Growing Up Boeing - the memoir of a test pilot's daughter, raised to approach life as reward for pushing the envelope's edge.
Growing Up Boeing – Memoir
By Rebecca Wallick
On the day I was born in December 1956, my father was soaring high in the skies above Seattle, test-piloting the Boeing Dash 80.
Before Microsoft, Starbucks, or Amazon were even conceived, Boeing was the Puget Sound region’s primary employer; it put us on the map. Boeing’s corporate culture shaped Seattle’s culture: family-oriented, with an aw-shucks can-do geeky engineering approach to life. During the dawn of the commercial jet age – the 1950s through the 1980s – many iconic airplanes still in service today (727, 737, 747, 757, 767) had their exciting first flights above Seattle thanks to Boeing mechanics, engineers, and test pilots. Seattleites were proud.
Succeeding as a test pilot takes a unique blend of intelligence, mechanical know-how, common sense, love of adventure, calculated risk-taking and ability to remain calm under extreme pressure. Lew Wallick, who retired as Director of Flight Test and Chief Test Pilot in 1986 after 35 years with Boeing, was one of the truly successful ones.
Lew was also my father. It turns out that the same traits critical to his success as a test pilot made him an equally amazing parent. The unique way he raised me, and the life lessons I learned from him – lessons that continued until the day he passed away in 2009 at age 85 – are worth sharing.
Growing Up Boeing is a memoir covering the 1950s to the 1980s: an insider’s view of Boeing test pilots on the job and with their families. I’ll explore Boeing’s impact locally and on the world at the dawn of the commercial jet age, and turn a nostalgic eye on Seattle as a place to live and work. Readers will learn how test pilots were chosen and trained; discover what was involved in testing and certifying a commercial jet (especially before simulators); read some never-before-told stories of testing and flying Boeing’s airplanes, including some near-disasters, first-flight mishaps, and hilarious demonstration flights for airline VIPs. More personally, readers will see how the pilots and crews pursued their lives outside of work, raising families using the lessons they learned in the sky. And finally, I will share with you a man who was more than a legendary test pilot; he was an exemplary father and leader. Just ask Ford Motor Company President and CEO Alan Mulally, who as a young flight test engineer at Boeing was mentored by my father.
THE KICKSTARTER KICK
There’s more research to do, and certainly more writing. A boost from Kickstarter donors will give me the concentrated time necessary to focus full time on completing this project. My work as a children’s legal advocate is time-consuming, distracting and emotionally draining; I need a year away from all that so that I can focus on researching and writing this book. I’ve been working on this project for several years - first conducting interviews and research, then writing, when I could squeeze it in. A version of a chapter was published in an aviation magazine in 2008. I’m a proven freelance writer (currently a Contributing Editor for The Bark magazine). I can produce this book. I need to write this book, to honor my father and preserve the stories and legacies he and the other pilots created. With help from Kickstarter donors, I will self-publish in print and eBook versions. I’ve got an editor. I’ve consulted a book designer. I’m ready. I have the tenacity and skill. I need your help to buy me the time I need to focus and pay for the services of an editor and designer. I’m determined to avoid a half-assed product. At the very least, I know you’ll love the stories of flying derring-do – a very cool part of aviation history.
WHY AM I ASKING FOR $25,000?
Time doesn’t come cheap. In addition to my own savings, I'll use the time to focus and finish the research and writing – approximately a year. I’ve written about a third of my book, but there are hours of tapes yet to listen to and transcribe; facts to pin down; photos to find at the Boeing Archive and Museum of Flight; even additional people to interview. I’ll use some of the money (up to $1000) to travel to Edwards Air Force Base in California, to see for myself where test pilots were trained and where they did much of their most dangerous work. I'll dig around in the base’s archives and talk to some of today’s test pilots. I'll create a great web site full of archival photos and a blog that shares stories that don't make it into the book (up to $500 for web design). I’ll hire a professional editor (approximately $5,000) and a book designer for paper, eBook and PDF versions (approximately $4,000). And let's not forget Kickstarter's fee (5%) and Amazon's (3-5%) for handling the funds through this platform. Finally, some of the money will cover the cost of mailing books to donors. The more funds I receive, the deeper into the research I can dig and the better the end result will be.
I'm grateful for any donation you can make to my project.
What follows is a glimpse into the genesis of my book. I really hope you’ll help me get this book off the ground.
GETTING THE REST OF THE STORY
From my current vantage point – I’m 55 years old – I realize that our life stories are like jig saw puzzles. We carry within us the borders, those easy-to-find straight-sided pieces, the bold memories of childhood that inform our personality and actions as we move through adulthood. The odd-shaped, sometimes obscure inner pieces are those that slowly come together as we navigate life, adding insights and highlights to sections of our overall picture, bit by bit. Many of those pieces hover off to the side of the puzzle, forgotten or unwanted, yet they fit – somewhere – and are ultimately required to complete the picture.
Growing Up Boeing fits many of those obscure pieces into my overall puzzle as the daughter of a test pilot, a puzzle similar to those of so many others who grew up in the Seattle area during the Jet Age. Boeing had a big impact on us all, giving Seattle a unique, family-oriented culture with can-do attitude. With the research I've done so far, I can see enough to understand that Boeing – and more particularly my test pilot father – had a huge impact on the colors and scenes of my life’s puzzle picture.
