Last week, Bakersfield College electronics faculty member Sean Caras emailed me to tell me about a fantastic adventure he went on when he was able to see the F35 Lightning II fighter jet. His email, with a tale of the visit, is below.
The event was intended to publicize Lockheed-Martin’s P35 Lightning II fighter jet for Congressman David Valadao and for the employees and business partners of Kern Steel Fabrication in Bakersfield, which makes important structural parts for the jet. STEM-IT Dean, Liz Rozell and I were invited by Blair Pruett, a salesman at Kern Steel. Blair is a graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and actually taught “shop” classes at Bakersfield High School in my early days there as a student. His passion for Cal Poly and hopes for a strong partnership between the University and Bakersfield College led to an invitation awhile back for us to visit Kern Steel’s facility. I know that Liz was impressed with the various applications of the engineering design work being transformed into components for various projects designed by engineers. We saw steel beams for bridges, pressure vessels for energy and petroleum, structures housing different types of equipment, and many examples of the components used for aerospace, marine, and transportation-related products. I was amazed by the application of technology, such as robotics, laser cutting and robotic bending, computer-controlled plasma cutting, as well as good old-fashioned craftsmanship done by hand. It was easy to see the connection between our Engineering program, various Industrial Technology programs, and the work done at Kern Steel.
As a lead representative from Lockheed-Martin (who incidentally has an extensive background as a fighter pilot) and Congressman Valadao gave their remarks, it was easy to see that such a mammoth project is really the work of tens or possibly hundreds of thousands of people who each contribute a small piece of the overall project. It was a good reminder that a strong workforce of both white collar and blue collar technically-inclined and technically educated folks will always be needed. Liz and I spoke with several folks from Lockheed Martin about our STEM efforts and the advanced technology we are fortunate to have at Bakersfield College. I was very proud to be a BC faculty member.
Thanks to the urging of Liz, I stepped into the line for those who would “fly” the aircraft using the flight simulator that was brought to the event. Prior to being seated into the cockpit, I had an interesting conversation with one of the two Lockheed-Martin specialists who were present to explain the cockpit controls, the flight displays, and the other features I would be using for my “flight.” This gentleman was a retired fighter pilot, and I was able to ask him what it took for a recruit to be ready for flight on one of these fighter jets. As one might expect, the potential pilots go through a long and detailed ground school, after having been chosen from among many others wishing to serve in this capacity. They start out with small aircraft (such as a Cessna) and log many hours of flight time on progressively challenging aircraft. They are then assigned to a squadron and spend time getting to know the jet through routine missions. At some point, they become “wingmen” and their major responsibility is to shadow the more experienced pilots – “learn and listen, and keep their mouth shut unless they are on fire or going to crash” as the gentleman explained. Once the new pilot has earned the trust and respect of his squadron, only then can he rise to the position of a seasoned airman.
Much of our latest discussion within my department has been focused on how to best bring our students up to the level where they are capable of performing their technical tasks without significant supervision or assistance. There is definitely a lesson to be learned from the path of a recruit becoming a seasoned fighter pilot. It starts with the foundation of knowledge and skills, strengthened by practice, and yet there is still strong value in having a group of individuals that bring that person up to the level she/he needs to be, in the environment where the person will perform.
Another interesting part of the conversation with that gentleman, centered around his desire to improve the flight simulator. He explained that he was the person who designed and implemented that flight simulator, but as time has passed, he sees many ways that the unit can be improved. To me, as a fighter jet neophyte, it seemed state-of-the-art and genuinely amazing. Yet, he knows much better technology is now available that can increase the capabilities and improve realism. And we’re just talking about a flight simulator that is used to give non-fighter pilots a taste of what one experiences. When he spoke of the improvement, the gleam in his eye was obvious! In our technical programs at BC, we experience the same things – wanting to improve our student’s experiences in our labs, and our enjoyment of improving the “tools” afforded to our students. I was very proud to be a professor.
It then became my turn to sit inside the flight simulator for the F35, which was an accurate mock-up of the interior cockpit and seat. Around me were large screen TV monitors that showed the simulated terrain reminiscent of our Mojave Desert. The action on those screens were coordinated with my actions in the cockpit. I expected a cockpit jam-packed with buttons, switches, gauges, and gadgets. While there were some of those things on the instrument panel, the majority was taken up by a touch-sensitive display (like a larger version of a tablet PC). Many of the flight data items were actually projected into the inside of the lens of the pilot’s helmet. The two hand controls, throttle on the left and the joystick for maneuvering on the right contained several dozen buttons. Each button had a different shape and feel so the pilot could operate the controls rather intuitively. The other Lockheed-Martin gentleman apparently seemed to appreciate having an Electronics professor as a student for the short simulation flight. He went into greater detail on various design aspects than it appeared he had done with others. Perhaps it was because he received an Electrical Engineering degree before becoming a fighter pilot, or maybe it was simply that he recognized a fellow “technical geek” when he saw one. Now that he works for Lockheed-Martin, I suppose it is expected that he is enthusiastic about the project, but I could sense a genuine appreciation and honest pride for the technological accomplishments of the aircraft. He explained that this jet only used fiber optics to interconnect various computer systems together, rather than traditional wiring or the older method of hydraulic lines. He mentioned that the entire jet was a “fly-by-wire” system where all the movements of the controls simply relayed data to onboard computers that did the actual work of controlling the jet’s functions.
After I had gone from sitting on the runway to being airborne, I was soon doing barrel rolls at well over 500 miles per hour! The highlight was being able to engage an onboard missile to shoot down a piece of military hardware on the ground. Engaging the target, flying into range, and then launching the missile at the correct moment (as well as flying past while the missile hit the target) was accomplished with just a few button presses on my part. The real work was done by the computers and the guidance system of the missile.
I know that the two gentlemen have guided at least a couple hundred civilians through this same exercise. Yet, they seemed as interested in helping me as if I was the first and only person who ever experienced it. In each of our BC programs, there are basic-level classes that get rather routine once we’ve taught them many times. Yet for the student, it’s often their first time experiencing what we offer. If I can be as interested and enthusiastic as those gentlemen were with me – even after I’ve taught the same introductory course for years – it would be a worthy aspiration.
Now that I’ve had this experience, I am even more glad to be a professor, because I can share this experience with students. It wouldn’t have been as rewarding if I didn’t have that opportunity.