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Remembering William Lenoir

November 14, 2010

William Lenoir, 1939-2010

I was doing my annual birthday bike ride this past week and got to thinking about a friend who died in a bike accident in August.  I will take the liberty of calling Bill Lenoir my “friend,” although he was really my employer and 20 years older than me when I worked for him in the late 1980’s.  In that brief time he left an indelible impression that I would like to share here.

His career began with undergraduate through PhD studies in electrical engineering at MIT, followed by a teaching post there as well, accomplishments already sufficient for most.  He left MIT and joined the astronaut corps, flying as mission specialist on Shuttle Flight Five. Later at the consulting firm of Booz · Allen & Hamilton, he won the single largest contract in the firm’s history up to that date: a sub-contract to Grumman Aerospace for the Level-2a Space Station design program where I met and worked for him. He finished his career with Booz · Allen, interrupted by a return to government service for a period as NASA’s Associate Administrator, responsible for the development, operating and implementation of the necessary policy for the Space Shuttle and all U.S. government civil launch activities.

As a NASA employee, you hear a lot about astronauts.  Your natural inclination for hero worship (exacerbated by a love of space travel, or you wouldn’t be working at NASA in the first place) runs headlong into stories of ego-maniacs treating engineers as a lower-order species. Bill was the first astronaut I actually met. Somewhat to my surprise I found that he and Ed Gibson, a second ex-astronaut working for him, were completely human. Very, very gifted humans without question, but with the standard issue of foibles and character flaws as well. I liked them both enormously.

Bill would tell us stories of flying his astronaut issue T38, a beautiful small jet trainer.  How their small tanks would run low on fuel holding in commercial airport landing patterns and they’d have to argue the tower into letting them move up in the queue. Or how he’d once flown a fellow astronaut to a small airport which they were unsure had a “huffer,” an air compressor needed to restart the jet’s engine.  Just in case, they decided not to shut down while his passenger hopped out and Bill taxied back out to take off again, completely against all safety rules of course. All went well until his friend extracted his bag from underneath the plane and swung it up over his shoulder as he waved goodbye. It was promptly caught by the jet intake and sucked in, trashing the engine. And as Bill frantically tried to shut down, too late, he saw sitting beside the hanger the very huffer which would have made the whole episode unnecessary.

Space Shuttle Flight STS-3 Landing flanked by two Northop T38s

Space Shuttle Flight STS-3 Landing flanked by two Northop T38s

My favorite T38 story though, was when he decided to try doing a hammerhead stall. Imagine a stunt maneuver in which you run the plane up vertically until it can no longer climb, then roll out and fly away. In theory that is. He decided to find out why the T38’s operating manual stated in bold print: “Do not attempt this maneuver.” As he reached vertical and lost airspeed, the engine flamed out and the nose-heavy plane flipped over and headed straight down full tilt. Bill said that he kept his cool, got the engine re-lit, eased back out of the dive and flew away. But he never tried it again.

I left Booz · Allen in the summer of 1988, returning to my beloved Pacific Northwest and my own PhD program at the University of Washington. It was a move long-planned, known and supported by Bill. That April Fools’ Day I remember Gibson and some other employees filling his office half full with crumpled newspapers. The annoyed janitor called the local fire marshal who came and inspected but fortunately didn’t look inside that particular office. Bill did us far better in return, however. He called a meeting and explained in excruciating detail how our small and fiercely independent Booz · Allen team was to be split up and merged with the Grumman engineers in their brutal aerospace militaristic culture. Finally unable to keep a straight face any longer, he laughed as he pointed out my distraught expression and said, “Look!  Brian’s sitting here trying to figure out if he can move to Seattle six months early!!”

But the memory of Bill that most remains with me involves a very small conversation. During one of my reviews he noted that I was doing great but struggling a bit with self confidence. He said the way he dealt with that problem was to remember that at any given time, he was the expert in the room in his particular subject. All he had to do was to speak to the room. He reminded me that each of us has a unique set of experiences and knowledge that we represent and that is all we can do or need do. To hear this from someone who was so successful and had accomplished so much in his life impressed me. To this day, I remember his advice every time I face an audience.

I am glad to have known Bill Lenoir. He showed me the grace, character and respect I strive to emulate in my own life. Having known him, I am a better person. Best wishes to all those he left behind. May his grace and character remain alive in you as well.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Peter Stubbs permalink
    November 14, 2010 9:20 pm

    This is a wonderful remembrance. He sounds like he was one of those people one is eternally grateful to have met.

    A) The T38 stories are gold. I will likely never fly ANY airplane, but the inner teenager in me would have traded every sports car in the world for one of those.

    B) I need to internalize the review wisdom. I think we all do.

    Thanks. I might have noted his passing without this, but would not have understood the loss.

  2. Terri Waite permalink
    November 16, 2010 3:43 pm

    It’s funny you should remember that T-38 flame-out story after all these years. It wasn’t enough for Bill to just know the rules — he had to know *why* they were the rules. And what better way to find out than some hands-on testing?

    I’m glad to hear he had a positive impact on your life, and that you have such fond memories of him. Thank you for writing about him.

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