My siblings and I enjoyed a Beaver Cleaver childhood, vaguely aware that our father worked for Boeing, and flew airplanes, but not really clued into the details. That was just as Dad wanted it. He knew the general public thought that what he did for a living was extraordinary and dangerous, but he was modest and didn’t want us worrying or bragging about him. We socialized primarily with other Boeing families, which was easy in the Seattle of that era; it seemed everyone had a parent or relative employed there.
It wasn’t until I was in high school that I realized that telling someone my father was a test pilot got a whole different reaction than simply saying he worked at Boeing, or was an engineer. I started taking a keener interest in what he did. While in college at the University of Washington, I was on the tarmac as he and another test pilot took the 767, then the 757 on their first flights. I majored in history, focusing on WWII, gaining insight and a greater interest in learning about his training as a WWII Navy Air Cadet. I attended various aviation-themed functions with him at the Museum of Flight and elsewhere, soaking up the stories, meeting astronauts like Bonnie Dunbar, and getting reacquainted with many of the Boeing Flight Test people I hadn’t seen since those long-ago childhood days when our families socialized together. When meeting potential dates, many of whom worked at Boeing, I was inevitably asked, “Are you Lew Wallick’s daughter?” with an awe I felt should be reserved for a true celebrity.
Most of the pilots, including my father, are gone now. I’m thankful I recorded as much as I did, but sad that I also missed so much. Their stories need telling, and preserving. Each time I share one of the stories, I realize how much my father’s experiences as a test pilot at Boeing shaped how he parented me and prepared me for adulthood. It's all connected.
A project that started as biography became memoir - while keeping all the amazing flying stories.
THE BOEING CULTURE
My father began working for Boeing in Wichita in 1951. Eventually he became a test pilot and transferred to Boeing’s Seattle-area facility. My parents and three older brothers moved to Bellevue, a suburb of Seattle, in 1955. On the day I was born in December 1956, my father was testing the Dash 80, the 707 prototype.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Seattle was still considered by the rest of the country to be a sleepy backwater town full of loggers and fishermen. Microsoft, Starbucks, Amazon … these now-iconic companies were not even ideas. Boeing was the primary employer, and its corporate culture shaped the greater Seattle culture: family-oriented, with an aw-shucks can-do geeky engineering attitude. For the 1962 World’s Fair, Seattle built the Space Needle and the Monorail – tips-of-the-hat to Seattle’s ability to imagine a cool future, creating and building amazing structures based on the dreams of engineers.
Boeing employees had good vacation, health and retirement benefits; Boeing jobs were (and still are) coveted. Most of the engineers and pilots who were my father’s colleagues came to Boeing’s plants in Seattle from Kansas and other Midwest states, just as he did. Many were raised on farms. Those Midwest values influenced them and how they approached their work and how they raised their children to be modest, hardworking, and goal-oriented.
Growing Up Boeing meant living in a house with a yard in a neighborhood full of similar families. We rode our Schwinn bicycles with banana seats and stingray handlebars on sheltered streets, often with playing cards pinned to the spokes with clothespins to make a loud flap flap flap sound that increased with speed. Sometimes we towed small plywood hydroplanes behind us, attached by a string to the rear fender, emulating the Unlimited hydroplanes that came to race on Lake Washington every August for Seafair. We felt safe, playing outdoors without adult supervision or worry, exploring and gaining confidence on our own. My brothers and I would stay outside until we heard Dad’s whistle, signaling it was time for dinner.
We watched local TV clown J P Patches (and J P’s cross-dressing sidekick, Gertrude) on our black-and-white TV sets, eventually getting color sets in the late '60s. Other favorite shows were The Wonderful World of Disney, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, Ed Sullivan, The Smothers Brothers, Leave it to Beaver, Dobie Gillis, Wild Wild West, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Rifleman, Star Trek and The Twilight Zone. We listened to the Beatles, Monkees, Rolling Stones, Bill Cosby and even the Chipmunks on our record players.
As the '60s segued into the '70s, tensions between Boeing parents and their kids grew. Most families carefully navigated dinner-table discussions about the Viet Nam war, drugs, changing sexual mores, religious views (or lack thereof) and … hair length. Then, in 1970, the Puget Sound area suffered the Boeing Bust – when more than 50,000 Boeing employees (nearly 60 percent of the workforce) lost their jobs. Those who didn’t – like my father – took pay cuts and felt incredibly fortunate. It was a bleak time for all. A billboard appeared near the airport: Will the last person leaving Seattle – turn out the lights.
Slowly, steadily, Boeing and the local economy recovered. By the time I was in college and Dad was contemplating retirement, the disco age (the '80s) had arrived. (The less said about that, the better.)
Here are a few key lessons my father imparted. Growing Up Boeing will explore these and others, along with the flying stories that informed them, in great and entertaining detail.
Be polite. This is perhaps the single best piece of advice. Always say thank you. It’s amazing how politeness greases life’s wheels, yet equally amazing how few people utilize it on a regular basis.
