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Idea Seeds #14 – Career Choices and Specialization

Updated on January 21, 2017

Wise Words Indeed

“You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.” (Nobel Lauriat - Naguib Mahfouz)

In Idea Seeds #12 you were introduced to Oliver Segovia who says that following your dreams and passions blindly is no longer appropriate in today’s very different world. His advice: “Forget about finding your passion. …. Focus on finding big problems and putting them at the centre of your decision-making. …. Work on finding the balance between being content in yourself and being involved in the big problems in world. …. It’s the best path to take to create true and lasting happiness in your chosen career.” These are wise words indeed.


From a very young age to about thirty my father had no doubt about his career choice − he was going to become an engineer, to work in the aircraft industry, and to fly. Motivation came from his own father who joined the Royal Flying Corps during the 1st World War and became a pilot. My father read every ‘Biggles’ book, he could lay his hands on. Captain W E Johns, author of the ‘Biggles’ books, was also a pilot in the RFC during that war so all his stories had that real and authentic ring about them. Next he read everything he could find by Nevil Shute Norway, an aeronautical engineer who wrote under the pen-name Nevil Shute. It was from him that he learnt about what engineers actually do. In ‘Slide Rule’ he learnt about the development of airships and their structural geodetic frames and the role Shute played as the stress engineer on the R100 airship project. The Chief Engineer on the project was Sir Barnes Wallis, the man who invented the famous bouncing dam-buster bomb. In ‘No Highway’ He learnt about failures caused by metal fatigue and how after a plane crash they set about testing a full scale section of the tail-plane to try and establish what had initiated the failure that had lead to the crash. Popular mechanics magazines with plans for home-built gyrocopters were stacked up in the toilet and studied on a daily basis. Attending air-shows made it all real and aged about twelve his father persuaded someone important to let me sit in the cockpit of a Spitfire at an air-show at Langebaanweg. So when it came to actually having to make his career choice there were no contenders. Aeronautical Engineering it was.


Keep your Options Open

Would it have been the right choice? In retrospect, very definitely no. Thankfully the University of Cape Town (UCT) did not have an Aeronautical programme so my father had no choice but to register for their broad based mechanical engineering programme. After graduating could he have predicted what he would end up doing? − Again, very definitely no. If someone had told him then that he would spend the last thirty four years of his working life in an academic environment he would have laughed long and hard at the absurdity of their suggestion. Fate, destiny, life, call it what you will, has a strange way of presenting you with new and undreamed of opportunities, it certainly did so for him. Make sure you are ready for them − they will come. The best way to do this is to ‘start out from the broadest possible base’, don’t box yourself in by specialising too early. Had my father had the option of registering at a university that had an aeronautical engineering programme, he would have chosen it without hesitation. Knowing what he knows now, my advice to anyone with a passion for aeroplanes is to do a broad based engineering degree first and if, after four years of study, they are still passionate about an aeronautical career then to register for a Master’s Degree in a specialized area at a place like Cranfield University in the UK. It has been at the forefront of aerospace technology for over seventy years. The staff with their direct links to the aeronautical world would put you close to where the action is; ready to take advantage of any offers that fate may present to you.


Do you Want to Design and Build Aeroplanes

My father was often accused of being hard on the young people wanting to be aeronautical engineers who have asked him for advice. He believes it is better to tell it as he sees it rather than giving them some wishy-washy waffle stuff. But you decide. His first question usually is: “Do you want to design and build aeroplanes?” Yes is the usual reply. Well, he tells them, the chances of them doing so is extremely unlikely because in today’s complex world, teams of interdisciplinary specialists design and build aeroplanes.

The Famous Unknowns

He tells them about Kelly Johnson (1910 – 1990) who they are unlikely to have heard of. Why would they not have heard about him? − Because he was in charge of one of the most top-secret aerospace operations ever, the ‘Lockheed Skunk Works’ programme where they designed and built: The famous U2 spy planes that were flown over Russia during the ‘Cold War’ at a height that put them out reach of being shot down; The SR-71 Mach 3 Blackbird, the first all titanium aeroplane built to cope with the heat build up that results from flying at three time the speed of sound; The undetectable-by-radar F117 Stealth Bomber that had such an impact with its laser guided bombs during the ‘Desert Storm’ war in Iraq. The F-104 Starfighter, a twice-the-speed-of-sound fighter nicknamed the ‘missile with a man in it and many more.

