Who Killed America’s Can-Do Spirit?

Technology is extraordinarily more powerful than it was in 1945, yet industry and government can't get their act together.

U.S. Air Force

George Schairer didn’t make it back home to Seattle in time to celebrate Independence Day, 1945. He had been on a long and slow journey from Germany and he was the bearer of a great and secret discovery.

At 32, Schairer was one of the sharpest minds at the Boeing Airplane Company. As the Allied armies penetrated Nazi Germany he was in a group of aviation scientists sent from the U.S. to scoop up anything of value from the Third Reich’s research centers.

Schairer had barely crossed the border from Holland into Germany when word came that a motherlode of work on aerodynamics had been discovered in a network of laboratories disguised as farm buildings in a forest near the city of Brunswick. (Not one Allied intelligence report during the war had detected the existence of the labs.)

The Americans were stunned. More than 1,000 of Germany’s top aviation scientists had worked there, in laboratories had functioned until the last days of the war.

The names of some of the scientists were familiar to Schairer. Before the war he had read some of their papers, and he knew them to be world class. Just how advanced their work was soon became apparent. The Germans had gone a long way to solving a problem that eluded Allied research: how to get an airplane to fly as fast as a jet engine was capable of propelling it.

On May 7, 1945, Schairer wrote a seven-page letter to his Boeing colleagues in Seattle.

“The Germans have been doing extensive work on high speed aerodynamics. This has led to one very important discovery.”

He then drew the outline of a wing. It was raked back at an angle of 29 degrees from the fuselage. Schairer explained that by using this “sweepback” an airplane should be able to fly to just below the speed of sound, at nearly 600 mph.

Schairer wanted the Boeing engineers to start working on a swept wing as soon as they read his letter. When he finally got back to Seattle in the second week of July he had with him two reels of 35mm microfilm that held many more of the German secrets.

The same German data was eventually sent to other airplane companies in the U.S. With a combination of foresight and luck, however, Boeing was in a position to test the German theories more quickly and thoroughly than any competitor.

One thing was indispensable for research on high-speed flight: a wind tunnel. In this case the tunnel had to be powerful enough to replicate the effects of flying at more than 500 mph. Wind tunnels consume huge amounts of electric power, but Boeing got lucky: The price of electricity in the Pacific Northwest was a quarter of that in other parts of the country because of an abundance of hydroelectric dams.

As a result, Boeing had, in the early 1940s, invested in a tunnel that was more than three times faster than existing tunnels. Moreover, Boeing’s main competitor, Douglas, had to share a tunnel in California with other companies. When Schairer and his team put the swept wing into the Boeing tunnel they had as much as six times the time available as their rivals.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

That was it for the good news.

The bad news was that the scale model of the swept wing jet that Boeing put into their tunnel was uncontrollable. Its characteristics, Schairer confessed, were “unbelievably bad.” Engineers “flew” the airplane from a booth overlooking the tunnel, using a small control stick. As soon as they attempted to climb, dive or turn, the wings would flex and break, with pieces flying like bullets into the tunnel wall.

The airplane that Boeing was attempting to create was a bomber. A lucrative Air Force contract awaited the winner of a Pentagon contest. Douglas and other rivals were building jets with conventional straight wings. It began to seem that Schairer might have bet the company on a vision of the future that was false.

Schairer, an unforgiving leader who loved to throw off technical riddles and expect them to be solved, would have none of it. Day after day, model after model was splattered across the walls of the tunnel. They tried as many as 50 different ways of positioning the engines on the wing. Schairer insisted that the wild beast could be tamed, if only they could give it control surfaces far more assertive than were conventional.

In the end there was not one Eureka! moment but, literally, thousands of steps to a solution. After two years in the wind tunnel – an unprecedented time to prove a concept – Schairer and his team had a radical new form of airplane that they said was ready to be built. Schairer even said that the airplane would fly at higher speeds than they had been able to reproduce in the tunnel, nearly 600 mph.

If this were true, Boeing was about to double the speed at which any airplanes of equal size flew. In fact, when the Air Force tested it, the bomber that emerged, the B-47, was faster than any fighter.

This was far more than the creation of a bomber. It was a seminal moment in the science of flight, as consequential to the whole world as any before it. The basic form of most every airliner today has evolved directly from the wild thing that Boeing developed from the data that Schairer discovered in Germany seventy years ago. They had mastered the aerodynamic genetic code that enabled the creation of the Jet Age.

Flash forward to 2003. Boeing announces a radical new airliner, the 787 Dreamliner. Radical because it will combine several advances in technology – a structure made of composites that is lighter and stronger than aluminum; engines that are far more fuel efficient, and quieter; a new power supply system using lithium-ion batteries; numerous other improvements including in cabin climate and lighting – and, in abundance, software constituting a digital brain that controls all the vital systems.

Outwardly the 787 remains recognizably the descendant of the B-47, having swept wings with engines beneath in pods, but the aerodynamics of the wing are generations beyond what was conceivable in 1945. The Dreamliner is just that: the delivery of a dream that leaps beyond convention to new heights of comfort and efficiency.

Well, not so much a dream, more like a nightmare. The 787 concept was brilliant but the execution was, for a variety of reasons, disastrous. The first 787s were delivered to the airlines three years late. There were fires caused by the lithium-ion batteries. The whole fleet of 787s was grounded for months.

With more than 1,000 on order and nearly 300 already in service, the 787’s bugs now appear to be behind it. The Dreamliner is very popular with airlines and passengers – but because they have to carry the huge costs of the early missteps Boeing is still losing $26 million on every 787 it delivers.

