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Meet: Larry Bisbee

Mechanical Design Engineer
Ames Research Center

Chat Archive

Who I Am
I work for Veridian Calspan Operations, one of the contractors at NASA/Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

I have been in their Model Design Group for 17 years. Our assignments include any research-related aeronautical devices that go in the wind tunnels. We have designed full-span aircraft models, semi-span aircraft models, acoustic microphone stands, reflection planes, live engine mounts, and helicopter rotor modifications, all of which have been tested in our National Full-Scale Aerodynamics Complex (NFAC), the largest wind tunnel in the world.

Our projects can be research related or development related. "Research", for example, is looking for the basic behavior of airflow, which helps the Computational Fluid Dynamics experts refine their computer codes so the output will be realistic. "Development" would be taking an existing design and doing test work to complete the design or improve it. An example is some work we did on the F/A-18 fighter to improve its controllability. These days most of the research work is being done at NASA/Langley, while Ames is now doing more of the development work.

We take a blank piece of paper and some design requirements - which may not be complete - and start the design work. Finally, after a month or a year, we issue the drawings. Once we issue the drawings, we are approached by the shop people for interpretations or to offer their suggestions for improvements. The shop groups are very competent at NASA/Ames, where there is a high level of craftsmanship and skill. We rely on them to be our advisors during design and to be our drawing checkers during the actual building of the models. This works well in practice because our error rate is low.

NASA is our primary contract customer. They, in turn, have a variety of customers that we work with: the major airframers, the major power plant companies, aircraft control engineers, and other aerospace professionals of all specialties.

My Career Journey
Years ago the Melbourne Studio in Great Britain made a black-and-white movie starring Leslie Howard and David Niven called "The First of the Few," released in the US as "Spitfire." Leslie Howard played R J Mitchell, the designer of the famous Supermarine Spitfire fighter. Niven played Supermarine's test pilot, who flew their amazing float planes to three successive Schneider Trophy wins, giving Great Britain permanent ownership of the prize. I saw this film with my parents when I was four or five years old. I especially remember the scene of a discussion between R.J. and his bosses where he sketched his next design on a napkin. That scene started my interest in aircraft design and has stuck in my memory all this time.

Shortly after that, my parents bought me a children's book about a Spitfire fighter pilot and some gremlins, little demons that cause problems for pilots in flight. One of the illustrations showed a pilot flying at night with the canopy open and the cockpit glowing with a green light. You could see the instrument panel and the control stick with a little red gremlin sitting on it staring up at the pilot. What captured my imagination was the panel. I wanted to know what all that stuff in the cockpit was for. This is the second thing I remember that stimulated my interest in aircraft.

Finally, when I was ten or eleven years old my grandmother gave me a book called "The Conquest of Space" by Willy Ley, who was a researcher associated with Wernher von Braun at the Raketenflugplatz (Rocket Flight Field) in Germany. They were experimenting with liquid fuel rockets, which evolved into the full-scale work done on V-2 missiles at Peenemunde. Willy Ley immigrated to the United States before WW II, and after the war he wrote "...Conquest..." which was illustrated by Chesley Bonestell, the first of the realists in astronomical art. There was a very brief discussion in that book on how a rocket's final velocity is determined by its fuel level and propellant performance. This was only a short footnote, very simple and basic for a mathematician, but at that age I found it quite mysterious. I was determined to know more about the "Why" of that explanation. Once I started exploring and studying these things, I couldn't stop. Curiosity drove me further, until I ended up becoming an aerospace designer myself.

My father worked for Pan American Airways and was a navigator both for the Navy and Pan Am. He was a big influence on my interest in aeronautics.

I went to college at the University of Washington, beginning in Aeronautical Engineering and switching to Mechanical Engineering when I found I was more interested in hardware and designing gadgets than I was in theoretical speculation. I am more of an engineer than a scientist.

During my college days my girlfriend and I took flying lessons in float planes. We both soloed as pilots during our teens; she did so before she learned to drive.

During and between different intervals at school, I worked at The Boeing Company in various technical tasks on the Boeing 707 and the BOMARC missile.

Immediately after college I went into Naval Aviation, where I had further practical exposure to real airplanes. When I came out of the Navy I again went to work for Boeing, this time on the Minuteman missile program. I did a lot of other things before coming to work at Ames, such as computer programming, electronic packaging, controls design, hydraulic systems, custom machine tool manufacturing, conveyor systems, and oil field equipment design.

Career Likes and Dislikes
Where else can grown-ups get paid for playing with MODEL AIRPLANES? Our Research Center at NASA/Ames in Mountain View, California is one of those places! It's a good living, and if you have a real flair for it there can be nothing more fascinating. The variety of our work is what keeps us all here. A negative aspect is: You Don't Get Rich.

Advice
Be sure you are interested in the career you choose. Don't choose something because it seems glamorous, or might pay a lot, or is something you're being pressured about to satisfy someone else. If you are truly interested in your chosen career, then it will be a lifelong fascination. Try your best to get on the fast track in middle school. Take all the math and basic science courses you can handle. Tinker. With cars. With models. With mathematical equations. Read everything that holds your interest. Be involved and let yourself get immersed in what you're doing.

Future Goals
I want to continue what I am doing here at Ames, because it's almost a hobby as well as a livelihood. I also have an idea for a book, and maybe there's an invention lurking around somewhere.

Personal Information I am unmarried and have no children. I was an active pilot, and I still hold an FAA Commercial Certificate. I am also interested in boats, which have a lot in common with airplanes, and at one time or another I have owned one of each. The boat was a 30-foot sloop-rigged motor sailer and the airplane was a Cessna 175, registry N-6649E. I have traveled a fair amount as well. Recently my travels have been in the States and Canada, but in times past I have been to Mexico, Jamaica, The Bahamas, Grand Cayman, Colombia, Panama, Alaska, and Hawaii. I also lived on Midway Island for a couple of years.

 
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