Guaranteeing Aeronautical Innovation: Is that Possible?

The first flight of the Wright Brothers, December 17, 1903.

The first flight of the Wright Brothers, December 17, 1903.

For the twentieth century no set of technological innovations are more intriguing than those associated with aviation. Perhaps no technological development in this century has more fundamentally transformed human life than the airplane, coupled with its ground support apparatus and infrastructure. Why did aeronautical technology take the shape it did; which individuals and organizations were involved in driving it; what factors influenced particular choices of scientific objectives and technologies to be used; and what were the political, economic, managerial, international, and cultural contexts in which the events of the aeronautical age have unfolded?

More importantly, how has innovation affected this technology? If there is a folklore in the public mind about the history of aeronautical engineering, it is the story of genius and its role in innovation. Americans love the idea of the lone inventor, especially if that inventor strives against odds to develop some revolutionary piece of technology in a basement or garage. There have been enough instances of this in U.S. history to feed this folklore and allow it to persist. The “Renaissance man” with broad background who can build a technological system from the ground up permeates this ideal.

Individualism and versatility has characterized this concept of engineering. Its quintessential expression was Leonardo da Vinci, the leading figure in the technology of his time. It has also been more recently expressed in the work of Thomas A. Edison, whose many accomplishments in technology have been recognized as seminal to modern life. These same virtuoso expressions of engineering mastery have also been recognized in the work of U.S. aeronautics and rocket pioneers Wilbur and Orville Wright and Robert H. Goddard, who spent most of their careers as lone researchers. The Wrights secretively developed their flying machine  in their native Dayton, Ohio, and testing it on the dunes at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Goddard designed and tested ever more sophisticated rockets on a piece of isolated land near Roswell, New Mexico. Neither sought outside assistance beyond funding nor welcomed colleagues. Their’s were solitary accomplishments.

At the same time, the “Renaissance man” has never been very common in the history of science and technology, and certainly not in the rise of aeronautics. The kind of lone wolves that make up the folklore, reinforced by the reality of a few bona fide geniuses, are rare indeed. In twentieth century aeronautical engineering the increasing depth of information in the individual disciplines ensure that no one person can now master the multifarious skills necessary in the research, design, development, and building of a piece of aerospace

In the latter nineteenth century leading American engineering educators made a conscious decision to emphasize theoretical engineering issues. Then they had to reintegrate the discipline so that new engineering accomplishments could be realized. The discussion that follows describes this evolutionary process. This process has affected major aspects of public policy ever since, changing fundamentally how individuals perceive “big government” and its management of issues ranging from medicine to nuclear power.

There were two central reasons for this change. The first is relatively easy to comprehend, the development of something as complex as an aircraft capable of operating in three dimensions is too large for any one individual to oversee, regardless of how much mastery or however large a body of knowledge might exist in one expert’s mind. The breadth and depth of engineering and scientific information is simply too large for any one person to comprehend fully. It must be parceled out and managed through a team approach.

The second reason is more complex, and ultimately more interesting. Before the second world war, by all accounts, engineering education in the United States was overwhelmingly oriented toward training young engineers in a very practical “shop culture.” The orientation of instructors in engineering was not directed toward research and theory, but toward practical application. Where research was conducted, it usually emerged naturally from consulting projects, and focused on the narrow questions informing the consulting work.

The B-29 built by Boeing during World War was a critical new technology that transformed post-war aviation.

The B-29 built by Boeing during World War was a critical new technology that transformed post-war aviation.

This began to change in the first part of the twentieth century as an influx of European engineers came to the United States and brought their educational ethos to the nation’s academies. In the aerospace engineering community this included such men as Theodore von Kármán, the brilliant Hungarian aerodynamicist and one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), who came to the California Institute of Technology in the 1930s. Von Kármán was not only a hard-edged aeronautical engineer, but also a leading theorist who contributed important concepts to aerodynamics. At the same time, the requirements of complex high-technology artifacts required for war prompted the United States to expend for the first time massive amounts of government funding for technology projects. Those with broad-based theoretical implementation were most readily funded.

By the end of World War II, however, most engineering in the United States had become so theoretical that much of its practical application was lost on working technicians. Increasingly, it became difficult to distinguish between engineering projects and purely scientific explorations without immediately practical application. The reasons for this change were soon visible in the engineering discipline. American engineering faculty were no longer necessarily experienced in industry’s practical needs, and had instead made their careers as theoretically oriented researchers who published scholarly papers in journals but did not design and build machines for public use. Two subcultures emerged that were sometimes contradictory and often combative.

