NIAR celebrates 25 years of obsessive perfection

Walter Lee awoke one night from what many of us would call a coma.

It was 10 years ago. At the moment consciousness returned, he found himself alone. In the dark.

"I realized, after a while, that everybody, the whole aircraft hangar, had gone home and turned off the lights."

Lee runs a calibrations lab for the National Institute for Aviation Research, which this past week marked 25 years of testing aircraft components obsessively to keep airplanes safely airborne worldwide.

Lee and other engineers marked the anniversary by talking about the oddness on which much of Wichita's importance is based.

Engineers are obsessive, compulsive, odd. Modern Wichita is a city and a people founded in large part by oddballs.

Lee says his calibrations require a focus so acute that he goes sometimes into a state almost spiritual. Like Alice in Wonderland, or Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, he goes somewhere without going anywhere.

His coma took place at a previous job, at a Lockheed Aircraft plant in Fort Worth. He was working on calibrations in a huge hangar where F-16 fighter planes were being manufactured.

He got so absorbed that he lost himself. For how long, he never learned.

Then he awoke.

"The lights were off. The hangar was empty; I was the only guy still there. Everyone had gone home.

"I had to call security; they were making F-16s there, after all, the place was locked down at night. I wanted them to know why I was still in there.

"And I wanted to know what gate I could use now to get out and go home."

One fifty-thousandth

When engineers make mistakes, people die, sometimes by the hundreds.

Someone once made a small change in a drawing of the metal rods designed to hold together the skywalks at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Kansas City. The difference, though small, changed the weight distribution along the rods, and when the rods pulled loose in July 1981, 114 people died.

That tiny change is still taught in engineering schools, including to aviation engineers like John Laffen.

Stories like that make engineers obsessive, careful and odd. You almost never hear of an airplane crashing because of bad engineering. But this comes with a price: engineers become compulsively cautious.

They measure down to 50,000ths of an inch.

They never use the word "about," as in, "I'll be home about 5." They say "I'll be home at 5:12 p.m." And they reach home at 5:12, even if they have to park around the corner at 5:10 and wait two minutes.

Up against the wall

"My wife and I decided to build an addition to our house," said Laffen, who directs the wind tunnel, crash test, and environmental testing labs at NIAR.

"This was much harder than it should have been. It took longer than it should have. It was... hard for me.

"I was completely nervous about the whole thing. Why? Because I wanted to know HOW WILL YOU GET THIS WALL STRAIGHT TO WITHIN 50,000THS OF AN INCH?

"How do you inspect that?

"I had to do some soul-searching.

"I finally concluded that I could not demand of a contractor that he comply with aerospace tolerances."

Watch cracks grow

Melinda Laubach went to a family gathering. They asked what she was doing at work.

"The more I talked, the more excited I got. I told them I was studying a crack in a piece of metal.

"I told how this one crack I was looking at for a long time was moving right along, that it was turning in a certain direction as it cracked.

"I told how cool that was.

"They were staring at me."

Laubach runs NIAR's Aging aircraft lab, in which her engineers tear apart old planes to study how age and fatigue-stress affect aircraft. This work is important to aviation and national security; the military is delaying the acquisition of a new fleet of fuel tankers, which means the Air Force needs to keep those KC-135 tankers flying, though the tankers are 40 going on 50.

"Anyway, they looked at me," Laubach said. "And they said, 'You... watch cracks grow?' "

Nuances, nuances

Spouses say engineers do not easily pick up on signals coming off other humans.

Marci Laffen, married to NIAR lab director John Laffen, says they don't understand languages as others do; they do not see their own oddness.

For example:

"I had this idea, wow, that we could make videos in the crash test lab," John Laffen said.

"We've done car seat testing, so my idea was we could show what happens with the dummies when we crash them without buckling up. You know: 'Here's what's going to happen if you don't buckle up.'

"And we could sell those videos to parents, who could then pop them in the video player in the minivan and play them for the kids on trips."

So far, Laffen said, NIAR has not adopted this revenue stream idea.

Anniversary: Act I

NIAR's 25th anniversary this past week got the engineers talking obsessively, briefly.

Laffen and other engineers decided they could mark the occasion by crashing dummies in Laffen's crash test lab in some special, spectacular dummy-disassembling way.

They could film it.

Then they decided not to.

Then they thought some more.

Engineer humor

Male engineers have their own language for the humor involved in describing types of attractive females.

Wow. She has a high aspect ratio.

(Her body shape is long and slender.)

Another engineer joke:

An engineer picks up a frog.

The frog says "If you kiss me, I turn into a beautiful woman."

The engineer puts the frog in his pocket, and pulls her out a little later.

"I told you!" the frog says. "I'm really a beautiful woman if only you kiss me!"