Kelly Johnson
Kelly Johnson | Source

Kelly Johnson

In 2003 Kelly Johnson was ranked 8th by ‘Aviation Week and Space Technology’ in a list of the top 100 most influential people in the aerospace industry during the past hundred years. After doing a Masters degree in Aeronautical Engineering, he joined ‘Lockheed’ in 1923 as a junior design engineer. He rapidly climbed the ladder to become their Chief Engineer. By the time he retired he had designed, built and tested over forty aircraft insisting, at times, on doing some of the test flying himself. He did this he said: “to make sure he scared the hell out of himself to keep him focused on getting his designs right.”

Ben Rich
Ben Rich | Source

Ben Rich

Kelly Johnson needed someone in the Company with a thermodynamics background to help him on one of his top secret projects. He found Ben Rich, a mechanical engineer with a Master’s degree in Aero-thermodynamics who, when he was nearing the end of doing his Master’s, was told by one of his Professor’s about a job opening at Lockheed. He applied for and got it 1949. Fate, being in the right place at the right time, again played their part. Kelly Johnson and Ben Rich hit it off and he became a permanent member of the ‘Skunk Works’ team eventually taking over from Kelly Johnson when he retired in 1975.


Skunk Works

He tells them that if they are serious about aeronautical matters then the book ‘Skunk Works’ authored by Ben Rich and Leo Janus is compulsory reading. Described by New York Times as: “The never-before-told story behind America’s high-stake quest to dominate the skies. A richly detailed, thoroughly absorbing account of one of the great chapters in the history of aircraft technology. A gripping technothriller in which the technology is real.” Thankfully there are now no more out-of-print books as there is always someone somewhere in the world trying to sell their second hand copies on the internet. Get yourself a copy and you will learn from Ben Rich that when today’s aeronautical engineers retire they would be lucky to be able to list even three aeroplanes they had done extensive work on.



My next question is the one my father thinks people judge unfair. He asks them what specialization they have chosen. More often than not he can sense that they have not thought past the romantic aura attached to aeronautical engineering so he tells them that at this stage it is not critical as time is on their side. Broad based programs such as Civil, Mechanical, and Electrical engineering are all good starting points. Civil provides a sound base in structures and structural design; Mechanical provides a base in design, fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, heat transfer and mechanics of solids; Electrical provides a base in automation and control that has blossomed in the digital age. Servo and hydraulic motors controlled via computers have already replaced many of the old mechanical controls and ‘fly-by-wire’ is the order of the day. Google the term to learn more. Drones that have earned their place on the battlefield are now being used to do all sorts of tasks unrelated to war. They have, however, introduced some new and frightening possibilities; in the hands of terrorists they could wreak all manner of havoc.


The Mach 3 Blackbird

He ends by telling them that if they are serious about aeronautical engineering they have to get a copy of ‘Skunk Works’. When they read it they must remember: that Ben Rich started at ‘Skunk Works’ from a thermodynamic base redesigning things like inlet ducts for the U2 engines so that they would work at altitudes far higher than the original engines had been designed to operate at; That the ‘Skunk Works’ team had no experience with titanium when they started designing the Mach 3 Blackbird − “All the fundamentals of building a conventional aeroplane were suddenly obsolete.”; That they had no experience with stealth technology when they started out designing the F-117 Stealth Bomber. Ironically all the theory for the latter had come from a nine year old technical paper written by a Russian scientist in Russian and unearthed by a ‘mathematical nerd’ employed by ‘Skunk Works’: That the message from all of this is clear, − from solid broad based foundations teams can very quickly adapt, learn new things and accomplish amazing feats.


Career Options

I have chosen, in this article, to focus on aeronautical careers, not because it was my father's first love, but because it was by far the most enquired about career option he had to give advice on. Is any of the advice transferrable to other careers? − I believe most of it is if you keep Oliver Segovia’s advice in mind.


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