Stanley Hiller, 81, Innovator in the Design of Helicopters, Dies

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Pacific Historian
Jun 4, 2005
Orange County, CA
May 3, 2006
Stanley Hiller, 81, Innovator in the Design of Helicopters, Dies

Stanley Hiller Jr., whose childhood passion for vehicles led him to design new technology for helicopters while still a teenager and who went on to become a leader in the industry, died on April 20 at his home in Atherton, Calif. He was 81.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer's disease and pneumonia, a son, Jeffrey Hiller, said.

At its zenith, his company, Hiller Aircraft, was one of the so-called big four in helicopter production, the others being the Sikorsky Aircraft Company, the Piasecki Helicopter Corporation and the Bell Aircraft Corporation. Later, he became almost as well known in a second career, as a venture capitalist who specialized in rescuing failing businesses.

Stanley Hiller Jr. was born on Nov. 15, 1924, in San Francisco to Stanley Hiller Sr. and Opal Perkins Hiller. His father owned a shipping company and was a pilot who built his own plane in 1910.

It was clear early on that the son was an innovator. At the age of 8, he removed the engine from his family's washing machine and attached it to a homemade go-cart that he rode around his Berkeley neighborhood. By the time he was 12, he was producing gas-propelled toy racing cars that he sold for $28 each and formed a company, Hiller Industries, which employed 16 youngsters and 2 adults. That enterprise brought him $100,000 a year.

To produce the miniature cars, which could run at 60 miles an hour, he and his father, who was also an engineer and an inventor, built a die-casting machine. When World War II broke out, they converted that process to build aluminum parts for fighter planes.

But young Stanley had his eye on helicopters. By the time he was 17 he had come up with the premise that stacking two sets of blades whirring in opposite directions on top of one another was safer and more efficient than the traditional configuration, with one set on top of the aircraft and the other at its tail.

Dropping out of the University of California, Berkeley in his freshman year after a professor told him his design would never work, he sold $1 million in his company's stock and went to work full time on developing his XH-44, more familiarly known as the Hiller Copter, which now hangs in the Smithsonian Institution.

"He built and flew the first helicopter on the West Coast in 1944 when he was 19," said Willie Turner, vice president for marketing at the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos, Calif., which Mr. Hiller established in 1998.

Mr. Hiller was about to join the Navy when some officers were so taken with his invention that they granted him a deferment and provided funds for research. In 1944, receiving the backing of Henry J. Kaiser, the shipping mogul, he founded United Helicopters, based in Berkeley, to develop the Hiller Copter.

In 1949, he flew his craft across the country, bound for Wall Street, where he buzzed by the windows of banking and brokerage houses that had refused to invest in his company, an adventure that was widely reported at the time.

His helicopters were used by the French for jungle rescues in Indochina and by the United States Army in the Korean War. There the helicopters were used primarily for medical evacuation, later becoming familiar to the public through the television series "MASH."

Mr. Hiller also ventured into ingenious experiments that led to flights of fancy if not actual flights. One, Mr. Turner said, was a flying platform that resembled a manhole cover with a person standing on its surface; one was a collapsible helicopter that could be assembled with bare hands in five minutes.

"He wanted to do things that were out of the box," Mr. Turner said.

In 1964 his company was acquired by Fairchild Stratos for about $10 million, but Mr. Hiller remained on board as executive vice president. He led an effort to win a Pentagon contract for light observation helicopters to be used in Vietnam but lost that battle in 1966 to Hughes Aircraft.

Disillusioned, he quit aviation and carved out a new persona as what he described as a "corporate paramedic." He told The New York Times in 1983 that what he was seeking was "companies close to but not quite at the point of bankruptcy."

In 1971, along with two partners, he bought G. W. Murphy Industries, a Houston oil producer, selling off its weakest division and setting up others that could not be sold as separate entities. Within 12 months the company was out of debt. Other companies that he resuscitated included the Bekins Company, Bristol Compressors, the Reed Tool Company and the York International Corporation.

After he retired, he established the museum. He liked to drop in there unannounced and serve as a volunteer.

Mr. Hiller is survived by his wife of 59 years, Carolyn Balsdon Hiller of Atherton; his sons, Jeffrey and Stephen Hiller, both of Atherton; a sister, Patricia Hiller Chadwick of London, and seven granddaughters.

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