Why am I here?
This is a great question and I mean "great" in the sense of "huge". So let me ask a more specific question: "Why did I choose the Aerospace Industry?"
In the UK, when I was at school, you took "O" Level exams at sixteen and "A" level exams at eighteen. "O" levels were generally a spread of subjects and at my school people generally took eight, with Maths, English and French being mandatory and the other five being chosen by the pupil based on ability and interest. "A" levels were more serious and were generally taken only three or four subjects at any one time. The subject choice and grades would drive your eligibility to enter a particular course at your chosen university. At the point I had to choose "A" level subjects I knew that I wanted to do some form of Engineering and so Maths and Physics were a non-negotiable, though I did have some leeway with my third subject choice.
I needed to choose and apply to a university and course when I was seventeen and just starting my final year of "A" levels. At University I took a Bachelor of Engineering Degree with Honours in Aerospace Engineering. This is a vocational degree, with no "Major" and "Minor" subjects and no flexibility in the modules taken. The third of the four years was based in Industry and it was four years with the sole intent of producing someone at least compatible with the Aerospace Industry.
It meant that I was choosing to be an Aerospace Engineer when I was sixteen years old and confirming the choice at seventeen. But, to be honest, I had no idea what I was signing up for.
At my University the first year was shared with Mechanical Engineers, Vehicular Engineers and Aerospace Engineers. I came to the conclusion that Mechanical Engineers are the ones that like to know how stuff is made, how it works. Vehicular Engineers are the practical people. They have the cars that they can play with. Modify, design, fettle...; it is all so accessible.
As an Aerospace Engineer, I was there because I like Spitfires. Or if not Spitfires, then Concorde or the Wright Flyer, or the Vulcan at airshows, or tales of sir Frank Whittle stood stock still next to a runaway jet engine, or RAF Buccaneers coming in at wave-top level or any one of the fantastic things that make an Aero Engineer daydream. Maybe it was some of the stories my Grandfather told me about being ground crew in the Royal Flying Corp, Engineering Sergeant the Royal Air Force or Engine Inspector for Rolls-Royce when he retired.
What I wasn't prepared for was complex mathematical equations. The mention of Phugoid or Short Period Pitch oscillations still makes me shudder (I was never a big fan of control theory). Sure, there were lots of modules that were really interesting. Materials, Manufacturing, Dynamics, Design, Propulsion, Aerodynamics, Structures, Programming, projects, labs and tutorials. But I was excited by the original Whittle engine in the hallway and the Tiger Moth frame that was used in the Structures Lab for strain gauge testing. I took easily to the programming, the Finite Element Analysis and the Computer Aided Drafting and wasn't quite so taken by other subjects (did I mention Control Theory?).
But none of this was what was in my mind when I was sixteen.
The first week of our Final Year there was a truly great outing. The university had decided that the idea of an Aerospace Engineer that had never flown was bad. So off we went to Elstree Aerodrome for a flight in a single engine fixed wing aircraft, then a spell on the IFR simulator, then a flight in a Robinson R22 and finally a tour of the workshop and hanger. A great start to a really tough year and THAT is what I had imagined when I was a school. I imagined that it would be like..... I suppose I had better come clean at this point and say that should anyone from Embry-Riddle be reading this, be they faculty or student, I am jealous.
Even now in my working life I feel that if I was driven by the mechanics of what I do, the tools, the systems, the practical skills...., I would now be a Mechanical Engineer and more free to roam from industry to industry.
But somewhere in the back of my mind there is a sound and I can hear it as I type as clearly as the tapping of this keyboard. It's the sound of a Merlin Engine, with the throttle wide open, passing by in a steeply banked Spitfire. If I think a little harder I can see the serene delta of the Vulcan climbing away in front of me, I can see a bright red BAE Hawk flashing past at nearly treetop level lining up for a synro-pair pass, or the A380 gracefully touching wheels to tarmac, or the wings sweeping up on the 787 as its speed down the runway builds .... and I want to shake a sixteen year old by the hand and thank him for making the right choice.