A Remembrance by Rick Burrows
Remembrances of Paul Hawthorne During the '70s
As a young aerospace engineer just out of college in 1972, North American Rockwell hired and assigned me to the Space Shuttle wind tunnel test group at Space Division in Downey, California. I became part of a group of about 35 test engineers of all ages and experience levels. When I first met Paul Hawthorne, he had been supporting Shuttle wind tunnel testing in Alabama and Tennessee. He was working on some very complex models that were to be tested in the Arnold Engineering Development Center (AEDC) 16T wind tunnel in Tullahoma, TN. Paul had about seven or eight years more experience than I, so he really impressed me with his knowledge and test preparation skills. I want to talk more about that later.
Although we weren’t assigned to the same test at that time, our desks were close together and during lunch and breaks we talked about shared interests and hobbies. It wasn’t long before I learned of Paul’s banjo skills and love of Blue Grass music. I was a drummer and guitarist, so our love of music found common ground. Paul loved the technical aspects of playing stringed instruments and always impressed me as a student, seeking to know as much as he could, in order to play his instrument with excellence. I got to “jam” with him a few times when we were both assigned to tests at NASA Ames Moffett Field, California. Since we both worked second shift on our test programs, we sat around the pool at the hotel during the day and I strummed while he did the “pick’in and grin’in.” I didn’t know any blue grass tunes, but somehow, I managed to strum along to those with some familiar chord progressions. When he’d pull off a few hot licks, you could always see his boyish grin and hear him grunt out his classic “restrained” laugh.
Paul was very mechanical and loved cars. At the time, he was the proud owner of a Lancia sport coupe with a hard top. I remember him telling me that he had written the factory to complain about the poor aerodynamics of the car’s design. When an aerodynamicist wants to visualize the turbulence and separation of air as it passes by a solid object, they tape yarn tufts in a grid pattern on the surfaces where separation is suspected. Once the air starts flowing over the tufts, they will either lay very flat and still (no separation) or they will rise up off the surface and spin and dance all over the place, indicating separation and increased drag forces. The latter was the case with Paul’s Lancia. He put yarn tufts all over the back of the car, on the trunk and on the back window. I’m not sure if he had a helper, but as he drove, he photographed the “dancing” tufts on the back window and trunk deck and sent a copy of the photo to Lancia, with complaints about the poor aerodynamic shaping of his car.
Speaking of cars, Paul was always full of advice about any aspect of wheeled vehicles. About the time, my wife and I were ready to buy our very first new car, I was looking at cars that had big displacement engines and plenty of horsepower. He strongly advised me to get something more fuel efficient and reliable. He predicted that gas prices would keep going up and that a four-cylinder vehicle would be my best choice. Of course, as we now know, he was right on. Well, I became the proud owner of a 1975 Datsun B210 and Paul just grinned! However, his advice didn’t stop there. I wanted some nice floor mats to protect the carpet and he steered me to these special woven, sisal-type mats that looked pretty good and were fairly expensive. I really don’t remember why Paul thought they were so great, because the weave pattern was loose and all the dirt and small rocks ended up in the new carpet below the mats!
Paul was very practical and did not spend much time doing anything that wasn’t productive. As I recall, I was telling him one day about some TV program that I saw and he politely told me that watching TV was a “non-productive” way of wasting time! I don’t think Paul even spent any “productive” time wasting either. He was fairly well read and was always hungry to learn new things. He seemed to know something about everything! With this excess storehouse of knowledge, one of his favorite mind games was preparing “verbal traps” for unsuspecting engineers. As an example, a very popular topical pain reliever then was Absorbine Jr. and most everyone had used it at one time or another. One day Paul told me that he had done some physical work over the weekend and was kind of sore. He said he was able to get some relief by applying some Absorbine. I remarked that Absorbine Jr. was pretty good stuff and he quickly closed his verbal trap by saying, “I didn’t say Absorbine Jr., I said Absorbine.” Turns out he knew all about the original product before they added the “Jr.” to it and remarked how it was much better. He was the same way with technical things and always tested less-experienced engineers with what they knew (or thought they knew!).
However, Paul’s advice got me into some hot water on one test that we worked together at NASA Ames. He worked 1st shift and I worked 2nd. One night, I came in to relieve him and because things were pretty hectic, they day shift crew stayed awhile. Once they were ready to leave, they all decided where they would eat dinner and asked me if I wanted to go as well. Paul said, “Oh, it’s no problem. This model is working fine - - you can get away for a little bit.” The test article was a 3% scale model of the Shuttle launch vehicle and it was covered with about 2,000 pressure taps and assorted component balances. In those days, the pressure sensors were mechanical and it took forever to sample all the data from 2,000 pressure taps. We would set the model at a specific angle of attack, yaw angle and Mach number, then spend four or five minutes (or longer) sampling all the data for each point. It truly was one of those projects that was like watching grass grow! I accepted Paul’s invitation and went to dinner. When I got back to the wind tunnel, I discovered that everything was fine, just as Paul predicted. However, what I did not know was that my Supervisor flew up to NASA Ames for the day and was in the control room when I returned. Boy was he ticked off! That was my first chewing-out by management! He told me never, never leave a test in progress when it is your shift. Well, I had no excuse and I never did that again.
