Paying it Forward

By James Baloun

August 2016

I joined the C-17 program in 1985 -- fresh out of college and scared to the core, wondering if I could do the job and having no idea what are military-standard hardware and processes. As I settled in over the first few months, I learned one of many lessons: I was in good hands, as industry is very good at breaking very large projects down to jobs one person can do.

My four-year apprenticeship designing some of the C-17 aft fuselage skin panels in Long Beach launched my career. McDonnell Douglas and Boeing had a friendly rivalry, but years later I came to learn that Boeing was the industry "A" student and Douglas was a solid "B." Boeing planes are light, flexible, strong and go the distance. Douglas planes are built like a truck and fly for years and years.

Later, as an operations support engineer for a NASA Ames contractor, I worked on another Boeing legacy plane when I designed the nadir 2 [downward-looking] viewport for the NASA DC-8. Having just made Douglas drawings for the C-17, I knew exactly how to read and draft the DC-8 drawings.

After that I had the pleasure of studying the aft fuselage drawings for the Boeing 747SP (Special Performance) when I was the lead structural designer on the NASA SOFIA telescope door. I was quite impressed with the 747SP drawings. By the way, for the NASA SOFIA Upper Rigid Door centerline splice, I chose, on purpose, a Boeing B-17-type bulbed-extrusion because it works and was perfect to avoid stress concentrations when I had to taper the flange to get by the frame. So the world's biggest flying astronomy telescope uses a B-17-style extrusion on the door.

Aerospace is taught where it is practiced. When I started, I was taught the skills and technical details by the senior engineers. To pay back their patience and generosity, I make sure to help and teach others whenever I have a chance. This is how the legacy of aerospace is passed on from the past 100 years to the next 100 years. Key advice for aspiring students: Do your math homework and ask questions until you really understand the math, and you will be an excellent engineer.