I enjoyed your story about your uncle Louie and the SeaMaster. I have a related story to tell that shows how interconnected aviation can be.
In 1987 I joined NASA HQ in Washington, D.C., to help modify the Space Shuttle program after the Challenger accident. I was hired by what they called Code Q, the brand-new quality and safety organization. Before the accident, the safety related offices were all under the chief engineer and had no direct path to the Administrator and other senior leaders. Code Q was part of improving the agency’s oversight of its work.
To run the new agency, they hired a man named George Rodney. A tall, slim, quiet and patient man, George came from the Martin company where he had been one of its first true test pilots.
In World War II, George was a new engineer working in Martin’s design organization in Baltimore. They were having a terrible time finding test pilots who could give good feedback to the engineers. One day, one of his managers said, “Since we cannot find a military pilot who can speak engineer, maybe we can take an engineer and teach him to speak pilot.” So they asked George if he would like to be a test pilot. He said, “Sure.”
George went through military flight school and became the company test pilot. I did not think to ask him what kind of training he got in test flying, but I know he had to figure much of it out himself. Since it was his full-time job at a company that built airplanes, I know he was very focused on doing it well.
Flight test staff at Middle River in Baltimore, circa 1955. George Rodney is the tall man at far right. Louie Bertorelli is in the dark shirt in the middle of the last row.
Shortly after the war ended, he was asked to contribute his flying boat expertise to another military program. They flew him out to Long Beach, California, where one Howard Hughes picked him up and took him to see the H-4 Hercules; the Spruce Goose. They spent a whole day together and were not done. Hughes took George to his studio where he watched the day’s output from one of his movies with George tagging along. He was most impressed when one of the stars sat next to him and chatted as they watched the clips. I am sure he told me the name, but all I remember is that she “was the most beautiful woman I have ever met!” Made quite an impression on young George.
George was the chief test pilot at Martin after the war and well remembered the SeaMaster. He had insisted that the airplane be equipped with ejection seats to allow crew escape in case of another failure, which was obviously a good idea. Unfortunately, in his mind, the cost and schedule impact of the change was a major reason the airplane was canceled. It was a huge setback to the company, and even though they survived, he felt very guilty.
This became relevant to me and others because the Shuttle also had no crew escape capability. Many people wanted to force the program to install something during this redesign phase, but George Rodney would not do it. He was certain that such a major change would have killed the program, and I agree. He did his best to get other crew survival elements added, but it’s very difficult to change such a sophisticated machine so late in the game.
I learned a lot from George and the many other great people I have been fortunate enough to know, including Chris Kraft, Gene Kranz, Gene Cernan, and many others. George taught me to carefully consider the kinds of courage needed to run a high-risk enterprise. There were plenty of eager pilots to fly the SeaMaster without ejection seats, but he did what he thought was right at the time. I still think he did the right thing, even though he had second thoughts.
Life is full of challenges and lessons for all of us.
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