Insights from Aviation and Aerospace on Innovation and Disruption

February 16, 1965 launch.

There are no shortage of insights to be taken from the aviation and aerospace industry.  Any achievements are made in public – the Wright’s couldn’t hide their practice sessions in Ohio, Sputnik’s surface reflected in the night sky as it beeped overhead and the 110 meter tall Saturn vehicles could hardly be hidden.  The failures are also just as public, from the loss of the Apollo 1 crew to Langley’s failed efforts to fly before the Wrights.

Modern industry is built on the technical, industrial and scientific achievements of these pioneers.

The following lessons stand out the most.

That big problem may not be ‘the’ big problem

Form the time of the Wright’s first flight well into the 1920’s, many of those who mocked their invention did so on the basis that flying was too difficult.  Critics would point out that the demands on the pilot were too great.  The Wrights had to invent themselves as pilots before they could invent an aircraft to fly.  Early aviation pioneers though the ‘big’ problem was making take-off, flying and landing fool proof.

For decades competitors would pursue methods that would make it simple to effortlessly fly and land – none successfully.  Over 100 years later this sounds like a ridiculous idea.  Even with modern computing capabilities and navigation systems, the possibility of a self-controlled passenger aircraft is only now becoming possible.  Self-driving cars are just now emerging as a real probability.

Believe in the data not the theory

The Wrights were sponges.  They read all they could on flying theory, much like the Germans, Americans and Russians would do in pursuing background information on rocketry.  What the Wrights found was often at odds with their own experimental results.  Rather than shy from these issues, or trust academia, they developed their own methods.

By inventing the first wind tunnel, the Wrights were able to improve on the design of their wing and their propeller.  Many academicians decried their designs when they were first released, as theory showed it should not work.  Data and practice won the day over untested theory.

All up testing

At the time of Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon, rocketry systems were tested and verified independently.  Given the tight time demands of the challenge he laid out, the US space program at the time could not fit all of the separate tests required into the time frame that had been laid out.  The Russian team pursuing Sputnik often faced the same challenges due to limited resources and budget.

“All up” testing required the entire vehicle, with all of its stages and components, to be tested together at once.  Individual systems were designed for quality and small tests were obviously required, but the goal of the program was to produce a moon landing, not a number of individual successful tests.  In doing the all up testing the time frame was rapidly reduced and it was found that trouble shooting of issues could be done more quickly – issues found in the all up configurations would not have been found individually.

Design for iteration and service

It was difficult for Langley to iterate with a water-logged aircraft. The Wright’s did not have that challenge.

Sutter’s book on the management of the design of the 747 really is one of the best product management books written.  He outlines the company’s success with the 737 – one of their major inventions was putting the engines under the wing.  In doing so they were easier for the airlines to service – an important criteria in the early days of jet engine adoption.

The 737 and 747 both launched with clear beachhead markets.  The aircraft were capable of servicing a set number of commercially valuable routes which airlines were eager to pursue.  But they did not serve every route.  That was addressed with subsequent iterations of the vehicles, which would add length, extended distance capabilities and cargo variations.

These vehicles were successful because they were designed early on for service and for their design to iterate over time.

Persistence Pays

A balance from the Wright’s wind tunnel. With this invention the Wright’s could get better at flying even when they weren’t flying.

The industry is binary in its outcomes:

  • The Wrights would fly or they would not.
  • Sputnik would orbit, or it would not.
  • Apollo would land on the moon or not.

The Wrights established a method to persist at their task over time.  They knew how to build light gear from their bicycle shop, they figured out where would be most advantageous to make early flights (an NC beach with strong winds, no trees, and soft sand to land on), they developed the wind tunnel to test in the off season.

The Sputnik team too figured out how to persist.  Their system was designed primarily for weapons, but when the opportunity arose to launch an artificial satellite, they were ready to do.

The Mercury and Apollo programs did not look to win their respective races on the first launch.  Instead, they were persistent systems with multiple opportunities to achieve their goal.  They didn’t expect to win on the first attempt – the goal was to persist as long as possible, learning and iterating until they were able to achieve their objective.

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  1. Pingback: Define the Mission, then the Vehicle | Fred Lybrand

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