Boeing Frontiers
April 2003
Volume 01, Issue 11
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Integrated Defense Systems

MENTOR for the ages

New Karl Richter Lab preserves memory of F-15 flight-test leader


MENTOR for the agesA good mentor adds seasoning to the promise of youth and talent. And for a lot of flight-test engineers at Boeing Integrated Defense Systems who matriculated on the F-15 program, one of the best mentors was Karl Richter, who died last Aug. 4 at the age of 74.

He's remembered by many in the U.S. Air Force and at Boeing who have worked with the F-15. So much so that, on April 10, a new laboratory at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., will be named in his memory.

The Karl Richter Lab combines former F-15 lab facilities at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., with operations at Eglin to provide comprehensive ground testing for F-15 avionics, electronic warfare, radar and weapons systems. Several Boeing and U.S. Air Force officials, as well as members of Richter's family, are scheduled to attend the dedication ceremony.

Richter's last call was as Boeing F-15 site manager at Edwards. For more than 30 years, starting in 1971, Richter was the steadying influence for young engineers and famous pilots who came to Edwards to put F-15s through their paces with new technologies and weapons systems. They'd stay for a while to work on specific programs, then they'd go—back to St. Louis, or wherever else they came from.

But through it all there was Richter—tall, handsome and distinguished—a warm, friendly presence with a German accent, bushy hair and mustache. One after another, the young engineers at Edwards would be taken under the wing of this indefatigable cheerleader—and quickly they'd learn how to manage the rigors of flight testing, deal with their U.S. Air Force counterparts, and keep their spirits up when things got tough.

When he wasn't showing young engineers the ropes, he'd enthrall them with stories. Funny stories, folksy stories, inspirational stories. His own life, in fact, was a heck of a story.

Born in Freiburg, Germany, in 1928, Richter was an apprentice at Mercedes-Benz when he was drafted into the German Luftwaffe at 15 near the end of World War II. He flew German gliders during the war and, as a paratrooper on the Eastern Front, surrendered to the British during a Russian advance. Richter spent the rest of the war as a POW in an American camp.

Richter moved to the United States for good in 1950, through Canada; served in the U.S. Air Force; studied to become an aeronautical engineer; and began his career with McDonnell Douglas in 1960. He traveled the world as a product-support engineer and flight-test engineer on the F-4 and F-15 programs.

Close friends included Retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Chuck Yeager, the man who broke the sound barrier.

"Karl was a unique guy," recalled Tom McDuffee, who worked with Richter during the heyday of F-15 flight testing and succeeded him as Boeing F-15 site manager at Edwards before retiring himself in February. "He had more phases in his life than most of us can imagine."

McDuffee said Richter "was very, very considerate of people. He was a good supervisor—very much a people person. He was interested in people's personal development as well as their professional development. He cared, and that's what I think of most when I think of him."

McDuffee saw firsthand how Richter would reach out and help young engineers. "For many, many years, we (in the F-15 program) used Edwards as a major flight-test training facility because there wasn't a lot of flight-testing going on in St. Louis," McDuffee said. "So, most things that needed flight test would start in St. Louis and ultimately migrate to Edwards. That gave us the opportunity to get some young people out here (to Edwards) to get some field experience. We were getting mostly college recruits into flight test. You had to take them under your wing and teach them how to do flight test, instrumentation, data processing and customer relations. Karl was very good at that. He did a very good job of being inclusive and working with younger people."

One of those young flight-test engineers was Mark Bass, Boeing IDS Business Development site leader for St. Louis, who worked under Richter from 1980 to 1986.

"He was a fun person to be around," Bass recalled. "He had a lot of stories and a lot of experience that he would share with us. The stories and shared experiences taught us a lot about how to work with the Air Force test community and how to run top-notch test programs."

Bass stressed that Richter was a master problem solver. "We were always able to go to him with our problems and test results, and he'd give us ideas that would clear things up as to what was going on with our test aircraft," Bass said. "It was during this period that the F-15E won the Dual-Role Fighter competition over the F-16XL. Karl had a big part in that win. He had so much energy. He was always a man on the go."

Go was certainly the watchword for the F-15 flight-test team during the 1970s and 1980s at Edwards. "During the initial test program, the place was an aboslute flying circus with F-15 test activity," McDuffee said. "We flew almost 3,000 flights in a little over two years. The test program was very aggressive, but our team knew how to do the job."

As the F-15 program's resident representative at Edwards, Richter developed close relationships with leading lights from the Air Force, NASA, other contractors and the pilot community. The relationship with Chuck Yeager was especially close.

Whenever Yeager would fly an F-15, he and Richter could be seen chatting near the aircraft on the Edwards flight line, said Nelda Lee, Boeing IDS Tactical Aircraft Level 2 senior manager of F-15 Flight-Test and Lab Operations. Richter, in fact, was one of the first to greet Yeager in 1997 when the famed aviator commemorated the 50th anniversary of his breaking of the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 by repeating the feat in an F-15D that bore the same name—Glamorous Glennis.

"Karl really enjoyed that relationship with Yeager and maintained contact right up until the end," McDuffee said.

Richter was directly involved in preparations to move the F-15 avionics and instrumentation lab facilities at Edwards to Eglin when he died. The Air Force and Boeing decided to move the lab to make space available for advanced programs at Edwards and to consolidate F-15 flight-test lab operations at Eglin.

The expanded Karl Richter lab at Eglin is operational. It enables engineers to test "all the systems in the F-15 on the ground," said Chuck Kennedy, Boeing F-15 facility manager at Eglin. "We can check out changes in software and hardware, and how the aircraft operates with new weapons systems and data links. This will save a lot of time and money, because we won't have to burn up a lot of hours in the air trying to find out the same things."

Those who remember Karl Richter said the lab is a great tribute to him. "Karl was a likable man who worked around roadblocks and could tell you how to get the job done," Lee said. "He was always helping the Air Force and our engineers overcome obstacles. He was an on-the-job teacher who knew the F-15 inside and out. He was proud of that airplane."


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