First-Hand:Engineering in Military, Civilian, and Government Sectors


Submitted by Alfred Holtum

In the spring of 1954, the Signal Corps was setting up a Communications Department at the AEPG (Army Electronic Proving Ground) at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. They were looking for some adventurous engineers for key positions to form the basic structure of the new organization. I was interviewed by Ben Blom, the Department's new civilian chief, who offered me a branch chief position (in the Radio Branch of the Radio Division), which was scheduled to be a GS-13.

In April, the Signal Corps sent about a dozen key people to Fort Huachuca on TDY (temporary duty) to set up the department. Our first task was to write job descriptions of each of the positions planned to insure that they would support the grade levels proposed.

Amid the arguments and hassles of the personnel experts from Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, whose goals in life were to reduce each proposed position by at least one grade level, I learned the significance of key words and phrases such as Insure, Direct, Manage, Supervise, Under the Direct supervision of, perform, and other duties as assigned. Using them properly is the mark of a true bureaucrat!

For the next three years, I would be involved in the technical administration of communication contracts, including the Army Division Grid System and other Signal Corps programs. I wrote the specifications and acted as the Contracting Officer's Technical Representative (COTR) for the first program to help establish tropospheric scatter as a viable communication tool for Signal Corps use.

In those days, fraud was minimal, at least in comparison to the transgressions perpetrated by contractors and government representatives today. There was a saying among government personnel, who administered contracts: "I've been insulted but never bribed." High level government officials were aware that good ethics came from the top down and made a conscious effort to remain above suspicion.

One of the chief concerns of the COTR was to insure that the contractor was fulfilling the specifications of the contract, and the government was getting full value for its money. This led to conflicts when a high ranking officer would request a demonstration for visiting dignitaries, the cost of which was beyond the scope of the contract. I got the feeling that some of the military believed the work being performed was chiefly for their amusement rather than the completion of a definite technical objective. When I would deny such requests, it caused consternation and enmity that was sometimes hard to live with.

One of the amusing bits of protocol at the AEPG back then was the practice of attaching one's title and job description to the front of one's desk. That way visitors could ration their approbation and respect accordingly. I recall one high ranking officer returning to apologize for his rudeness. "You looked so young for a position at that level," he explained.

When my boss, Ernie Stuermer, Chief of the Radio Communications Division, left to take a position in General Administration, I got his job at the GS-14 level. With that new job description pasted on my desk, I got more respect. I also discovered a trick that would get some attention. When I called someone and his secretary answered, ready to put me on hold, I'd say "This is A.G. Holtum." They thought they were talking to the Adjutant General.

I'll always remember one incident when a military personnel officer, a Lt. Colonel, came to review my job description. I later found out he was looking to replace some civilian employees with military personnel. "I've read your job description," he said, "and I think you'll agree that it's pretty general. What I'd like to have you do is make a long inclusive list of your specific duties, then if you should die or leave, someone else could step in and the department would not lose continuity."

I couldn't believe that an officer could be so ignorant. I waited, suppressing evil desires to lash out with vitriolic remarks (and many came to mind, none of which was flattering to the military). I told him that if my job were that highly structured and routine they wouldn't really need me and I'd be long gone. I further explained that every day was different and specific tasks unpredictable. I had the feeling he didn't really believe me, but I never saw him again.

With the remodeling of barracks into offices and the influx of more Signal Corps officers, the base was becoming more military oriented. More authority, mostly repressive, came from the top down and less innovation was coming from the bottom up. Of course, there were always a few bright officers, but they weren't the ones getting promoted. They were usually bucking some of the top brass. I'll always remember the words of the chief of the Department, a bird colonel, with whom I had a conversation several years after I had left the organization.

"I decided to back your program," he told me, "because I believed it had real merit. Besides, at that point in my career, I knew I wasn't going make general, anyway."

With the military personnel becoming more repressive and the long commuting distance tiring, I took a leave of absence for a year to take some graduate courses in administration and do some consulting. I went into business with Joe Boyer, the inventor of the V-37, a multiple frequency ham antenna that the AEPG was considering adapting for the MARS Program. We formed a little company specializing in antenna development. The adventure became short lived when we lost our financial backing.

One of the companies that had considered buying out our little business was the Andrew Corporation, headquartered in Chicago, Illlinois. When Dr. Andrew, its founder and physicist-turned-economist, saw our messy books he decided to just make job offers to the few key employees instead.

Meanwhile, I had been interviewed by several other companies including Hallicrafters in Chicago. While in Chicago, I stopped to visit the Andrew Engineering Laboratory located in a renovated barn in Orland Park. I was impressed by its head, Dr. Richard Yang, who some years later would become my advisor at liT. Then after being wined and dined by the Director of Marketing, Robert P. Lamons, I was offered a position as Chief Engineer in the Andrew California Corporation.

My first task was to form a small engineering department. Two technicians, previously with our recently defunct antenna development company, were already working there. In addition, I hired two draftsmen and an electrical engineer, and was in the process of setting up a quality control department.