The engineer pockets her again, and retrieves her hours later.

"What is your problem?" the frog demands.

"I'm an engineer," the engineer says. "I can have all the beautiful women I want. But a talking frog? That's interesting."

Cracks in wings

When Laffen takes a trip, he first looks at the stamp seal inside the plane's doorway. He sees the airplane's age at a glance.

"Then he announces to everyone, 'Well, this airplane is 40-something years old,' " said his wife, Marci Laffen. "Then he starts telling people that wing spars in planes that old, they all have these little cracks, and then he tells how long and wide the cracks probably are.

"An engineer like my husband is probably more of a threat to airline stewardesses than any terrorist. He likes to point out things about wings that nobody wants to know."

More cracks in wings

"John's not the only one telling about cracks in wings," Laubach said. "When I fly, I can always tell who the aviation engineers are among the passengers, especially the structural guys. They are the ones telling about the cracks in the wing spars to the person sitting next to them.

"I used to tell that little story, too," she said. "A few years ago, I told my mother.

"She's never flown since."

How to catch one

As a child, Walter Lee used to take doorknobs apart and put them back together. His father came home one day and saw Walter's motorcycle taken apart.

"Walter," he said. "What are you doing?"

"Don't worry," his mother said. "He does this all the time now. By morning, he'll be riding it." And he was.

"Do you know how to trap an engineer?" Laffen said. "You trap raccoons by attracting them with bright shining objects; you catch engineers by putting a dis-assembled mechanical device in the cage. They can't resist putting it back together."

Engineers also like to destroy things; hence Laffen's affection for crash dummies.

"I like to blow stuff up," said Royal Lovingfoss, a research engineer and chemist at NIAR's composites laboratory. "Anything that gives you a nice loud bang, or makes something catch on fire, or melts metal without an ignition spark, is always a good time."

Anniversary: Act II

After they decided not to crash dummies for the NIAR anniversary, the engineers pondered blowing up things in the microwave room.

Engineers have built a room at NIAR made of galvanized steel; they use it to bombard electronic devices with electrons, to test how electrical and other components interact.

But HEY! the engineers thought. This is a ROOM- SIZED MICROWAVE OVEN!. It could BLOW STUFF UP!

So they decided to maybe mark the anniversary by melting or blowing up devices they hate: cell phones that are not as cool as iPhones, computers that operate micro-seconds too slowly, TV sets that don't meet their preferences for outrageous complexity.

Engineers being engineers, they had theorized how long it would take to blow up a human in the giant microwave, if the chance ever arises.

Ten seconds.

That's what they concluded.

Ten seconds, and then the organs explode, followed by the entire body. And the organs don't just explode; they explode in an exquisitely predictable 10-second sequence. Like this:




The NIAR engineers thought it would be great to blow up non-living things in there for the anniversary.

But a characteristic of engineers is to think about doing something. And then not do it.

So they thought obsessively, then chose to do none of it.

Then they thought some more.

Speak English!

Spouses say engineers don't speak English even if English is their primary tongue. Even in dinner conversations they use acronyms: ILSS (Interlaminer shear strength), FWT (flatwise tension), or even UNC (unnotched compression, a compression test done on a piece of material that has no holes in it).

OHC, on the other hand, means "open hole compression." Just FYI.

Lyn Lee, married to NIAR engineer Walter Lee, said the language barrier got so bad that she took Walter to a family therapist.

He spoke in acronyms in an east-Texas drawl.

"It took me years to realize that fixinthangs meant 'fixing things,''' Lyn Lee said.


"Walter thought we did not need to go to a therapist because he thought everything was fine.

"By that time, we had spent years not understanding anything we were saying to each other."

A therapist taught them both to slow down and use different words.

They've been married 22 years. Lee says his wife was right about his language.

"Take it from me," he said. "When you're dealing with metrology issues, you wear a special kind of hat."

She almost lost it

It is so hard and so scary to become an engineer that nearly all engineering aspirants in college try to quit, Laubach said.

Laubach, too. It was too hard: the demands of perfection, the thought that any mistake could kill hundreds. She decided to quit.

Feeling lost, she drove to Mid-Continent Airport.

She sat in her car.

Watched planes take off.

Five hours.

The planes looked so beautiful.

Then she drove home.

She went back to engineering.

Anniversary: Act III

After they gave up on blowing up things in the microwave, the NIAR engineers thought to mark the NIAR anniversary by loading sacks of popcorn in the microwave room, and popping corn on a massively engineered scale.

(And film it, maybe even in slow motion).

Then they decided:

1. Videotaping popcorn in a microwave would blow up the camera, and

2. The room would stink like popcorn for months.

They decided to do nothing. Except invite the public to their open house.

And some of them marked the anniversary by describing what engineers are like.