Thought for the Day: Jack Northrop’s aviators

Builders:

Our home has a large sunroom for a back porch, and one wall of it is bookshelves. Most of this space houses Grace’s aviation magazine collection, containing nearly every Sport Aviation ever printed, a lot of pre WWII journals, and an original set of Flying and Glider manuals.  About 25 feet of shelving hold my textbooks from Embry Riddle, which I still look at for reference material on tasks I do infrequently like messing with prop governors and fuel injection. At the end of the last row is a thin blue binder, which has my diploma in it, and a picture of my parents and I the day I graduated. The last sheet of paper in the binder is one I keep to remind me of a path not taken. It is a letter from the 1980s, my acceptance to a legendary aviation school that is now only a memory: Northrop University. 

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Jack Northrop

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Above, a photo of a young Jack Northrop, borrowed from Northrop-Grumman’s website. He was a brilliant visionary, much more interested in cutting edge research than production. He worked for Lockheed, Douglass and founded two different companies named Northrop. He is publicly known for his pursuit of flying wings, but his contributions were much greater, he pioneered many techniques in Aeronautical Engineering which radically advanced stress analysis and design. One of his lesser known achievements was one of the things that mattered most to him: He founded one of the greatest aviation universities. It lasted 50 years, it outlived him, but today it is gone, its remaining impact solely rests with it thousands of graduates, and the people they in turn educated.

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After high school I worked many mechanical jobs for a few years, went to night school, and eventually moved to Florida to finish a degree in Political Science from St. Leo University. I went back to the world of drag racing, toured on motorcycles, but knew I eventually wanted to do something in Aeronautical Engineering. I was first focused on Schools in California, and I rode out from the east coast and toured the state on my Z-1. After visiting Northrop, which was just on the south side of LAX, I decided I had found my place. I spent a few days there attending classes. The place wasn’t fancy, but it was serious. The Composites class I sat in on was taught by a B-2 materials engineer on sabbatical. I returned to NJ, and in a few weeks I opened the letter I still have on the porch.

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Jack Northrop was something of a renaissance man, and the school he founded reflected this. It both a hard core Aeronautical Engineering program and a first class A&P program. In the 1970s they added a Law school. To Jack Northrop, the aviator who was going to make a difference in industry was the guy who could conceive it, design it, build it, patent it and negotiate a contract for it, by himself if required. The school was never big; it wasn’t there to fill the ranks of industry, it was there to provide the individuals that would make a difference, just as Jack Northrop had.

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I am well known as an Embry Riddle graduate, but that was actually a last minute plans change, driven by something outside of aviation that seemed very important in my 26 year old mind, but not so much today. When Jack Northrop passed in 1981, the school lost it prime supporter, and it was on borrowed time, but there was no hint that it would close when I was visiting. Had I elected to attend, I would have graduated with the last class of Engineers.  The school closed in the early 1990s, and today the grounds are used by an unrelated tech school that uses part of the original name. I don’t think about it often, but had I chosen to stay at Northrop, I would have likely had a very different path in aviation. I keep the acceptance letter to remind that life has a lot of paths, you always have options, and you should choose them carefully.

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A quarter of a century later, I have a much better understanding of Jack Northrop’s motivation to build a school.  Essentially, all the real value of my work is educational. I could earn a living working on planes or restoring them, but my heart wouldn’t be in it. The part that always is rewarding to me it sharing what I have learned, it makes more of a difference than just putting the machines back in order.

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In the back of my mind, I have always had the remote dream of building a modest school which would teach A&P work, manufacturing techniques, and good stick and rudder skills, with the goal of generating instructors of these subjects, so they could further pass along the learning. Northrop wanted to generate industry leaders in the high end of technology, but I would aim for the most fundamental part of flight. If it all worked what would be my version of Jack Northrop’s law school? A degree program in Philosophy of course, because the renaissance man of experimental aviation should be able to build his own plane and engine, fly them with solid stick and rudder skills, and when he lands at sunset, pull up a lawn chair and a beer and savor the hour of his achievement in the context of aviation’s practical philosophers like Lindbergh, Bach, Saint-Exupéry and Stockdale.

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-ww.

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ww.