The more complex the theoretical foundations, the more complex the components and the less likely that a single individual, or a single genius with some assistants, could carry to successful completion pathbreaking development. Certainly, this was true in aerospace technology, which has since World War II of necessity been a group effort with various individuals in charge of certain segments of the work under some overall management to keep the effort afloat. There might be an overall project manager, but the demands of the project always forced more breadth and depth of knowledge than even a genius of a da Vinci or a Wright or a Goddard could master. Indeed, it might be that the “Renaissance man” was a chimera all along, for complete success was always beyond even the most creative genius’ grasp.

For the successful accomplishment of major aeronautical endeavors engineers have adopted a systems management and integration approach. Each government laboratory, university, and corporate research facility had differing perspectives on how to go about the tasks of accomplishing these endeavors but all parceled work among teams of engineers and technicians.

Among the new facilities won by the NACA during World War II was towing tank #2. Here, two workers set up a model for test in the new tank. The illusion that they are, suspended in space was created by printing the photograph upside down.

Among the new facilities won by the NACA during World War II was towing tank #2. Here, two workers set up a model for test in the new tank. The illusion that they are, suspended in space was created by printing the photograph upside down.

One of the fundamental tenets of the program management concept was that three critical factors—cost, schedule, and reliability—were interrelated, and had to be managed as a group. Many also recognized these factors’ constancy; if program managers held cost to a specific level, then one of the other two factors, or both of them to a somewhat lesser degree, would be adversely affected. The schedules, dictated by scientific or political requirements, were often firm. Since aircraft had to accomplish practical tasks, program managers always placed a heavy emphasis on reliability, so that failures would be both predictable and minor.

The significance of both of these factors have often forced the third factor, cost, much higher than might have otherwise been the case. To accomplish these goals, aeronautical design organizations increasingly became complex bureaucracies exercising centralized authority over design, engineering, procurement, testing, construction, manufacturing, spare parts, logistics, training, and operations. Understanding the management of complex structures for the successful completion of a multifarious task was an important outgrowth of these efforts. Getting all of the personnel elements to work together has always challenged program managers, regardless of whether or not they were civil service, industry, or university personnel.

At the same time, as aircraft became more costly to develop and organizations became more complex to manage the aircraft system—establishing structures to ensure control over the effort—they set up boundaries often impassable for individual innovation. An irony of the first magnitude is that the most technologically-driven industry in the United States—one built on a series of pathbreaking innovations—has become so expensive to participate in that firms involved in it can hardly afford to support potentially excellent ideas and see them to completion. This has been partially mitigated by efforts in government laboratories and in universities, but too often radical innovations do not find easy adoption.

Image 3-3

Three Airbus passenger liners in formation.

To be successful in aircraft design, with its rapidly evolving technologies, an organization must be able to stimulate and simulate change, gamble on the future, have a vision that is multi-faceted as well as clear as to objectives, and be able to allocate limited resources and to make external allies. It must reward or tolerate risk-taking and expect some failures. This is a very tall order when dealing with a system as complex and expensive as aviation, where an airframe manufacturer literally bets the company on any new design that it offers. Caution tends to rule in that very dizzying environment.

The logical outgrowth of this has been a search for what amounts to “command innovation.” Can a firm, a government, a university, a research facility, or a person arrange for innovation that will solve some great problem in aeronautical technology? Guaranteeing innovation accounts for not an insignificant quantity of effort in the field. But there seems not to be a formula for such developments and a guarantee for any research project cannot be assured. History suggests that those who contend otherwise are fools or charlatans or both.

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One Response to Guaranteeing Aeronautical Innovation: Is that Possible?

  1. Roger, you and the industry you discuss so well have managed to attract the attention of a descendant of Renaissance Man John Donne. Who? Me. Some years ago I saw the book “The Cambridge Companion to John Donne” in a local library. For, I hope, obvious reasons I took the book out and read it. I was stunned to see similarities between that great man and myself. I am not in his league, but I was still surprised to see similarities. Oh — that book is contemporary.

    Let me make a few comments about today’s aerospace industry — and perhaps other tech fields. I think NASA needs open, free, democratic reform. When the Columbia Accident Investigation Board found that people higher in the hierarchy did not listen to those lower down, that is damning. When the people who decided to launch Challenger that last time were so tired they couldn’t think straight, that is damning. When Wayne Hale writes that dissent is stifled at NASA, that shows a continuing problem.

    Free people who understand to some extent their own limits work much better with others than bullies who don’t listen. The latter type don’t listen when someone shows up who knows things that they don’t know and tries to help.

    I worked at NASA Goddard in the supercomputer center for nine years in the 1990s. Management did not listen to those lower in the hierarchy. This caused many problems. Some users stopped using the center when better opportunities presented themselves.

    Enough for now.


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