Aerospace, Post WW II – Greatest Half-Century of Achievement – And North American Aviation’s Role!
Among the handful of aerospace companies that emerged from World War II, North American Aviation (later Aircraft Division of Rockwell International. Corp.) soon became one of the pioneering leaders of the thriving aerocraft industry. Other noted US companies were Lockheed Aircraft, Grumman Aircraft, etc. But upon graduating from Illinois Institute of Technology with a B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering, class of ’43 (3.93 avg,, Honor Man of All Departments), I was offered and accepted a position by North American as a Stress Analyst “B” ($1.01 per hour) at their Los Angeles plant.
During the final years of World War II, North American had produced the P-51 Mustang fighter airplane for England; its superior speed and performance quickly achieving a kill ratio of 10:1 over German fighters; Then, soon after, NAA produced the first jet fighter, the F-86.. Working together with the other specialty Engineering groups: Aerodynamics, Thermodynamics, Loads examination, Dynamics, etc., and regularly focusing on increasing performance and reducing weight, the Design, Stress and Materials / Processes groups began researching structural weight minimization by higher strength-to-density materials (aluminum, steel, magnesium, titanium) and more efficient structural concepts (e.g. sandwich configurations). Spurring on the NAA group-team optimization approach, US Aerospace Technology Conferences were held, featured technological advances in all the fields, with enthusiastic participation by NAA. (On my tenth year, I obtained an M.S, degree in Aerospace Engineering from University of Southern California, evening school – during the years, position advancements had also been obtained – my title now was Chief of Structural Sciences.)
A observe-worthy achievement by North American had been the first aircraft to unprotected to supersonic speed, the Mach 1 F-100. From that technology soon came the first supersonic trainer aircraft, the T-28. (observe: An interesting personal anecdote developed from that program – a major mishap had occurred during the machining of the lower main spar cap – which carries the greatest load in the aircraft. As Chief of Structures, I had approved the repair. Months later the Chief Engineer called me, “Remember that T-28 spar cap joint you signed off on – well, there’s an Air Force captain who says he wants the d-mn engineer who OKed it to sit in front of him while he pulls max Gs!” He waited a few seconds, then additional, “I hope you’re sure of your examination – you’re flying down to his airfield tomorrow morning!”
It was exciting but turned out OK: there was a jeep and two enlisted men awaiting me when my plane landed; I was taken closest to the airfield; a 25 year-old no-nonsense Captain shook my hand, mumbled a greeting, had his men strap a parachute over my business suit; and helped me climb into the T-28. He did make a joke, “You know you’re trusting your examination with your life!” (observe: Mach 1 was exciting, as was the max G pullout. The spar-cap repair and wing held out. We landed safely. The Captain bought me a drink.)
As an aftermath to World War II and its final emphasis on nuclear bombs, the US Department Of Defence had decided to extend its nuclear reach by employing the US Navy – it requested proposals to build a medium bomber, capable of being catapult-launched and arresting-hook landed on an aircraft carrier – while carrying an A-bomb. Several months later he called to tell me we had won. “Oh, by the way,” he additional, “Be prepared, your friends are going to tell you that the FBI has been asking some very personal questions about you!” An moment later, he explained, “You and I are going to get ‘Q Clearances’ to go with our Top Secret – if NAA is to build a bomber that carryies the A-Bomb, someone has to tell us what it weighs and where to grab it!”
While the X-15’s hypersonic performance greatly eclipsed the B-70’s Mach 3 in speed and altitude, it was NAA’s B-70 technology that had a great impact upon my later career, On the international scene of commercial aviation, England and France had decided to pool their aerospace technologies and finances – to out-do the US – and to build a Mach 2 commercial jet aircraft, the Concorde. Unfortunately for the program, a failure had occurred, the Aft Engine and Thrust Reverse Structure. While a setback to France and England, there were entrepreneur risk-takers, however, who saw it as an opportunity. One such person was Leopold S, Wyler, CEO of a small but successful NYSE company (TRE Corp.) producing lock hardware for homes, and with a small Division with a patented aerospace-kind structural sandwich; Brought up in France but with substantial knowledge of NAA’s B-70, he made two separate but contingent offers: – the first was to the French and British – that his company would fund a redesign and the building of a structural test unit, which – if it met weight and performance goals, would win for him the production contract for those Concorde structures. His second offer was to me (he’d had his Stresskin Div. President find out who had been responsible for B-70 Structure). The offer was to hire me and a dozen of my NAA B-70 engineers; give us 30% raises to leave NAA and join him – if we could produce a test unit in a year. Remarkably, looking back, it was all achieved: the NAA dozen all joined me (all moved to Orange County); Wyler built a large new plant; we ended up hiring many more ex-NAA associates – and we produced all the Concorde production structures.
Just as it had been with my “later-career” involvement with the Concorde a dozen years earlier, my “late-career” involvement with NASA’s Space Shuttle Program was initiated by a North American Aviation remembrance – it was the nevertheless-recollected voice of my past NAA Senior Program Manager, Charlie XXXX, now President of Rockwell’s Space Division. “I need you – or someone like you – n my Shuttle Program. C’mon over tomorrow – I’ll give you a job.” (See Ezine Article: “NASA’s Space Shuttle Secret – Painstaking Pursuit of Perfection – Tiles!”)
I saw Charlie the next day, he offered and I accepted the position of Asst.Chief Eng. for the Space Shuttle Program at Rockwell’s Space Division. Always wanting to be a part of a NASA space project, I found the long hours, the frequent travel, very satisfying. Finally NASA held the fist flight FRR (Flight Readiness Review) – I was very gratified when NASA had me present the detailed briefing to the Administrator (top NASA official, reporting to the US President). After three successful flights and three years, I left the program and NAA Rockwell, returning to Wyler’s TRE. In 1982, I was awarded NASA’s Public Service Award and Medal.