I have a penchant for walking into chaos and confusion. It happened with our first significant contract. The sales manager at Andrew California had already bid on a job retrofitting some trihelical antennas for shipboard application. This resulted in a small disaster when critical errors were found on the rotating mount drawings. While finishing up this project, I looked to the marketing department back in Chicago to recommend products that we could manufacture. They replied with some impatience and seemingly disinterest to "make anything that we don't make in Chicago; be your own marketing department."

I realized we would be pretty much on our own and decided, after talking with some of my cronies back in Fort Huachuca, to design and develop a series of telemetry antennas. This turned out to be a good market eventually, but our first sales were to my old friends at the AEPG. They bought one or two of each model. When they asked me how the new product was selling, I exaggerated and said, "Great." "So, how come we got serial no. 1," the buyer said.

I learned never to start with serial no. 1.

I should point out that Dr. Andrew and most of his executives were always interested in educational potential. They were always financially helpful in furthering the education of their employees, as well as the children of their employees, and foreign students through the Aileen Andrew Foundation, set up for that purpose.

One of the most beneficial things I did for Andrew California Corporation was to recognize potential, despite a language barrier. I hired Geza Dienes, a Hungarian refugee, in about the summer of 1958. Creative and energetic, he would take my place when I left Andrew California and go on to become a vice president.

Jack Brown offered me his job as Chief of the Antenna Development Section. This was right down my alley and I was elated. It was July of 1962.

Now I had about fifteen mature high caliber engineers and technicians reporting to me including a good draftsman and a first class machinist. We had some worthwhile programs going when the word came back from Bancock that four sixty foot parabolic dishes, manufactured and shipped some months previously, were not working.

The sixty foot dishes were installed as part of a tropospheric scatter link between Bancock and Saigon (later the site of the Vietnam war). Using new patented Hublock connectors for the structural members, it was Andrew's hope to revolutionize the large antenna field. Using 20/20 hindsight, I believe now that is why Dick Yang left when he did. His section had furnished a good electrical design with proper dimensions and tolerances. However, the mechanical design section did not understand that the surface tolerance for the dish surfaces impelled total structural integrity with respect to the focal point of the paraboloid and really had to be met. Test reports were coming back that the system was not working. I inherited the problem.

Using formulas derived by my old friend, John Ruze, in his doctoral dissertation, we amassed curves and data to test a full size model constructed just outside the factory. When the physical dimensions were carefully checked, my curves projected a gain loss of more that 15 db.

When I reported this to Russell Cox, the CEO of the Andrew Chicago Corporation, in a casual conversation and told him the structures had to be replaced, he was appalled. He told others that I must have ice water in my veins to report a virtual loss of almost a million dollars with so little emotion. (That was a lot of money in those days, especially compared to my salary.)

The fiasco of the sixty foot dishes resulted in a reorganization of the engineering department. A young happy-go-lucky Ph.D., Ray Justice, was hired as Vice President of Engineering and section chiefs were raised in status to directors. A new Director of Mechanical Engineering, Dr. Keith McKee, formerly a professor at liT, with a strong background in civil engineering was appointed. His newly designed replacement of the sixty foot diameter antenna looked strangely like a bridge. I became the Director of Antenna Design. With that new title, I was twice as smart!

There was a lot of good work produced in the next few years, including the axial mode helical telemetry antenna arrays used in the Apollo Program. One of my senior engineers, Larry Hansen, led the development effort to adapt our hi-filar helical configuration to this application. Our vice president cut the price to the point where we were almost sure to lose money, but he somehow felt the prestige of the job was worth it.

In August of 1974, shortly after my father died, I applied for a job as a Contract Consultant with the R&D Department of the CIA. (I had been trying to return to a government engineering job since before I left Andrew.) After the usual red tape of investigation and polygraph tests, I was hired on a two year renewable contract to serve as a technical officer at a GS- 14 level. After three and a half years, I reached the age of sixty when they were offering early outs for people with over twenty years service.

This was just in time to take a job as Assistant Professor of Engineering Technology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in August, 1978. The prospect of teaching at a college level was why I had pursued the Ph.D. in the first place. I taught engineering technology and electrical engineering for six years.

But of all my exploits, I believe my most valuable contribution, besides raising six kids with my wife, Betty, is teaching the young engineers and technologists at UNCC. I enjoy being able to pass on some of the tricks, short cuts, and techniques of engineering and applied mathematics that one does not generally find in textbooks. It was also the six years that brought me the most enjoyment and satisfaction. I have no sage advice to aspiring engineers. Let them make their own mistakes! Even if I had some, who would listen?

The IEEE (and the IRE) was of significant importance to my professional career, particularly in the way it enabled me to keep abreast of the state of the art. I have been a member of the Professional Group of Antennas and Propagation since its inception. I served in various offices of a local chapter while living on the west coast. It also enabled me to effect and maintain important contacts from a business as well as a technical standpoint. My affiliation served as an important sales vehicle to the Andrew Corporation and I helped "man their booth" in the annual New York City show as well as Wescon for many years. (One of my daughters complained that I could never be home on her birthday, March 26, because of the IEEE show in New York City.)