CRRM Feels A Lot Like DEC

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Mike McCarthy
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CRRM Feels A Lot Like DEC

Postby Mike McCarthy » Fri Aug 28, 2015 2:23 am



Don and Rick,

I mentioned that I'm writing a book about the old DEC. Attached is a story from that book that I thought you might enjoy since, among other things, it explains how Colorado Springs became the Christian capital of the nation, so to speak. It also shows the value of going directly to top decision makers whenever this is possible.

DEC had no official organization chart. There was an unofficial one, always changing, but the real power structure within the company consisted of the movers and shakers -- people who actually did things, and made things happen, regardless of their nominal rank in the organization. There were meetings -- too many of them -- but an astonishing amount of business was conducted in the halls and in quick one-on-one chats in people's spartan cubicles.

I sense that same spirit at CRRM -- that seemingly ordinary people are capable of accomplishing great things if only you will lead them from the front (which is the most powerful motivator in the world), give them what they need to get their jobs done, and stand back and applaud as they do them. My first DEC boss, Dave Stone, one day gave me the most powerful motivator I have ever experienced. Stone's boss, Larry Portner, had praised to Dave a report I had written for Portner to use as backup in addressing the Operations Committee on the issue of proposed software subscription services. The next morning Stone applied a large gold star to the back of my left hand and ordered me to leave it on all day so people would ask about it.

I see another parallel -- spartan offices for the people. Ken Olsen would spend millions for communication infrastructure but not one red cent for office finery. I hadn't fully understood it at the time but Olsen was a Quaker (as is my wife) and he hated ostentation in any form. In the entire company as it stood during the 70s there was only one fancy office worldwide (I did a lot of traveling for DEC and I know this). That office, a glass-walled beauty with tasteful furniture and furnishings worthy of the Museum of Modern Art, belonged to DEC VP Ed Kramer. It has been ordered up by Olsen for Kramer as a message to the rest of DEC that Kramer embodied everything Olsen stood for in founding DEC -- engineers selling the world's best computer and digital module products to other engineers.



Apollo 16 ... And The Owl

I joined DEC during the summer of 1971. My wife and kids and I were still living in a DEC-funded motel room near ... Concord? ... when the launch of Apollo 15 took place. I cut work to watch some of the astronauts' color TV transmissions from the lunar surface, and to watch the live shot of the lunar module ascent stage blasting off from the descent stage, scattering pieces of gold insulating foil in every direction, climbing and then tilting to the west to begin its Hohmann transfer maneuver to the orbit of the command module.

[An aside ... Being a follower of the space program I knew the names of the three Apollo 15 crewmen, and I knew what they looked like. Little did I know that seven years later I would become a Colorado Springs neighbor of the lunar module pilot for that mission, James Irwin. Recognizing his face, I often saw him jogging on the roads near our house, which was less than a mile from the new DEC Rockrimmon plant at the north end of town. I always waved but otherwise left him alone. He always waved back. One day two years later our daughter came home from Air Academy High, the best school in the area, wondering aloud why her classmates were always taunting her good friend Jan Irwin, whose house she often visited after school, chanting things like "Nya, nya nya nya-nyah. Your daddy walked on the moo-oon." I explained to Cynthia, by sheer coincidence named by my wife for the Greek goddess of the moon, that Jan's dad had been a NASA astronaut and had indeed walked on the moon's surface, the sixth human to do so. Irwin had a cosmic experience on the lunar surface, one that motivated him to create the High Flight Foundation, which led directly to Colorado Springs becoming the Christian capital of the nation so to speak -- the seat of Christian radio and the home of several Christian organizations including Focus On The Family. I never met Irwin but Jan often came to our house and sometimes slept over as teenage girls are wont to do. She and Cynthia are friends to this day. But I digress ...]

