Trailblazers

Frontiers November 2015 Issue

TRAILBLAZERS Looking at everything From the 737 to the Dreamliner, engineer John Roundhill helped Boeing set the course BY DAN RALEY As Boeing approaches the start of its second century in July 2016, Frontiers visits with some of the men and women who have helped make Boeing a global leader in aerospace. Dozens of model airplanes fill the display case in the lobby of The Boeing Company’s BOMARC building in Everett, Wash., a place where retired engineer John Roundhill still finds great comfort. “This wall is my life,” Roundhill said, gesturing toward the rows of miniature jets. Among them, arranged from left, in order of their variants, are the 737, 747, 757, 767, 777, 787 Dreamliner and Sonic Cruiser, all airplanes that Roundhill had a hand in developing. The Seattle native enjoyed a storied Boeing career, one that began as a University of Washington undergraduate student entrusted with making changes in drawings for fighters, the Minuteman missile, the lunar orbiter and other programs. Once he joined the company full time in 1968, as an engineer supporting the 747-100 engine analysis, Roundhill was well-prepared from a technological standpoint—a situation that amuses him now, considering how the world has evolved. “Bert Welliver, chief of propulsion research, asked, ‘Do you know how to program a computer?’ and I said yes,” Roundhill recalled. “Computers were new back then and I was one of the first geeks.” Roundhill turned out to be a trendsetter in many respects, according to Matt Bueser, 777X director of program management. Roundhill worked on new engine ideas, using larger fans to make them quieter. He helped find ways to test those same engines on the ground, which proved a huge 54 BOEING FRONTIERS cost-saver. He worked closely with legendary Boeing engineer Joe Sutter, absorbing his substantial product development knowledge. At one point, Roundhill held simultaneous jobs for the Commercial Airplanes Product Development and 767 programs. This required him to drive daily to Boeing’s two main production factories in Everett and Renton, Wash., which were 35 miles (55 kilometers) apart. Where he excelled, though, was in management leadership positions in Commercial Airplanes Product Development, a group that analyzed all proposed airplanes, beginning in 1984. He was put in direct contact with the customer for the first time. Roundhill said he learned how to listen to people’s needs. He discovered how to build long-term relationships. Roundhill was prepared for this role by, among others, the late Dick Taylor, who held many roles for Boeing and was known as the “father of the 737 and ETOPS.” Great attention to detail was emphasized. “Dick taught me to look at everything, at every option,” Roundhill said. “Dick and I would just sit and talk. He would say, ‘What are you thinking about? We work on a few things, but you have to be thinking about everything—the customer will ask.’ ” This approach came in handy in 1988 when Boeing considered plans to stretch the 767. Then–Boeing president and CEO Frank Shrontz asked if anyone had considered building a new airplane instead. Roundhill gave an affirmative response. Shrontz asked when he could see the data. Three months later, Roundhill said, he made a well-received presentation for what would become the 777. In meeting hundreds of people from the airlines, Roundhill was enthralled by the deal-making process, which could happen in the most unexpected manner. One night over dinner in 1997, he recalled, a customer felt so comfortable with the way things were headed that he impulsively wrote an agreement for a 777 specification on a wine cork and had everyone sign it. Roundhill, insightful and straightforward in approach, made his biggest impact on the company by building and maintaining those long-standing customer relationships, according to Bueser. “I have never met anybody who had the ability like John to go out and talk with customers and understand


Frontiers November 2015 Issue
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