More Than My Share of It All – The Afterhours

October 26, 2010

Once upon a time, when Google Wave was still enjoying an international headline status, I learnt about the existence of such a book in an Aviation Buzz wave.  But the extreme limited availablity procrastinated a joyful reading. Until recently in an aircraft general design class, our teacher also mentioned this book and I got to know the Chinese version of it. Although the translation is not that decent – How I Design Aircrafts, I decided to read this version first as I found it in National Library.

The boring process of waiting for the book disregarded, I was absorbed the moment I had my hands on it.

Surprisingly, courses in aeronautics around the world has not been changed greatly over three decades. We study almost everything the students at his time studied. I’m shocked that he’d spend some time every year to do all the caculus problems on a textbook. I realized how unforgivable it is to mistreat machining courses. More or less affected by my classmates, we also see various dynamic courses more important. I said I hate anything related to drilling and hate to study about gears. But Kelly Johnson was not only familiar with machanics and machining techniques, but also endeared them. When he was chilling out in a swimming pool, he’d imaginarily put himself on a deserted island and try to build an airplane from scratch with raw materials. He managed and repaired all the agricultural machines on his farm. Aircraft design, I learnt from him, is not merely plethora of mathmatics and physics, equally important is knowlege of machining.

Reading him, the WWII fighters gradually came to live in my mind. Before that, their chubby figures and old school layouts didn’t interest my novelty-seeking eyes at all. But they are the grandpas of today’s fifth-gen fighter. I learnt to appreciate once I know the designing stories behind them.

The Skunk Works legend will live forever. Kelly Johnson gathered a small but efficient team of the intelligent. And they started to work with Johnson’s set of “RISC”. However, legend is legend. No easy to copy. While beaurucracy has its well-known management costs, it’s still inevitable. The Skunk-Works’ work model, in my opinion, requires a real capable leader who has great knowledge and experience, as well as a small team of exellent engineers. Otherwise, the scheme may become dictatorship or lead to serious disagreements between members and the leader, which might cost more than beaurucracy does.

It’s obvious to see that Kelly Johnson is a typical realist, politically speaking. But that’s no surprise at all when bear in mind that he was a chief engineer in a military company at the time of the Cold War! Although I sometimes disagree with some of his assertions about national security, it’s true that balancing a liberal mind and an aviation-fanatic heart is often difficult. Because in most cases, aviation nuts are driven by those cutting-edge military jets.

The most inspiring parts are Kelly Johnson’s narratives of how the whole crew, from himself, to test pilot, to engineers, to machining workers, they worked together to bring the meat out. And everyone of them took part in the maiden flights of their new aircrafts. It’s already so inspring just to think about it! All these make me die to be part of a future story of aircraft design. They powers me to move forward.

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