I wanted to see an Apollo mission launch live, not on TV. The next one would be Apollo 16 in the spring of 72. I remember something about a challenge that fall of 71, Richie Lary telling me that it was not possible for ordinary citizens like us to get tickets to Apollo mission launches, and anyway the trip would be a pain, blah blah blah. While I was still relatively new to DEC as an employee, I had known genius Richie for many years from his and my PDP-8 days, and I was privileged to be able to call friend this modest, astoundingly intelligent intellectual giant. Being an aviation buff, and a licensed private pilot, I had somehow learned that a good friend of Richie's, DEC consultant Jack Burness, owned a fast general aviation aircraft, the T-tail version of the Beech Bonanza, an F35, cruising speed about 160 knots. Using Jack's aircraft we could leave early on the morning of Day One, be in Florida that afternoon, see the launch the next day and be back in Massachusetts late on Day Two or very early on Day Three. Would Richie at least ask Jack if he was interested in the concept?

Richie did this but reported that Jack felt the same way -- that it would not be possible for us to get tickets. However, if by some miracle I actually got tickets, he would be happy to fly us provided he could bring along his good friend Len Bozak. (Today Len spells his last name Bosack). I knew Lenny and happily agreed. Upping the ante, I promised not only launch tickets, I promised official NASA VIP[i] tickets. These would get us into the bleachers viewing stand just outside the launch control center adjacent to the VAB, only 3.5 miles from the launching pad, as close as humans were allowed to be for a Saturn V launch. My friends thought it would be impossible for me to get even one such ticket much less four of them. However, I was wise to the ways of the political world, and I had a plan that I immediately put into action ...

By this time DEC was one of the largest civilian employers in Massachusetts, if not [i]the
largest. I guessed that if I could get the state's US Senator Ed Brooke to request four VIP tickets for four DEC employees, NASA would simply have to find a way to accommodate him. (It might not have mattered but it certainly didn't hurt that Brooke was the first black senator, and that he was an influential Republican majority member of the Senate Banking Committee.) Why would Brooke make such a request on behalf of four nobodies? Well, what if the request to Brooke was being done at the request of Ken Olsen himself?

So ... I went down to Olsen's office and had a chat with his personal secretary, his true and long-serving jack-of-all-trades administrative assistant, whose first name was Peggy as I recall, but whose last name is currently lost to me. I explained that four of us, including Richie Lary, whom Olsen knew well and respected, wanted to try to get VIP tickets to the Apollo 16 launch. Would it be okay with Olsen if I used his name when calling Senator Brooke's office to ask Brooke to ask NASA for VIP tickets? In fact, would it be okay for me to say that I was calling at the suggestion of Olsen? "My goodness, Mike" she said with a smile. "Thanks for asking instead of simply making the call. I'll talk to Ken and let you know what he says."

Peggy called me a few hours later with the word that Olsen said it would be fine for me to use his name when requesting VIP launch tickets for four DEC employees. I asked her to pass my thanks back to Olsen, after which I immediately called Senator Brooke's office. Again, I was wise to the ways of the political world. I knew to ask not for the busy senator but instead for his much busier legislative assistant -- his chief of staff.

"Here's what to do, Mike" he said. "Write to me on company letterhead, making the request for four VIP tickets to the Apollo 16 launch. Address your letter to Honorable Edward Brooke, United States Senator, location thus-and-such. Mention that you have Olsen's approval to make the request. But send the letter directly to me, not to the senator." The whole conversation lasted less than a minute, most of it taken up by my verifying the senator's mailing address to use in the letter, and the name and address to which I should send the letter itself. Then it was back to Peggy for another approval round.

"Let's do this as follows" said Peggy. "Dictate your letter to me right now. I'll type it, you sign it, and then I'll show it to Ken. I'll explain that this is all at the suggestion of the senator's legislative assistant, and I'll let you know whether Ken says it's okay to send the letter as is." We did the letter on the spot, I signed it, and then I went back to work upstairs on 12-2. Peggy called the next day to say that Olsen had okayed the letter, and that she had already mailed it on my behalf. About a month later she called again to tell me that the tickets had arrived and yes, they were VIP tickets, and yes, there were four of them.