Sit in the back of the airplane. When I started flying commercially as an adult, I’d ask Dad where I should sit in the airplane. He always said in the back, near the emergency exit door, even though that’s where the engine noise was loudest (especially on a 727). Second-best place was over the wings. What I didn’t realize until I started interviewing some of the other pilots is that this advice was based largely on a 707 training flight crash in 1959, an incident where four crew in the cockpit died, the remaining four crew in the tail survived. I got the story – in great and dramatic detail – from one of the survivors.
Avoid braggarts. Or, as Dad often put it, avoid men with “little-man-itis.” This was advice given as I started dating, and the reference to stature always puzzled me. Dad would just say that short men seemed to have to prove their worth. “Ego” – as in, “He has a big ego” – was a dirty word in the pilots’ vernacular. Much later, getting the details that led to the crash of that 707 in 1959 – pilot error, the pilot a short man with a chip on his shoulder – I understood the genesis of that advice and the lasting impact that accident had on my father and the other pilots and flight engineers at Boeing. Today, my translation of the advice is: avoid small (as in, insecure) people with big egos.
Circle the wagons. This applied both to immediate family as well as the larger Boeing family. Two fatal crashes during Boeing flight tests in the 1950s (including the 707 in 1959) left three Boeing widows and several children without fathers. These survivors were so seamlessly woven into the greater Boeing Flight Test family that it wasn’t until I was in college that I realized the children lived with stepfathers, not their biological fathers. Family was very important to my father and the other pilots. For the pilots, having a family despite the dangerous nature of their job was made easier knowing their colleagues would look after them should they die; back then, Boeing provided little in terms of life insurance or other death benefits.
Respect is earned, not demanded. This is the corollary to avoid braggarts. Put another way, Actions speak louder than words. I learned to never exaggerate my own abilities, instead letting my actions speak for me. It’s an approach that has served me well throughout life, and leads to the next lesson.
Don’t do things half-assed. Dad wouldn’t have put it that way; he didn’t like it when I swore. He would have said be competent at whatever you choose to do. Clearly, you can’t survive as a test pilot if you don’t assume risk in a careful, contemplative and assured fashion. Many aspects of daily life can be approached in the same clear-headed, calculated risk-taking way. If something is worth doing, it is worth doing well.
Rely only on yourself. I was raised so that as an adult, I would be independent. My father’s approach to parenting was to raise his children so that they relied on no one but him for anything, becoming self-reliant as adults. No surprise for a test pilot, who often has only his own experience and wits to save himself with in an emergency.
Be gentle to animals. Dad thought kids should have a dog growing up. So we did. And other pets – a cat, a tortoise, fish, gerbils. When I expressed an interest in horses, Dad made sure I got to ride at a nearby barn that rented horses by the hour. From my father, I acquired a life-long love of animals that has inspired my lifestyle as well as my work.
Follow your dreams; you can do whatever you set your mind to. This group of pilots and flight engineers came to adulthood during WWII and were in the right place at the right time to become test pilots. But it wasn’t just luck. Many grew up on farms, watching barnstormers and dreaming about becoming aviators like Charles Lindbergh. They enlisted and learned to fly during the war, then got their engineering degrees. Aviation opened doors – indeed the world – to them. They dreamed big, prepared themselves to follow that dream, and it paid off. They urged their children to do the same: to study and work hard, to follow their dreams wherever that might take them. Even the daughters were encouraged to become test pilots, doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, actors … anything they wanted, during a time when women were a very small minority in most of those fields.
Have fun along the way. Perhaps when one’s life is literally on the line on a regular basis – as is true for test pilots – humor becomes an important antidote to the stress.
Don’t be afraid to fail; learn from your mistakes. I was not a perfect child. I tested my parents’ patience on more than one occasion.
Risks and challenges Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
The bulk of the research is done, the writing has already begun and is roughly one-third completed. Some challenges I may encounter in the next year: access to people and/or archives (e.g. Edward Air Force Base) needed to complete my research; difficulty obtaining releases for the use certain archival photos; obtaining releases from and fact-checking statements obtained from subjects still living; the actual design and production of the book taking longer than expected. I am clearing my other work obligations so that for the next year I can focus my full attention to each and every step of this project to assure completion: continued research; writing, re-writing and editing; acquisition of photos; obtaining releases; and finally, the design of the paper and eBook versions of the book itself. I have maintained relationships with key people and institutions (e.g. the test pilots and engineers; Boeing Archives; Museum of Flight) for the past several years as I conducted research; I am able and willing to call upon them for whatever help I need to complete this project. So far, they've been amazingly supportive and helpful.
I'm well versed in setting interim goals and deadlines for self-motivation, staying on track toward the finished product. My goal is a book launch in 2013, the 50th anniversary of the Boeing 727 first flight. It's possible that despite my best efforts and those of the many people who support my project, the final product isn't delivered until 2014. If funds raised prove insufficient to complete the actual publishing process, I will supply the balance from my savings or take out a loan; this project is that important to me.
Have a question? If the info above doesn't help, you can ask the project creator directly.
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