Aerospace Engineer Career Advice

by H. Larry Elman

When you started your career as an engineer, what was your initial months like? Was it tough? Were you scared? I did like to hear how about your experience when you started out.

Before entering MIT, I had a small amount of technical job experience. In 1st Term Sophmore I was required to design an entire aircraft, from the proverbial “clean sheet of paper.” A few months later, I took student employment as a wind tunnel test technician on a real wind tunnel -- we had the trans-sonic and supersonic performance tests of the actual B-70 (small steel model). I chose “Coop" which meant overload and Summer School BUT 6 months hands-on as a Junior Engineer at Douglas Aircraft Flight Test Division…..AS A JUNIOR ENGINEER ON THE FLIGHT TEST TEAM FOR THE DC-8 JET AIRLINER, 1958.

I was NOT scared; it was NOT tough. Interesting. At times trivial, but at times challenging. Just a job. But notice how carefully I had been groomed for it. However, there was one incident which defined much of my career and reputation from age 18 or 19 on. All major aircraft components were tested to failure in the lab in “Environmental Chambers.” That is engineer talk for “run the equipment to destruction while it is inside (alternately) huge stoves or huge refrigerators.” One day I was to assist a very senior hydraulics specialist engineer. We entered the chamber and I noticed a drain hole directly below the flap actuator we were testing. The other side of that drain was a rubber hose leading to AND THROUGH the chamber wall. I looked outside - that rubber hose lay on the ground beneath the chair and table where someone was to be stationed to take notes. I suggested that the hose needed to lead elsewhere and be restrained. I got told that I was too junior to be allowed an opinion.

An older technician politely explained to the high ranking hydraulics specialist that my comment was valid and company safety regs were being violated. The hydraulics specialist uttered some remarks about how the labour union sabotaged company schedules and how all techies needed to be fired.

When everybody calmed down, His Royal Ass stationed ME directly over the still unrestrained rubber hose. I demanded the hose be tied down.

Someone from the Union, someone from Safety, His Royal Hydraulics Expert, the most senior Techie -- all went into conference, and a tie-down was arranged. The final 3 feet of it was an aluminium tube which His Royalty bent BY HAND to aim at the feet of whoever was to be taking data.

Even with all this, things escalated and I was amazed at how many profane exclamations I could utter while retaining a calm voice and a coherent description of TEST STAND SAFETY. He replied with distinct threats of my being fired. I inquired about the marital status of several generations of his forebears and told him I would be at my desk in the office. I left.

I was at my desk, Marks Handbook was opened to the Hydraulics Testing Chapter, and the Douglas Flight Test Safety Handbook was beside it. A fairly senior manager came over and asked what I was doing. I BSed that I was so snowed by the brilliance of the hydraulics guy that I had to come up and read a textbook. Just after he walked away, a siren went off -- the siren indicating major injuries on a test stand. The manager went RUNNING by.

Remember the hand-bent aluminum pipe attached to the end of the drain hose? When the flap actuator failed in that first test run, 3000 psi hydraulic pressure went directly into the drain hose and STRAIGHTENED OUT the aluminum pipe…..DIRECTLY into the crotch of the hydraulics engineer who had ordered ME to stand RIGHT THERE and take data. The high-pressure hydraulic fluid was at VERY HIGH TEMPERATURE. He was out on sick leave for quite some time.

The high manager? After things calmed down, he came over to my desk and made some sarcastic remarks about my reading Marks Handbook. They were more sardonic than critical, and my leaving my “assigned location" never came up. My careful attention to SAFETY and my reputation on that issue began there.

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