Last year the company’s (now outgoing) boss, James McNerney, told financial analysts that the 787 represented a philosophy of “every 25 years a big moonshot, produce a 707 or a 787 – that’s the wrong way to pursue this business. The more-for-less world will not let you produce moonshots.”

No more moonshots? Really?

That might sound heart-warming to Wall Street analysts. It’s not so consoling to the spirit of George Schairer, or what became known as The Can-do Age, an inimitably American combination of vision, skill, and sheer audacity.

NASA launched the Apollo program in 1961 with the intention of landing a man on the moon by 1970. They managed it in eight years, a year early, and by 1972 had put twelve men on the moon before the program ended, not losing any astronauts in space (three died in a ground test).

At least three imperatives drove the program: Rivalry with the Russians, who had seemed way ahead in technology but were not; John Kennedy’s personal investment in the idea of space travel; and an intoxicating belief in national supremacy based on something nobler and certainly less damaging than waging nuclear war.

For the Can-do Generation, challenging goals were set and then met. (Like the swept wing, NASA’s massive launcher rockets were developed from German work – and by German scientists – swept up by Allied scouts as the war ended.)

Now, compare Apollo with a far more modest contemporary venture, Virgin Galactic. Galactic’s buccaneering chief, Richard Branson, launched this first “space tourism” program in 2004, promising regular sub-orbital rides to space by 2009. Eleven years later and after losing the first “space ship” in a crash last fall that killed one of the two test pilots there is no prospect of commercial rides for some time to come.

This reflects one ineluctable reality about any space program. It will always be an expensive and risky business. Elon Musk, a serious and technically accomplished thinker about space exploration, was reminded painfully of this reality last month when his SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, carrying a capsule with supplies for the International Space Station, exploded down range at an altitude of 21 miles after a seemingly perfect launch. This followed recent failures launching a Russian cargo capsule and another by the U.S.-built Antares rocket on a pad at in Virginia.

NASA, pared back by huge cuts in funds, is no longer the benchmark for space flights. The only means of getting astronauts to and from the International Space Station for some time to come is by Russian Soyuz rockets and capsules. Hoping for more reliability, the Antares program is switching from one Russian rocket engine to another. The most dependable satellite-launching rocket in the world is the European Ariane 5, with not a single failure since 2002 and that launches at a rate of five or six times a year.

Today’s U.S. chief executives, however much they worry about taking a chance on the new, have never known nerve-testing risks like those taken by Boeing in 1945 or NASA in 1961. There is a huge difference between creating the Jet Age or landing a man on the moon and managing incremental steps in established technologies.

But there is a paradox here that the Can-do generation never faced. Computer chips get smaller and ever more powerful, yet any major technological project takes longer and longer to complete and is frequently over-budget. And as numerous cases like the Boeing 787 have shown the programs are increasingly difficult to manage. Once burned, corporate chiefs tend to become increasingly risk averse.

Part of the problem is gratuitous complexity. Some cars require scrolling through six or more steps to change the time on a clock, rather than a single press of a button. Designers are so often besotted with the cult of the digital that they forget that simplicity of the analog is often enough.

It’s an oft-cited fact that the computer power available to the Apollo missions was a fraction of that in a smart phone, yet it was enough to transform the history of mankind. Likewise, although the software involved in the flight management system of a modern airliner is beyond anything imaginable by the men who tamed the swept wing, they were able to invent a simple mechanical device adapted from existing parts to stop the B-47 from zig-zagging all over the sky. And they did that in a couple of weeks.

It may be that a self-aware ignorance was the greatest spur to the Can-do engineers. Or, perhaps you could call it a singular kind of modesty in the face of dauntingly complex adversaries – in a certain personality, realizing how much you don’t know ignites a will to persist for answers, whereas if a computer is demonstrating to you how nasty a problem is you have the option of leaving it for others to solve.

No Can-do is always an option, particularly in the executive suite while pondering the last quarter’s earnings…remember James McNerney’s telling phrase, “the more-for-less world.” (He’s used it more than once.) We have, it would seem, gone from Can-do to No Can-do in two generations.

Modern financial systems – markets that operate like casinos -- and the dominance of shareholder power in large, publicly held corporations have clearly played an inhibiting role. The sheer scale of the capital investment needed today to launch a new airplane program, for example, is a long-term bet that creates a drain on short-term earnings. Wall Street is always pressing for those short-term results; analysts are not easy to sell on the vision thing, for which they have no tools to predict the price.

Compare this with where most innovation occurs in America today: Silicon Valley. Transformative ideas like smart phones and social media come from companies initially bank-rolled by either venture capital funds or individuals. Start-up costs are often a fraction of what a new company can be valued at when it merits an initial public offering. Even when the business model is based on profits being many years away, as in the case of Amazon, the smart money sees the logic of the ultimate design.

One thing that should never be underrated is the indispensable value of the single person driven by a certitude that nothing can shake, whether it’s Steve Jobs or George Schairer.

Before Schairer died in 2004 I talked to him at his home on the shore of Lake Washington. He was long retired. There was a small sport fishing boat tied up at his dock. He had designed the hull, but was dissatisfied with the way it moved through water, particularly in reverse. He was carrying out experiments with a model in a tank to better understand what was happening.

I asked him if water was trickier to deal with than air.

“Air is the easier of the two,” he said. “Air is a terrible mess, we don’t really understand how the air flows over a wing, even now. But the water is worse.”

It would never have occurred to him to give up trying to fix it.