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Stall warning

November 2, 1999

A public radio commentary

Last week I flew to Pennsylvania to visit a friend. A simple thing, yet for me it can be a terrifying thing. As an engineer I marvel every time I fly. I admire the jet's craftsmanship and am amazed at how routine it is to now fly 200 plus miles per hour. Yet I also do a very unengineering-like thing: As the jet shoots into the sky my palms become sweaty and my heart beats swiftly. I have a fear of flying.

I admire jets because they're a pinnacle of modern engineering and my training makes me believe the statistics showing flying is safe yet still I'm a bit on edge every time I fly. Because I must fly I've had to conquer this fear of flying. I've learned that for me at the root, like most fearful flyers, is control. I'm used to being in control and when I sit in this huge plane ready to shoot into the sky someone else is in control. To overcome this fear I've had to learned everything about airplanes - about what all its many parts do. I use this knowledge as a talisman to calm me as we approach take off. One of my favorites is a chunk of metal a few inches long and only an inch or so wide on the fuselage or the wing.

Its a detector which tells the pilot if he or she is about to lose lift and thus crash the plane. In my study of airplane anatomy I learned how this device came about. I recently talked to its inventor Leonard M. Greene. He told me he'd invented the stall warning detector at age nineteen. This was a story I had to know so I asked him if this were the start of his long career in aviation - sixty patents in the field. "No," he said, "I'd say this all started when I was about five years old." Greene explained that he spent his childhood in extreme poverty.

With no money for toys he used his imagination helped by a children's encyclopedia which he'd found in the trash. The encyclopedia dazzled him with its experiments and self-made toys. A cherished memory is of a lighted wagon powered by batteries scoured from the trash - he'd learned from the encyclopedia how to rejuvenate them in salt water. Greene's mother saw this talent and pushed him to skip every other grade until he entered college at thirteen. Toward the end of his college years, around age seventeen, he stumbled on a science fiction novel that gave him his lifetime ambition to be an inventor.

He can rattle off all its predictions: fluorescent lights, baseball played under the Astrodome, and credit cards. So when, at nineteen, he saw an airplane drop from the sky he drew on his childhood to make the first stall warning detector becoming the inventor he dreamed of after reading science fiction. And Greene keeps that spirit alive today by continuing to invent: supersonic aircraft, wind shear warning systems, sailboat keels, a three-dimensional chess game, and even a ski binding.

It's people like Leonard Green childhood genius that give me confidence when I climb into a jet and zoom into the sky.

Copyright 1999 William S. Hammack Enterprises