BY KAREN GERHARDINGER| MIRROR REPORTER — Standing 10 feet tall and weighing 150 pounds each, the sleek, black propellers are impressive on their own. When assembled in NASA’s Langley Research Center later this month, the eight propellers will create winds of up to 600 mph.
“This is the third time I’ve made these,” said Lonnie Prince, owner of the Whitehouse-based Prince Aircraft Company. “I also made a set for a 30-foot wind tunnel for Lotus Car Company.”
Made of Sitka Spruce core – known for its high strength-to-weight ratio – the propellers were manufactured in the back of Prince’s Providence Street headquarters, sanded and covered with a carbon fiber to make them resistant to impact damage. Smaller propellers are usually made from maple that meets strict standards on grains per inch.
The NASA propellers took five months to finish and were shipped out last week. Prince, a licensed commercial pilot, plans to fly down to Virginia to answer questions and see the final result.
“The NASA wind tunnel is like a big racetrack that’s used to test air foils and airplanes in a closed environment. That data helps NASA in numerous ways,” Prince said.
NASA is just one of more than 9,000 Prince customers ranging from individuals building their own airplanes to organizations like Boeing, Ford, General Electric, Lockheed Aerospace, FBI, CIA, the Smithsonian Institution, all branches of the U.S. military, Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg movies.
Since founding his company in 1979, Prince has manufactured nearly 10,000 propellers and repaired another 3,000.
“I take the customer’s idea and turn it into a workable product. I have 50 propellers in progress, and each one is a unique design,” said Prince, pointing to a small propeller that he designed for a military drone that will conduct missions at 14,000 feet.
Owning a successful business with customers worldwide wasn’t on Prince’s radar as a kid growing up in Heath, Ohio. He started designing and building model airplanes when he was young, and in high school he designed and built two man-carrying gliders in shop class and earned his pilot’s license at the local airport.
With the Vietnam War underway, Prince enlisted in the Air Force in 1968 and served as a mechanic, including two years in Vietnam, Taiwan, Okinawa and Cambodia. At times, he’d volunteer to recover planes that were crashed in the jungle. One night, his crew heard the enemy approaching and laid flat on the wings of an airplane to avoid detection.
He remained in the Air Force until 1975. Since that time, he has built four aircraft with one powered by a Volkswagen engine.
“Aviation is a passion I’ve enjoyed my entire life, and I love to share that with others,” he said.
After the Air Force, Prince was a team member at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Research Lab, designing and building the first military drone prototype to investigate its possible use as a military tool. At the end of the contract, he became an air traffic controller, but on the side he was building experimental aircraft, flying corporate planes and serving as president of the local Experimental Aircraft Association chapter.
In the meantime, he began checking out library books about aeronautics, business and calculus to learn more about propellers.
“A properly designed and manufactured propeller will promote maximum aircraft performance, decrease operating cost, operate smoothly and provide an enjoyable flying experience,” he said. “The propeller is a major component in enhancing the performance of an aircraft.”
In 1979, he started Prince Aircraft Company in the basement of his Waterville home, before manufacturing propellers full time beginning in 1981.
A map on the wall of his Whitehouse office has hundreds of pins placed around the world for customers who have used Prince’s propellers. Over the years, he’s had many competitors, but many have also gone out of business. In that time, he’s managed his company from a circa 1910 building in downtown Whitehouse, using tooling that he designed himself.
“I’m proud that my customers have put their trust in me,” he said.