[Another aside ... I was never in Olsen's office but I can't imagine it ever having been piled high with untended pending paperwork. A stack of unread professional papers? Sure, but these would be things to be read during lulls, or at home in the evening or on weekends. In contrast administrative stuff would be dealt with as quickly as reasonable. I knew from having been in meetings with Olsen that when he decided to actually get involved with something, which was rare, he was quick and decisive and wanted to fix things right now. I imagine that like most successful CEO's he had a rule of touching incoming paper once and only once. He might not get to his in-basket immediately, but he would deal with incoming paper in the order received, and he would do it sooner rather than later. Each item he touched might result in his dictating a memo to Peggy, or making a phone call (which might be directly to a low level person like me), or his writing on the margin of the paper and routing it on to someone else, but one way or another once touched that paper was going to move from In to Out with only the briefest possible pause on his desk, which surely will have been clear, with plenty of room to spread out. I learned this paper flow management technique from my first DEC boss, Dave Stone. In fact, I learned a lot about management from Dave Stone. But I digress ...]

So ... Now I had the promised VIP tickets, my friends were greatly impressed, and the trip was on for a few months hence. The launch was to be at about noon on a Sunday in mid-April. We flew south out of Hanscom Field in Jack's four-seat F35 very early on Saturday morning, arriving in the general vicinity of Cape Canaveral in late afternoon after a trip of about twelve hours. I rode shotgun so Jack and I could talk about what all pilots always talk about -- aircraft and flying.. Richie and Lenny had zero interest in aviation and were quite happy to chat and nap in the back. Jack's aircraft had a throw-over yoke and he let me fly it a couple of times briefly while he took short cat naps. The aircraft had a full IFR panel -- Jack was instrument rated -- and it had a wing leveler, which I had never worked with before, a very great convenience on long flights and an important safety option in the absence of a full autopilot. On the way down we must have landed at Asheville, NC to refuel though I don't recall this specifically. We certainly did so on the way back, see below.

I don't remember where we landed in Florida but it must have been south of the Cape proper because I remember our passing a few miles to the west of the giant VAB -- the 550 feet high cube-shaped Vertical Assembly Building. (That was its official name. Only the press called it the Vehicle Assembly Building.) Even from 10,000 feet the VAB looked huge. (Because it was[i] huge, Mike, the largest building in the world if you ignore the sprawling one-story Boeing airliner final assembly plant in Renton, WA.) Wherever it was that we landed, we rented a car and drove back north to park in a NASA lot from which a herd of buses would pick up all the VIP guests a few hours before the launch to take us to the VAB launch viewing area. We had brought sleeping bags and would sleep on a nearby beach, camped out among the non-VIP hoi polloi who would have to watch the launch from this spot where they too had camped out, which was .... what .... maybe twenty miles from the launch pad. Heck, from this position you would need binoculars or a telescope to make out the 350-feet-high Saturn V machine with any kind of detail, and while the launch would be loud at that distance, it wouldn't be [i]loud

The next morning we rode a NASA bus to the VIP site as did a couple of hundred other people on other buses. I found myself sitting next to electronics and aviation pioneer Bill Lear, a longtime hero of mine. Across the aisle from me was famed former broadcaster Arthur Godfrey. I didn't bother either of them, I simply nodded hello to show my recognition and respect for their accomplishments.

The morning was warm and clear, the air dead calm with not a cloud in the brilliant blue sky. Wanting to be alone, I detached from my friends and stood on the grass as close to the launch vehicle as I could get without breaking any rules. The Saturn V ignition was spectacular but silent at first. Shortly after the vehicle slowly began to rise the ground started to shake. Then came the noise, incredibly loud at first, and then louder, and then louder still, till you could not hear yourself shout, and then even louder as the 350 foot tall machine climbed away, pushed upward by a dazzling 600 foot flame that flickered and spat and crackled with the sound of a thousand shotguns being fired continuously just inches from your ears, all to the background noise of a jet engine running at full power somehow all around you and close, very close, much too close.

I could feel the shock waves briskly tapping -- no, slapping -- my face, my arms, my legs, my internal organs. Plugging my ears with my fingers made no difference whatsoever so I put my arms down and watched, stunned, as the giant machine now began to slide effortlessly into the sky, climbing faster and faster. Eventually the sound began to lessen, and then taper off, and then die away completely. About two minutes into the launch sequence I had no trouble seeing the rocket's first stage separate at an altitude of about forty miles and begin to lag behind the second stage. Soon the machine was traveling substantially horizontally and, even without binoculars, from a couple of hundred miles away I saw the second stage separate and the third stage ignite.

