14 March 2010

A year ago today I created this blog as an extension of my own fascination with aviation history, from the aircraft to the personalities that shaped the development and use of aviation since its earliest days. I've always been an inverterate reader when it comes to aviation books and any given time I'll have several books I'm rotating through covering diverse topics in aviation history. I started this blog last March to share even just a bit of the enjoyment I get out of my trips through the history of flight and that became the subtitle for Aviation Trivia of the Day- "Short Trips on the Long Road of Aviation History".

I thought finding an appropriate bit of aviation trivia for Christmas was challenging, trying to think of something appropriate for the one year anniversary of this blog was even harder. I remembered one time having a discussion on Airlinebuzz with my fellow aviation geeks about heroes and role models in aviation. A lot of what happens now in aviation is shaped by many individuals working for a common goal and less so do we have figures like the Orville and Wilbur Wrights or the Donald Douglases or Scott Crossfields and Neil Armstrongs to even individuals like C.R. Smith or C.E. Woolman. Sure, we have standouts now and then these days like Burt Rutan or Herb Kelleher, but I suspect that kids today don't name the personalities of aviation as their role models and heroes.

Mind you, I was virtually an "avgeek" from the get-go, so growing up I had an natural inclination to want to read as much about these folks as I could, whether it was aces like James Jabara or Robin Olds, designers like Igor Sikorsky or Jack Northrop, test pilots like Al White, or pioneers like Amelia Earhart or Yuri Gagarin.

I'm every bit still an avgeek despite a day job that has nothing to do with aviation. So I figured for today I'd talk a bit about one of these aviation figures that always impressed me and to this day as an adult still do. I'll admit this is an unusual choice, but for me it's a mix of what United States Air Force General Bernard Schriever set out to do and what his legacy today has become.

Born in 1910 in Bremen, German, Bernard Schriever found himself bound for the United States as a young boy when the passenger ship his father served on was interned during the First World War in New York. His family settled in the Texas Hill Country where many German immigrants of the day settled and though his father passed away in an industrial accident in 1918, the young Schriever worked hard in school, graduating with honors from San Antonio High School and would go on to graduate with honors as well with a degree in architectural engineering from Texas A&M in 1931. He excelled in ROTC and this earned him his pilot's wings at Kelly Field in San Antonio in 1933.

But Schriever applied himself to his hobbies as well- he worked as a caddy through school and managed to become quite the golfer himself. During the inter-war period, he even briefly played professional golf in addition to flying with the US Army's air mail service, commanding a Civilian Conservation Corps, and even flew for a while for Northwest Airlines.

But his calling came with World War II, flying 63 combat missions in the Pacific with the USAAF's 19th Bombardment Group. He was one of the key personalities in the postwar independent United States Air Force that shaped the USAF's emphasis on technology as he had come to work with the famed aerodynamicist Theodore Von Karman on emerging technologies that would be of use for the nascent USAF. He became the defacto technical expert in the USAF in this field, often clashing with the pragmatic and often bombastic Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command.

In the 1950s, LeMay's emphasis on the manned bomber as the main nuclear deterrent force on the United States was near-unassailable. The Navy had a small carrierborne deterrent, but that was it. Schriever saw the future of nuclear deterrence and the security of his adopted homeland would not be with bombers, but with ballistic missiles as he observed the leaps and bounds made by the Russians in their space program. After all, if they could put in Sputnik into orbit, it wasn't that much more of an effort to put a nuclear warhead in the United States.

Having won the confidence of his superiors with his technical knowledge and unassuming style (Schriever's superiors also happened to be General LeMay's superiors) that enabled him to outpace LeMay, he became the head of what was then called the Western Development Division of the USAF and given nearly free-reign to not just handpick his staff and subordinates, but also to engage a new defense procurement and management style that was radical for the day- the WDD would act as a systems manager and integrator, and subcontract parts of weapons systems to defense companies. He actively promoted competition amongst the contractors to spur technological progress but also divided subprojects amongst deserving companies to reduce risk.

When President Eisenhower declared fielding an operational intercontinental ballistic missile was of the "utmost national priority", General Schriever had all the pieces in place to lead the development and fielding of a nuclear deterrent that would eclipse LeMay's bomber force in strength, technology, and security. This was one of the reasons LeMay saw Schriever as a threat- what Schriever could deliver would make LeMay's massive bomber fleets irrelevant in the nation's nuclear strategy. When Schriever got his fourth star, LeMay remarked "If it were up to me, he'd never have gotten that star."

By the time the Atlas ICBM project was underway, the Western Development Division had along with the contractors over 18,000 scientists, 17 major defense companies, over 200 subcontractors, 3,500 suppliers for a total of approximately 70,000 people in an effort that dwarfed the Manhattan Project. Just before Sputnik's launch in 1957, the Western Development Division became the USAF's Ballistic Missile Division (BMD) and under Schriever's leadership, the USAF not only rapidly fielded the Atlas missile (first flight was in June 1957 and the first missile went on alert in January 1958), but also developed, flight tested and fielded the Thor IRBM, two version of the Titan ICBM (the Titan I and the more advanced Titan II) and three versions of the Minuteman ICBM (Minuteman I and II, and Minuteman III, today still the cornerstone of the United States' missile deterrent). And this all occurred in a seven year period between the first Atlas contractor awards in January 1955 and the first operational Minuteman missiles going on alert in November 1962!

By comparison in the same time period, the Convair F-102 Delta Dagger interceptor took ten years from initial awards to operational deployment. To this day, what General Bernard Schriever accomplished in such a short period of time is still unparalleled. The technological burst that arose from the ICBM programs not only benefited the US space program, but formed the robust seed of the modern American industrial technology from advances in materials science, computing, and production methods.

But General Schriever's name is little known in many historical and business/industrial circles this day, but then I suspect from what I've read of him that was fine by him. In his later years, he always considered what his work brought to the US manned space program and scientific exploration of the solar system to be of greater satisfaction and significance than the creation of the ICBM force.

General Schriever passed away in 2005. He was laid to rest amongst other heroes at Arlington National Cemetery where his head stone reads "Bernard A Schriever General US Air Force, Father of the Air Force's Ballistic Missile and Space Programs". Noted military historian Walter Boyne puts it more succinctly "The Right Man in the Right Place at the Right Time".

Source: Beyond the Wild Blue- A History of the United States Air Force, 1947-2007, Second Edition by Walter J. Boyne. Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2007, p117-123.

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