Creativity -- The MRMF draws from the past


As a child, I lived through the depression years and the wars that followed them.  Looking back on 50 years of aerospace development, I must conclude that the biggest impact upon aeronautics was the development of the gas turbine jet engine.  By achieving a very high ratio of thrust-to-weight the jet engine made possible high altitude and high speed flight--indeed, a first class breakthrough in flight technology.


In the early days of airborne gas turbines, I remember hearing the professionals brag "Give me an engine with enough thrust and I can make a flying machine out of a barn door."  At the time, this was taken as a silly joke. We now recognize that many a true word is spoken in jest; in the decades to follow, that joke came back to haunt us again and again.


It was my great fortune to begin my aeronautical years working for a great naval aircraft manufacturer, Chance Vought aircraft.  The demands imposed by catapult and arresting gear required that carrier aircraft have modest weight and low takeoff and landing speeds. As a result, the engineering disciplines attending the design of Navy carrier fighters were all highly sensitive to the issue of weight.  This was not necessarily the case for Air Force fighters being designed during the same period.


If Air Force fighters were overweight, bigger jet engines would allow higher takeoff speeds to be achieved.  If longer takeoff and landing distances were required, bigger runways could be provided; and, if the installed engines could not provide enough thrust, it was always possible to strap on a cluster of JATO bottles to boost takeoff thrust.  Drag parachutes could, and were, installed on many fighters of the day to reduce landing roll and wear upon the wheel braking systems.


If more thrust, and more powerful jet engines were the answer to problems of weight, the engineering focus began to shift from low weight structural considerations to aerodynamics, flight controls and avionics systems. The structural arts that were so finely honed during the 1930s and 1940s were beginning to languish. Except for the design of Navy fighters, the slow demise of weight considerations began to make its impact upon military aircraft design processes. Weight issues were generally deferred until later in the design cycle.


My 16 years at General Dynamics (now Lockheed) were most enjoyable from the point of view of a great working environment.  The AFTI/F-16 DFCS program gave me many opportunities to be creative, in large part because the project was physically removed from the main plant directorship.  We had this in common with the Skunk Works; and, I can safely say that the bosses at the main plant probably judged us to be a "leper colony" to be distanced because we were bound to fail.  Had they known that we were destined to be the next "shooting star", the more ambitious of the main plant directors would have wanted to identify with AFTI claiming  their "paternity rights" by association.

The wonderful side of being an aerospace leper is that meddlesome people on the corporate ladder generally give you lots of "breathing space."  With few pressures coming from those managerial quarters, creativity has a reasonable chance to seize the imagination of workers who are disposed to court her.

By this time, I had my PhD and I was recently licensed as a P.E.  This added somewhat to the maneuvering room provided me on the AFTI program.  The rest is pleasant history; and, against all odds, the children that were hired right out of school earned their spurs.  Since these young minds were spared the usual corporate bigotry, they were ripe to mature as intended.


Thanks to the actions of a prior associate on the AFTI program, I was later assigned to the A-12 proposal team from the outset. This effort lacked the advantage afforded by "the leper colony" in that the A-12 prize was up in the billions of dollars.  This kind of limelight was impossible for the "good old boys club" to ignore.

Sad to say, the man they chose for program manager was overwhelmed by his stature; and, eventually, he was overwhelmed by his managerial myopia--not being able to comprehend what was waiting for him in the long term.  He was a nice enough fellow; and, he was an ex-Navy Crusader fighter pilot; but, his experience with the Navy did not include a foundation in carrier fighter systems engineering.  He consistently ignored my warnings related to the weight and schedule issues that were being deferred in favor of other technologies.

General Dynamics won the A-12 competition; but, as expected, things caught up with our friend; and, when the A-12 program was cancelled, I recall at least one element manager walking into my office to confess that people now understood what I was saying in regards to U.S. Navy carrier suitability requirements.

"We are more ready to try the untried when what we do is inconsequential.
Hence the fact that many inventions had their birth as toys."      Eric Hoffer (1902 - 1983)