[Yet another aside ... Money as such was never important to me and by golly I never made much, at least not for extended periods. However, I have a beautiful wife who was fond of her tee shirt that read "When I'm good I'm very, very good. And when I'm bad I'm terrific." We live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood -- nothing fancy, but attractive enough that delivery people frequently remark "Gee, this is a nice neighborhood.". And our two kids, both professionals, live less than five miles from us, and they both have kids who still live at home though one is in college forty miles away from us. And I got to see two total eclipses of the sun, with several minutes of totality each time .... And as just described I got to experience a Saturn V launch from 3.5 miles away. But I digress ...]

The show was over though my ears were still ringing. I was completely drained and so were my friends. So was the rest of the VIP crowd. With all guests wanting to leave at the same time, we eventually were able to catch a bus which took us back to the NASA lot. Without delay we climbed into our rental car, drove south to the airport, preflighted Jack's already fueled aircraft and got out of town, expecting to arrive at Hanscom in the middle of the night. However, something happened enroute and we never got there. Years ago I wrote about it on a website called I think I'll just plug some of that that writeup in here after a few minor edits ...


Traveling back from the launch of Apollo 16 to Hanscom Field outside Boston, we didn’t make it, though nobody was hurt, as I will discuss below. But first I want to tell the circumstances surrounding this flight.

To begin with, I got four VIP tickets to the launch simply by writing to the office of Senator Brooke. Of course I first called his legislative assistant, who told me to write to the Senator on company letterhead, and who told me what to say in the letter. This was US-style democracy in action, direct contact with the office of one of our two senators.

I then arranged a ride down to Florida with the following friends . . .

Jack Burness, author of the world-famous original Lunar Lander game for the PDP-11, the one that gave rise to the arcade video game. Jack owned a standard-tail Bonanza and it was his aircraft that we used. When the Lunar Lander game was finished he walked into the office of DEC VP Ed Kramer, held out his hand palm up, and had a DEC check for $15,000 in 1972 dollars slapped right into it, as earlier agreed by Jack and Ed.

Richie Lary, DEC corporate resource, easily the most intelligent, and one of the nicest, people I have ever known. (For example, Richie taught himself Electrical Engineering and within two years was generally acknowledged as the best EE in the company.) Richie and I would later perform a white water rafting rescue in the Colorado River at Rifle, after running the Roaring Fork River while it was in full June flood.

Len Bozak, who later founded what is called today Cisco Systems, but who at the time was simply adorable Lenny, communications multiplexer hardware/software wizard. After Cisco became a big name Lenny was interviewed by some techie magazine. The reporter said that Lenny showed up in a suit. Well, let me tell you that at the time of our Apollo 16 trip Lenny did not even own a suit, nor did he care much about his appearance or manners. He ate, breathed and slept deep technical issues. His beautiful mind later attracted a beautiful business partner and wife, DEC Research Fellow Sandy Lerner, and these days the ... ... okay, I'll say it, clean-cut ... ... Len Bosack is actually quite handsome.

And then there was me, moi, Mikey, former operating system designer and current drinking buddy of Dave Cutler, who would later be the architect of VMS, which became Windows NT, which became Windows 2000, which became Windows XP, which became Windows Vista. (Just to make things interesting, I was the author of the world’s first minicomputer disk operating system, for the PDP-8. I was also the architect of the famous MIMIC simulator platform.)

But I digress …


We took off for home, the first leg being, as I recall, non-stop to Asheville, where we must have gotten something to eat, and where we surely refueled. I’m not sure about the non-stop aspect because we probably were hungry and may have stopped for a meal shortly after leaving the Cape area. I am certain that it was Asheville where we refueled.

When we took off from Asheville it was pitch dark. We had not only the four of us, we also had luggage and a full load of fuel. Whatever the aircraft's max gross weight was, we were just under it. I was riding shotgun. Jack of course was PIC and PF. We had slowly climbed to about 800 feet when suddenly there was the most Deity-awful bang, and the entire windshield over on Jack’s side blew in as a mixture of Plexiglass shards and fragments, some of which had embedded themselves in a few places on Jack’s face. (We were very lucky. The big shards didn’t hit anybody, how I will never know.)

