Creator of Hexcel honeycomb skis

Passing Date: 
Saturday, February 17, 2018

Hubert A. Zemke, Jr, age 75, inventor of the aluminum honeycomb ski, died February 17, 2018 after a long struggle with cancer.

Zemke was a an Air Force brat, son of a fighter wing commander. He learned to ski at Garmisch, and during a determined but undistinguished career as a racer and coach, made many friends in ski racing, including Dick Dorworth, Spider Sabich and the McCoy boys, Gary, Dennis and Carl.

In 1964 Zemke entered the University of Nevada/Reno to study mechanical engineering. There, he engaged a trio of professors to help find a livelier, stronger material for ski cores than the plywood then in general use. The team tried laminating fiberglass to aluminum honeycomb, a very light material used mainly for floors and panels in large jet aircraft. The main problem was how to adhere the fiberglass sheets to the tiny gluing surface presented by the thin edges of the honeycomb cells.

The project went dormant for a year while Zemke served in Korea with his National Guard unit. Eventually the group built a few pairs that skied well – well enough to interest the McCoys and their father, Mammoth Mountain founder Dave McCoy. McCoy came in as chief investor and Zemke dropped out of college to build skis in McCoy’s shop.

Zemke bought the bulk of his materials – aluminum honeycomb and pre-impregnated fiberglass – from the Hexcel Corp., which manufactured the stuff for large aerospace customers like Boeing. In 1970 Hexcel licensed the ski from McCoy (paying royalties to the UNR professors), and moved production into an abandoned World War II explosives factory in Livermore, California. The lively, featherweight skis proved a huge hit among slalom racers. Within a few years Zemke was able to move Hexcel ski production to a modern facility in Reno where production may have peaked at 12,000 pairs a year.

Because of the cost of materials, the skis were expensive to make. In 1970, Hexcel Corp. needed to focus on its core aerospace business and sold the ski enterprise to Chris and Denny Hanson of Hanson Boots. Zemke stayed on as product engineer and factory manager. When, in 1984, interest rates hit 23 percent, many ski and boot factories closed – Hanson/Hexcel among them.

Zemke went on to a consulting career. Among his clients was Hexcel Corp., which outsourced to him projects like super-light aircraft seats for large passenger jets.

He is survived by his wife Tessa, daughter Tasha Marie Zemke, and son Hubert Zemke III. --Seth Masia

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