Thought for the Day: Rickover – Hope is not a strategy

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H. G. Rickover, 1900-1986 “Father of the Nuclear Navy.” 

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“It is a human inclination to hope things will work out, despite evidence or doubt to the contrary. A successful manager must resist this temptation. This is particularly hard if one has invested much time and energy on a project and thus has come to feel possessive about it. Although it is not easy to admit what a person once thought correct now appears to be wrong, one must discipline himself to face the facts objectively and make the necessary changes — regardless of the consequences to himself. The man in charge must personally set the example in this respect. He must be able, in effect, to “kill his own child” if necessary and must require his subordinates to do likewise.” HGR.

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Rickover was eventually promoted to four star Admiral. Only 5 men is the history of the US navy have held a higher rank. He was in the Navy from 1918-1982, under 13 Presidents. No one, in the history of this country, in any branch of service, has served on active duty longer. Rickover outlasted MacArthur by more than 10 years.

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In the story William Wynne Sr. Turns 89 today, I shared that my father worked directly under Rickover for 7 and 1/2 years, developing nuclear power plants. Rickover was the head of Naval Reactors, an organization that reported to both the Navy and the Atomic Energy commission. NR developed, staffed, and put into operation every element of the nuclear Navy. For 30 years, Rickover made sure that US atomic submarines were the #1 deterrent to the USSR starting WWIII. Few people debate that Rickover could be a tyrant. No one debates that he was singularly effective at developing an entire section of the US military in the Cold War.

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In doing so, Rickover developed a rabid devotion to quality control and the understanding of human factors. These are common ground to building and flying planes. Read the quote again, and picture a homebuilder discovering a flaw in his workmanship or materials that requires him to rebuild or scrap a large portion of his project. This is being willing to “Kill his own child.”

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In the story 111 years ago today, The birth of flight, I brought up the fact that Americans a granted a freedom that few other places have had, not just in political rights, but also on religious and class matters. Rickover’s life and achievements are an excellent example. He was born in Poland, and not even allowed to attend school because he was from a Jewish family. His family fled to the US before WWI to escape Pogroms, run by Tsarist Russia that killed thousands of Jews. In the United States, he attended any school he was qualified for, and served our country with great devotion. In our country, as an ideal, we do not discard or exterminate people on matters of faith.

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When President Nixon awarded Rickover his fourth star, he made this observation about the man and our country:

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“I don’t mean to suggest … that he is a man who is without controversy. He speaks his mind. Sometimes he has rivals who disagree with him; sometimes they are right, and he is the first to admit that sometimes he might be wrong. But the greatness of the American military service, and particularly the greatness of the Navy, is symbolized in this ceremony today, because this man, who is controversial, this man, who comes up with unorthodox ideas, did not become submerged by the bureaucracy, because once genius is submerged by bureaucracy, a nation is doomed to mediocrity.”

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For comparative contrast, consider that Great Britain had a fantastic head start in one of the most important technologies of the post WWII world; Jet engines. This head start came in the form of one man’s brains, experience and insight. His name was Frank Whittle. Because he was eccentric and from outside their regular engineering format, his patents and designs were largely ignored. When their value is realized, his company is nationalized, he was paid nothing, and he was fired. His politics make him a pariah, and he is never given a real chance to work in his field in Britain again. Later in life he emigrates to the US and becomes an instructor at the US Naval Academy. He lived in Maryland the remainder of his life.

Whittle’s contemporary in jet propulsion in Germany was Hans Von Ohain. After WWII, Ohain was brought to the US where he had a long career working at Wright Patterson’s engineering center. He openly said that Whittle had a great lead on anyone on the planet, and was the greatest innovator in early gas turbines. After meeting Whittle in person in 1966, he had this to say:

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 “If you had been given the money you would have been six years ahead of us. If Hitler or Goering had heard that there is a man in England who flies 500mph in a small experimental plane and that it is coming into development, it is likely that World War II would not have come into being”

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The next time you hear someone speaking derogatory words about the contribution on immigrants, or others doubting the value of Americas ideals on society, just reflect on the names Ohain, Whittle, and Rickover.

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In the above photo, my Father stands with my older brother and sister in front of the world’s first atomic power station, Shippingport, Pennsylvania. The photo is from 1959. The reactor was the same design that the U.S. Navy used in its ships and submarines. My Father was the project officer working directly under Admiral Hyman Rickover.  It was a very different time in America when a town was proud to be chosen for such a project of national importance. After retiring from the Navy in 1976, Dad went to work for Ebasco at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory on the “TFTR”, the world’s first fusion reactor.

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111 years ago today, The birth of flight

Builders:

Today is the anniversary of the Wright’s first flight.  When all the commentary on who supposedly flew before them, or some other esoteric angle dies away, there is only one element that matters: They were not professionals, they were determined and persistent homebuilders, committed to the accomplishment no matter what it took.

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In 1899, four years before, there were at least 1,000 other competitors on the planet who had a bigger budget, a better education, and more experience. The Wrights beat them all because they were meticulous planers, they were rabid about testing, they felt pressure but never rushed, they didn’t have to hire others to build their ideas, they corresponded with people of experience, they were willing to change their minds in the face of evidence from testing, and the refused to quit. These elements beat out comparatively giant budgets and vastly superior educations.

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They were homebuilders, the flyer was homebuilt #1, and the plane in your shop is a direct descendant of the flyer, and when you pick up a tool and work on it, you are directly continuing their work and using their model of success to write your own page in the history of flight. If you walk out to the shop, and you honestly think “who am I kidding, I will never turn this pile of materials into a flying plane”, absolutely know that the Wrights thought this very same thought countless times. To have your own version of their triumph, all you have to do is pick up the tool and remind yourself that you are in the spiritual and philosophical company of the two greatest homebuilders of all time. -ww.

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1903 Wright Flyer Fabric Taken to Moon Apollo 11A piece of fabric and wood from the Wright Flyer taken to the surface of the Moon by the crew of Apollo 11, the first lunar landing mission, in July 1969.

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If you are an American reading this, know that you have a special legacy and responsibility to honor. Great aviators have come from every corner of the globe, but there is a reason why the Wrights  did it first, why Lindbergh flew the Atlantic, why Yeager broke the speed of sound, and why Armstrong went to the moon. We are not better humans, nor brighter, nor better educated. The unparalleled edge we have is freedom. These men were free of a class system, and aristocracy, free of a society that reserved opportunity to the privileged, and free of a restrictive government drastically limiting their actions.

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It is easy to complain, but if you really want to build and fly your own plane, and you are an American, recognize that you have it a lot easier than anyone else on the planet. Wealth, legislation and materials aside, It should be culturally ingrained in you that you have every right to build and fly. recognize that there are many builders outside the US who would kill to have it this easy.

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I am very proud to be an American, but I want to remind my fellow countrymen, on this day, that it is now our watch, it is our time to prove that we are willing to do something with the great opportunity that fortune has served us. Not every contribution by our generation of Americans has to be the Rutan Voyager. Your contribution can be any flying plane you build with your own hands, a plane that will not change the world of flight, but will certainly change your world of flight. -ww.