The combination of the engine noise and the slipstream was very loud and speech was almost impossible. In the dim red glow of the instrument panel night lighting, Jack looked at me in amazement, small rivulets of blood running down his face. I raised my left arm, fingers curled, thumb sticking out. I jerked my thumb aft twice. Jack nodded in agreement -- we would turn around and land on the runway we had just departed from.

Before the windshield imploded we had been climbing at full power. Now, because of the enormous airframe drag, we were descending rapidly at full power. I located the ready flashlight, covered it so only a tiny amount of light leaked out, and shouted to Jack that I would call out the airspeed and altitude to him continuously so he could concentrate on flying -- getting the aircraft back on the ground without having to look at the panel constantly.

We had taken off into a stiff headwind. Jack racked the aircraft around in a tight left turn, lined us up and then touched down on essentially the very end of the runway from which we had departed. The only reason we made it back to the runway was because, after the turn, the headwind had become a stiff tailwind. Throughout the emergency Richie and Lenny never said a word, probably because they didn't understand the gravity of the situation.


You see, folks, it was a dark night. Cloudy? Moonless? I don’t recall. Jack was instrument rated and I had no concerns about that even though I myself was not. All Jack and I knew was that in front of us was an impenetrable forest of pine trees - - we had seen this earlier when we landed to refuel.

Our choice was to attempt a controlled crash into the forest at night, versus making a never-ever-turn-back-to-the-runway turn back to the runway. For Jack and I it was a no-brainer. We reached the same conclusion after the shock of the windshield implosion wore off, perhaps five seconds into the incident. Turning back seemed right to both of us, so we turned back. Jack did the flying, I helped a little.

Were Jack or I scared? No, we were much too busy. I think we both understood that if we didn't make it back to at least the clear-cut runway dirt overrun, the four of us would probably die in a fiery crash. However, in a situation like that properly trained pilots manage to compartmentalize their concerns. If you panic you die. If you don't panic then you have a problem to solve. If the solution works, you live. Jack's nailing of the airspeed to best-angle-of-descent saved us.


P.S. The next morning we discovered blood and feathers along the exterior roof of the cabin. A local told us that they were owl feathers. Apparently the owl had flown between the propeller blades, hit the windshield and then shattered it without coming into the cabin. It must then have bounced up at an angle and slid along the roof. We were very lucky that Jack did not develop a sudden case of Owl Face because the aircraft did not have dual controls, only a throw-over yoke. Had he been incapacitated I might not have been able to swing the yoke over to my side before the aircraft went out of control.

I have lost my copy of the picture but the next morning, with somebody’s camera, we took a picture of Jack standing on his seat, his head and shoulders thrust out through the enormous hole in the left side of the windshield.


As I recall, Richie and Lenny stayed behind with Jack to help him get the aircraft repairs arranged and paid for. I had an important meeting coming up on Tuesday and instead caught a commercial 727 headed to Boston, probably a Piedmont flight. I vaguely recall taking a DEC helicopter from Logan to Hanscom so I could pick up my car.

Having had several negative experiences with general aviation aircraft during the 60s, this time I vowed never to ride in a GA aircraft again. Nevertheless, at the fervent request of my good friend Gary Cole I would break this vow, riding with him in a rented Cessna 172 piloted by him in order to keep him company on a sightseeing flight around San Diego while we were helping to staff a DECUS meeting. I regretted that flight too -- a near miss with an F-4 Phantom from the Top Gun school at Miramar followed by a near-collision with a glider tug towline over Torrey Pines -- and have never flown GA again. In fact, after a near mishap in a commercial feeder airline Twin Otter landing in Colorado Springs, I vowed never again to ride in anything smaller than a 737 ...

... But even that wasn't enough because, in the mid 80s, I rode a Continental 737 into Colorado Springs when the aircraft almost crashed in the same place and under the same circumstances as United 585 later did in 1991. As we were turning final for runway 36 from a right base leg, at about a thousand feet above ground level we hit an invisible low-lying mountain rotor that rolled us almost vertically to the right. The only difference was that on my flight the rudder behaved normally during the cockpit crew's quick recovery, whereas with 585 the crew experienced rudder reversal, making their situation both worse and unrecoverable.

Oddly enough the 585 crash site in a municipal park was little more than a thousand feet south of the isolated Janitell Building, which had been DEC's initial facility in Colorado Springs while the Rockrimmon plant was being built.

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