedies happen, but a lot of good things come out of it, too.  

I would certainly agree with that, it’s been something that you don’t train for, you just make the best you can of each day and trust the people that you work with and do the best you can.

Is there anything else you’d like our listeners to know?

Hartzell is a company that isn’t just a bunch of propeller geeks, if you will. We really love aviation. We have a company of 350 people and we’ve got about 25 to 30 active pilots. We have our own flying club with some aircraft that the company lets folks use, and we also sponsor pilot training. So for us, it’s not just propeller business; it’s a passion.

At Oshkosh, we have over 30 people here from Hartzell on the grounds meeting with customers and working on the next platforms that we’re investing in and designing. We’re supplying propellers to companies all over the world. We like to say we’re a little company in the cornfields of Southwest Ohio, but with a huge global footprint everywhere.

If you need help from a tech support side, or if you have questions about what Top Props we have available, Oshkosh is the place to be. And you can certainly find friends and talk about airplanes here all day long.

Do You Have a Propeller Question?

We’re happy to answer your aircraft propeller questions, whether you’re looking for technical support, propeller overhaul and repair services, Top Prop conversion program, kitplane propellers, and more.

Get in touch with the propeller experts at Hartzell Propeller today!

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