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Engineering pioneer recounts early days of Air Force acquisitions

  • Published
  • By Daryl Mayer, AFLCMC Public Affairs

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AFB, Ohio (AFLCMC) – An early member of the Aeronautical Systems Division, a predecessor organization of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, recently made the trek to Dayton, Ohio, site of the early days of his flight test career. 
Dr. William R. O’Brien, 91, traveled from his home in Maryland to visit a plaque installed in his honor by his family at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.  While here, he sat for an episode of AFLCMC’s Leadership Log podcast where he reflected on programs like Skybolt and NATO AWACS as well as his role in the development of “matrix management” system of providing technical expertise to program offices.  

It was a long and fruitful career that began in a moment of happenstance or perhaps serendipity. 
Still a student, O’Brien was hitchhiking down to Patuxent River, Maryland for his intern job he had working flight tests with the Navy.  The woman who picked him was on her way to meet her husband who was an Air Force lieutenant leaving a flight test job at Wright-Patterson.
O’Brien sensed an opportunity. 
“And I said, well who is his boss?  It was Maj. Dick Lathrop in flight test in building 30.  So, I called him and I told him a little bit.  He said, well send your resume and we’ll see what we can do,” O’Brien said. 
“After he did that, he agreed that I could take the lieutenant's job, that was getting out of the Air Force. And, of course, this all came by accident by getting picked up by his wife.”
One of the early programs he worked on was an electronic recovery system intended to automatically pull an aircraft out of a spin.  They determined a B-17 was a strong enough aircraft to survive the tests which involved flying over Huffman Prairie, putting the bomber in a spin and seeing if the gadget worked.
“But it wasn't working very well.  The pilots would do their best to pull it out of their spin, which wasn't easy.  Thankfully, the B-17 being a strong airplane, it didn't pull the wings off,” O’Brien said.  “The only problem was when they pulled out, my eyes went up.  I was in the bombardier's position in the nose of the 17. So, when it was into a spin, I was flying.  It was just the world that was turning around.”
Later in his career, competition between Area A and Area B to hire the best college graduates led to the matrix management system.  They saw it as a way to share limited technical expertise in different programs.    
“It was difficult for the folks in Test to recruit the kind of people they would like to have,” O’Brien said.  “I was in the doctoral program, and my major was management.  I was interested in this matrix approach, and I went to Detroit to see how they did it. Not many people were using matrix except the motor companies at that time. I came back home and talked to people and decided we'd give it a try.”  
To hear the full conversation, you can watch Leadership Log on YouTube at  You can also listen by searching “Leadership Log” on Apple Podcast, Google Podcast, Spotify, Overcast, Radio Public or Breaker.