I was a working mechanical engineer for over 42 years in the aerospace business and during that time, had many young engineers working for me. To educate and improve their technical backgrounds and to give an understanding of corporate functions and even the operations of our society, I gave spontaneous lectures in my office when occasions warranted it. Most of the time, they were about the technical issues involving composites technology but I tried to add experiences of life, stories about aircraft individuals like Howard Hughes, Don Douglas Sr., Jack Northrop and personal friends in various career paths to provide insight about the business and the consequences of choices made early in someone’s career. Many of these stories stuck in their minds and perhaps added some wisdom to a young engineer’s understanding of how the business and life can work.
I was asked to recall and share some of these for yet another generation of engineers.
Perhaps you might gain something from reading them.
Hughes Helicopters and Trying a Job-
Within a couple of years of graduating college (Clarkson College of Technology, 1960) as an ME, I went into the Army and got married and moved to Southern California to pursue a Master’s degree at USC. Since we had to survive and eat, I found a job as a Flight Test Engineer at Hughes Tool Company-Aircraft Division and went to night school after work. The company name was significant in that it was the basis for Howard Hughes’ ventures into aeronautics and new ideas for 30 years.
I didn’t know anything about helicopters or planes but in passing an employment office in Culver City in Feb 1962, I was hired to work in Flight Testing as an engineer, not as a pilot. During my college days, I thought I’d end up in Detroit designing cars because fixing cars was interesting to me. So here I was in California at an aircraft company and I needed to learn the business to keep the job.
The management at Hughes took every new employee and gave them a ride in the company product, a Hughes Model 269. The thinking was that if you flew in the ship and might do so again in the future, you would be careful in your work as it’s your life on the line. Pretty strong motivation to care about the job and quality of work each day.
My pilot for the first ride was Gene … who prided himself on the ability to chase down jackrabbits with the helio to the point where the rabbit collapsed from exhaustion. Claimed it calibrated his flying skills. I had no idea if this was the way you actually tested a helicopter but it made an impression on me and I liked it as a 23 yr old kid.
I learned the fundamentals of helicopter performance and a whole new way of safety of flight thinking. Unlike a car, if the machine fails, you have a risk of life situation.
One hot August 1962 day, my boss told me to setup a heater test on my ship, N8706F. I was flying with Gene again and we flew up the coast to the Malibu mountains where there was a test area and no population to worry about should something happen. To properly test the heater, we needed cooler outside air so I told Gene to climb as high as possible and we maxed out at 8600’ where the OAT was 46F. I turned on the muff heating system that was thermocoupled in various places and I held an oak Leeds & Northrop balance bridge in my lap with a millivolt chart to convert voltage into temps. Also had a switching unit to enable checking multiple TC’s in the system. Heat flowed into the cabin by our feet and was supposed to be delivered at 120F; I was showing temps as high as 750F in the muff delivery area. I told Gene that we might have a fire brewing. With the word” Fire”, he put the ship into full autorotation and said he was going to blow it out. We descended at over 5000 fpm straight down and I cold see the ground coming up at me at 60 mph thru my feet. As we dropped, I checked the TC and it had dropped to 450F, indicating that the fire was subsiding. Gene pulled up and flew directly to the beach at Malbu where he insisted that I remove “that damned heater before we went home”. With a few tools in the ship, I disconnected enough of the heater to satisfy him and we returned to Hughes field in one piece.
The mechanics I worked with had high respect for Howard Hughes. Some actually worked with him on the Spruce Goose and always referred to him as Mr. Hughes. He did demand loyalty to the point where if he called you up at 1am and told you to come down to the factory by 2am, it was expected that you would immediately comply. But it worked the other way too.
Back around 1950 or so, polio was a major threat to kids in the summertime. One mechanic showed up to work with tears in his eyes and when asked what was wrong, he said his daughter had polio and needed an operation for relief that cost $8000. This was in the days before health insurance and that amount was 4 years worth of full time work for a mechanic. The man had been to banks and turned down because he lived in an apartment and had little collateral. He just didn’t know what to do and it was killing his marriage.
Ten days later, he came into work and routinely opened his tool box. As he pulled a drawer open, there was a white envelope with his name on it. Inside, there was no note to identify the source, just 8 new one-thousand dollar bills. That money could only have come from Hughes, the boss who quietly took care of his guys. That’s why they respected him so much.
You never do know where you might endup in a career so you want to keep an open mind about choices and not shutoff opportunities. And you don’t want to be inhibited or limited by your degree. There is a tendency in the engineering business to pidgeon hole a person based on their degree. If you are a mechanical engr, then it’s assumed that you can’t know much about electronics or road building or writing stories or aeronautics or business, etc. There is some truth in that but some of the best new engineering ideas came from people outside the normal technology groups after they broke into the inner circles.
Your degree is an indication of your brain power capabilities but should not be a restriction to keep you in a particular field.
And you always treat employees with respect and consideration if you want such respect back.