July 2004 
Volume 03, Issue 3 
Special Features

Who's afraid of risk?

Phantom Works teams are on the leading edge of advanced systems and have developed steady nerves for testing technologies


"Genius is divine perseverance." -Woodrow Wilson

In a popular culture that says there's nothing like success, can failure ever be an option?

Who’s afraid of risk?Absolutely, say scientists and engineers involved in advanced research and development. They say that testing setbacks are not only likely, but are also an important part of the learning process that leads to ultimate success. Hence, where breakthroughs are desired, calculated risk taking must be encouraged.

"Risk taking is at the heart of what we do best, breaking new ground and advancing to new frontiers," said Bob Krieger, president of Boeing Phantom Works, the advanced research and development unit, which brings value to Boeing by providing leading-edge technologies and advanced systems for the business units.

And it's normal for mishaps to occur during testing. "We don't plan for failure," Krieger said. "But we need to recognize those who have had the courage and innovation to push the boundaries and were not immediately successful. Getting back up, reaching solutions and going on to win is what counts." Phantom Works has even established a Red Phantom Award to recognize risk takers who don't immediately succeed.


Playing it safe can stifle creativity and innovation, said Mike Heinz, vice president of Phantom Works Integrated Defense Advanced Systems (IDeAS). Many scientific successes would never have occurred if inventors had been discouraged by initial setbacks, he added.

"The work we do is opening up new frontiers," he said, "and experimentation always involves a certain element of hazard. IDeAS was created to work on advanced systems, bring them to a certain stage in development and then transition them to the business units." Phantom Works, he added, essentially assumes risk for the business units to allow them to focus on performing flawlessly in producing and delivering their products and services.

"High risk is a natural constituent of progress," said George Orton, Phantom Works program manager for Hypersonic Design and Application, who saw on March 27 the X-43A demonstrator make the first hypersonic flight in the history of aviation by an air-breathing scramjet-powered vehicle. "Risk is always involved when we are doing things that have never been done before. Can you imagine warning the Wright brothers or Chuck Yeager about the risk involved in their work? We shouldn't be afraid of risk or be deterred from pressing ahead. Taking the risk and ultimately succeeding is what makes this business so challenging and satisfying."

The record-setting X-43A, attached to the fuselage of a Pegasus booster rocket, was launched from a B-52 over the Pacific Ocean and reached a speed of Mach 7. This followed a setback when the first attempted flight was terminated in midair and the Pegasus booster vehicle and the X-43A were deliberately destroyed. It also validated a revolutionary spatula-shaped fuselage-a major departure from the orthodox needle-nosed, tubular, missile-shaped design of previous rocket-powered hypersonic concepts.

"You do all the simulations and wind-tunnel testing that you can," said Orton, well-acquainted with risky ventures through his involvement with Gemini, the Mars Lander and the X-30 National Aerospace Plane and Delta Clipper programs. "But at the end of the day, you can never know for sure how the product is going to perform in flight. It's risky; it can be dangerous. But look at the early astronauts who calculated that they had only a 50 percent chance of returning from the Moon. They risked their lives every time they stepped into their vehicles."


Members of the Canard Rotor/Wing team, the most recent winners of the Red Phantom Award, know firsthand that with every precaution taken, mishaps can still happen. One of the X-50A Canard Rotor/Wing demonstrators was damaged recently during a test flight at the U.S. Army Proving Ground in Yuma, Ariz. Gary Gallagher, a former Navy SEAL and decorated war hero who is familiar with risk in combat, recognizes that at some point in a program a decision has to be made to move ahead.

"In developmental programs, there are going to be twists and bumps in the road," he said. "The value to be gained is by learning from every tiny twist and bump, so that with troubleshooting, adjustments and improvements, we finally reach our goal. We should not be shaken or discouraged when these setbacks occur."

Krieger cited Boeing's contribution to Sandstorm, the autonomous ground vehicle Boeing cosponsored in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Grand Challenge race on March 13, as a good example of worthwhile risk, even though the vehicle failed to reach the finish line. A boulder just seven miles into the 210-mile course stopped the autonomous vehicle developed by Carnegie-Mellon's Red Team, the first winners of the Red Phantom Award. But the team has learned valuable lessons about computer processors, object recognition and route planning software, sensors and electronics. It already is preparing for next year's attempt.

Aerospace risk, Krieger said, is not just physical or financial. Sometimes researchers risk their reputations by abandoning conventional wisdom in their search for breakthroughs.

As leader of the X-30 National Aerospace Plane team, he well remembers the day that designers decided to experiment with a spatula-shaped fuselage design-now used in most Boeing hypersonic concepts-that was better suited for horizontal flight.

"This was unlike any hypersonic configuration ever conceived," he said. The craft featured a nose like a spatula, sharp leading edges, a highly non-circular body cross-section, and tails like a fighter aircraft. Only a month had been spent on developing what was called the Non-Circular Body, Krieger noted.

"Those of us in the control room who were part of the National AeroSpace Plane team couldn't have been more proud when the X-43A made its first successful flight," he said. "As well as technical achievement, the X-43 symbolizes a determination to think way outside of the box, to leave behind a traditional concept and come up with a breakthrough design."

Boeing should be proud of what its engineers have achieved in attempting to take us where no one has gone before-and learning everything they can from their efforts to succeed in the future," Krieger said.

Boeing has had some impressive experimental successes-the X-45A Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems; the X-40A Space Maneuver Vehicle; the X-31 VECTOR extremely-short-takeoff-and-landing vehicle and the Active Aeroelastic Wing "wing-twisting" demonstration program. The aerospace companies that now form Boeing successfully tested the Skystreak and Skyrocket experimental aircraft, for example, in the late 1940s and 1950s, and later the X-15 rocket plane, the XB-70 experimental bomber, the X-36 Tailless Fighter Agility Research Aircraft, and the Bird of Prey stealth technology demonstrator. Boeing and its predecessor companies gambled and won with such classic products as the 707 jetliner, the Gemini, Mercury and Apollo space vehicles, the F-4 Phantom II fighter, the C-17 Globemaster III airlifter, the CH-47 Chinook helicopter and the DC-3 commercial transport.

"We have been instrumental in changing the way the world lives, works and travels," Krieger added. "We can all draw inspiration from those who entered unknown territory to create the first century of flight. The next 100 years will present many new challenges, much risk-and what some people would call failures. But these experiences really define what research is about-uncovering and overcoming unknowns-and preparing us for a bright future."


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