Well, I got over that embarrassment and continued coming in on night shifts to relieve Paul. He recommended that the first thing I should always do was read through the test engineer’s log to get an idea of what had been done during day shift. Our Shuttle wind tunnel test notebooks were very detailed diaries of test events, sometimes with minute-by-minute entries. Paul’s notes, in particular, were always stuffed with sketches, detailed explanations and other copious minutia - - everything you’d need to review and understand what happened that day. I remember one night when I came in and picked up the log to start reading. Nothing had been written! Not one entry. I was amazed and immediately went to look for Paul. He was out in the test section of the wind tunnel; the place where the model is positioned and tested in the flowing stream of air. He was stripped down to a T-shirt and had obviously been doing a lot of hard, sweaty work. Earlier that day, at the beginning of Paul’s shift, the model had suffered from a major malfunction in the pressure instrumentation inside the model. Paul had worked all day with mechanics and technicians to troubleshoot the problems. The model had been opened up, with parts spread all over the place as they painstakingly fixed all the problems. I silently breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that could have happened on my shift. I was very glad that Paul had been there to direct the repair efforts and get the model functioning again. As Paul put his shirt back on and got ready to leave for some well-deserved rest, he remembered that he hadn’t written anything in the log. So, he left a big blank spot on the page (so he could fill in details later) and simply wrote: “I was here.” He initialed the entry, jotted down the time and disappeared into the night!
Getting back to Paul’s knowledge and skills as a test engineer, I was impressed with his artistic ability when preparing pretest and posttest reports. In those days we gave our handwritten draft copies to a secretary (now called administrative assistant) and they typed up the text. All the figures were done by hand. Most of us just did 2-D sketches and if we wanted to be fancy, would cut-and-paste a photocopy of someone’s real design drawings (also done by hand) into our reports. Paul, however, was much more of an artist than the rest of us. He drew isometric figures of most of the model components that he wanted to illustrate, complete with shading and minute details. On the recent Shuttle “Return-to-Flight” program that required additional wind tunnel testing, I referred back to many of the old pretest reports done by our group and one of Paul’s reports was one that I required. I certainly reminisced as I read through his elaborate technical details and viewed once again those outstanding figures that were his trademark.
In the late 70’s, as the wind tunnel testing was winding down, I lost track of Paul. I don’t remember if he quit or what, but in any case he ended up working for Northrop and probably did a lot of other things that his other colleagues will recount. Paul came back to Rockwell as a job shopper shortly after the Challenger disaster, when we need help with more testing. A whole new series of tests were proposed and being undertaken to remedy the ailing Shuttle program. Once again, my desk was next to his. Our group was much smaller and we needed the expertise to run those complex tests. Rick Hughes, also from Northrop, arrived at the same time and sat next to us. Those two were very good friends and came to our group with extensive test expertise. Paul hadn’t changed. He still had that boyish grin and hadn’t appeared to have aged.
During that period, I wasn’t able to spend much time with Paul. We were all very busy with overly ambitious test schedules, trying to get the Shuttle back to safe operations. One day, I was shocked and surprised to discover that Paul had left Rockwell. This was certainly ironic, but Paul’s excellent artistic skills contributed to his sudden disappearance from Rockwell.
As I learned later, Paul had prepared a pretest report for the project on which he was assigned and had turned it in to our manager for review and approval. Usually the managers quickly read through the text and may glance at a few tables or figures. They know the level of expertise of their staff, and with the supervisor having already approved it; they usually don’t have to spend much time before they sign the report for release to publication. Apparently some of Paul’s excellent artwork caught the manager’s eye. Paul had very carefully drawn an isometric, front-quarter view of his Space Shuttle model. It was an excellent sketch, as usual. However, Paul (probably in a whimsical mood) had drawn the Shuttle Orbiter with Mickey Mouse leaning out of the cockpit window! Mickey had a smile and was waving to the oncoming world and to the unappreciative eye of our manager. He immediately decided to let Paul go. Our entire group felt the manager’s reaction was absolutely unfair. Paul (and all of us) were familiar with the enormous Shuttle Aerodynamic Databook. One of the engineers who had edited this multi-volume manual was also very artistic and had adorned the divider pages with figures that were cartoon-like and humorous. I’m sure Paul thought he had precedent for his little touch of humorous art, but sadly, that was the last time I saw him. We were certainly poorer with the loss of his technical expertise.
My next conversation with Paul was some 20 years later, when I learned of his serious medical condition from Rick Hughes. I telephoned Paul and Robyn at their home in Tehachapi. It was good to hear Paul’s voice and I was amazed to learn of all the things he had been involved with since our days together as wind tunnel test engineers. During a couple of conversations over two weeks and some emails exchanged with him and Robyn, I was able to share with them a side of my life that Paul and I hadn’t discussed in earlier years. I never hid the fact from Paul that I was a born-again Christian, but we generally only discussed our hobbies, music, etc. With Paul’s serious condition, he was hungry for answers to the spiritual side of life and the answers as to why he was suffering physically. To make a long story short, I read a lot of scripture to him and prayed with him for salvation, healing and encouragement. I was pleased to hear that he had made other friends at Northrop who were also praying for him. In a lengthy email, I explained to Paul and Robyn that this short period of life is nothing compared to the eternal life that we will all spend - - somewhere! I encouraged them to call out to Father God with all their questions. One of my favorite verses that I left with Paul and Robyn was from the last book in the Bible – Revelation 3:20. Jesus is speaking and He says, “Behold, I stand at the door [of your heart] and knock; if any man hears my voice and opens the door, I will come into him and fellowship with him and he with me.” The Bible also tells us that anyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. I encouraged Paul and Robyn to call out to Him as they walked through this painful period of life. I hope and pray that Paul made that personal decision before he passed from the temporal to the eternal.
I can see Paul now, in heaven, with that boyish grin, playing his 5-string banjo! And I have a feeling he will be instructing others on how to correctly tune, hold and play that amazing instrument. I look forward to having another “jam” session with Paul when I arrive!
Copyright ©2007 by Rick Burrows.
Edited 14 Apr 2007 by WF