James W. Brown Jr., who led Hartzell Propeller Inc. for nearly a quarter century that spanned the aviation industry’s tumultuous 1990s, died Nov. 20 at age 84 surrounded by his family.
An obituary posted by the family lauded the aviator’s “wisdom, intelligence, kindness, humor, and sense of adventure.”
Brown purchased the propeller company from TRW in 1987 and stepped aside from daily operations in 2000. “I’m not retiring, but I am looking forward to enjoying some longer weekends,” Brown said after handing the reins of the propeller operation over to his son, Joe Brown. Meanwhile, son James Brown III runs parent company Tailwind Technologies, which invests in other companies. Under the elder Brown’s leadership, Hartzell Propeller launched innovations that helped set altitude records, introduced the company’s popular Top Prop conversion program, and assisted NASA with a general aviation propulsion system.
Tom Haines, AOPA senior vice president of media, communications, and outreach, recalled that Brown was “the one who really turned Hartzell around when he purchased it in the 1980s.”
Brown was a skilled U.S. Navy pilot and an astute business leader who “played a very significant leadership role” in the reinvigoration of general aviation’s fixed wing sector following the passage of the General Aviation Revitalization Act, wrote Pete Bunce, president and CEO of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. Brown served on GAMA’s board of directors for 10 years. “Aviation has lost a tremendous leader, and GAMA will miss a wonderful friend,” wrote Bunce.
The company launched in 1860 when John T. Hartzell began his business career selling lightning rods from a horse and wagon. Early on, the company specialized in shaping hardwoods into rifle stocks and other items before family friend Orville Wright convinced the Ohio firm’s founders to taper a walnut log into an airfoil in 1917. In the 100 years since then, the propeller company has received myriad patents for innovations enabling its wood, metal, or composite propellers to pull or push thousands of aircraft through the sky.
A memorial service to celebrate Brown’s life is scheduled for December, and the family suggested donations to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in lieu of flowers.