Fighter Jets to Protectives, it's all about Innovation
Some kids are into BMX bikes, photography and girls, in no particular order. Some kids are much more nerdy. Some are into reading The Hobbit, joining the debate team and building model planes. Some are more into lighting off firecrackers, getting muddy and breaking curfew.
When you meet Kali founder Brad Waldron, in his baggy shorts, well-worn Kali t-shirt and dirty Five Ten kicks, you just assume he’s less nerd and more scalawag.
Then when you see the model plane sitting on his desk, you feel a little confused. It seems a bit out of place amongst all the helmets, tools and bike parts.
“One of my former employees made that model for me,” said Waldron. “It’s a plane I got to work on, the F18E/F.”
It turns out, despite all the signs to the contrary, Brad Waldron is a full-on nerd, who helped build aircraft for the military.
“We reworked the F18 Super Hornet aircraft and it went from all aluminum aircraft to all carbon fiber and in the process it was made 20 to 25 percent lighter, a meter longer, bigger and better,” said Waldron.
One of the biggest knocks on the F18s was they didn’t have enough range, because of a lack of fuel capacity. So they were tasked with making it bigger, so it could hold more fuel.
“I was super lucky, as I was in composites R&D and one of my projects was to rework the vertical tails. The tails had 47 aluminum spars and ribs inside. And so by reworking them in carbon fiber, we reduced that number to 13, thus saving weight, but also by using less material we were able to turn those vertical wings into fuel tanks. So now when you look at an F18 and you see the ones with the two angled vertical wings on the back, those are part of the fuel tank. Which is pretty cool. Not a lot of fuel, maybe just enough for takeoff. But still.”
Waldron had just graduated college in his late 20’s when he was recruited to join Northrop Grumman to work on the B2 bomber.
“I did go to BYU and so I think they thought it would be easier to get us top security clearance,” said Waldron, he laughs. “Because they thought everybody at BYU was a straight-laced Mormon kid. My security clearance took a little longer, but I eventually got it.”
Brad spent a lot of time in the shop building parts and in the lab, which he loved. At this point in time the government wanted to spend more money on R&D then they wanted to spend on production. And unlimited timelines and unlimited budgets were the norm.
He built a 12 million dollar milling machine. New machinery was needed now because instead of making smaller parts out of aluminum and riveting them all together, you’re making 30-foot composite sections. How do you machine them? How do you trim them? How do you drill the holes in them? How do you prep them for assembly? It was an amazing learning experience.
Everything Waldron learned during his days building military aircraft and building the machines to build those military aircraft influences his day-to-day approach to running Kali Protectives.
“One of the first technologies Kali worked on came about because someone told me it wasn’t possible,” said Waldon. “And I didn’t understand that mentality. It took us two and a half years, but we were finally able to make what everyone said was humanly impossible, possible.”
Waldron is always weighing the pressures of running a company, getting things to production and his desire to innovate.
“You can do both,” said Waldron. “You can constantly be looking for new innovations while improving on the existing product. I have been working on a helmet project for over two years and I think it will be huge when I finally get it figured out, especially for those who crash in this helmet. I love the materials research and the brain trauma research and, for sure, that is what still drives me. That part of what I do, I can do forever.”