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.

About William Wynne
I have been continuously building, testing and flying Corvair engines since 1989. Information, parts and components that we developed and tested are now flying on several hundred Corvair powered aircraft. I earned a Bachelor of Science in Professional Aeronautics and an A&P license from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and have a proven 20 year track record of effectively teaching homebuilders how to create and fly their own Corvair powered planes. Much of this is chronicled at www.FlyCorvair.com and in more than 50 magazine articles.

5 Responses to Thought for the Day: Jack Northrop’s aviators

  1. Gordon Turner says:

    When it comes time to fill the ranks give me a call. I like that your philosophy always celebrates the human quality of aviation while making it clear that the technology is just a choice. Professional aviation isn’t headed in a parallel direction of course, which is the beauty of homebuilding. In the end it is the human side that makes it worthwhile to pursue aviation at any level.

  2. Gary Ray says:

    For individuals, good decisions, bad decisions, and indecision will follow us through life. Hopefully, when tallied, the good will out number the rest. P.S. This only applies to individuals. The herd people only make one decision and that is to turn over all decision making to their leaders thus relieving them from taking any personal responsibility.

  3. jaksno says:

    The past is simply a figment of imagination now, no matter the documents that might feebly attempt to support it. Ah, but today and the future! THAT has merit and fuel for passion’s hope. The whole anecdote hangs, cantilevered, on the concluding sentence!

    • Your point is well taken, I actually don’t think about the past when looking at the letter, I am mostly keeping in mind in almost all circumstances, you still have a choice of paths, and they are presented to you daily, even if you don’t perceive it to be so from a particular mental vantage point. -ww.

      • jaksno says:

        Being an old teacher, it’s fun to wax pedantic once in a while – but it can sound a bit arrogant and even critical until you get to know me and find it’s just a thin veneer on a big goof ball. Please take it as encouragement to follow that very worthy dream and never stop. {;^)

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