Ten years ago this week, on Jan. 15, 2009, a US Airways Airbus A320 made an emergency landing on the Hudson River in New York City. The pilot, Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, duly recognized as a hero (and portrayed onscreen by Tom Hanks), skipped his airliner to a stop across the river’s surface, saving the lives of 150 passengers and five crew members.
Some citizens of Minneapolis had unknowingly begun preparations for what became known as the “Miracle on the Hudson” 40 years earlier.
From the moment of the double-engine bird strike, Sullenberger’s stricken Airbus had less than three minutes before it would hit the ground. He and his co-pilot were able to start an auxiliary power unit to restore the flight controls. These controls played a vital role in providing real-time sensor data and responding precisely to Sully’s commands.
Dedicated employees at the Honeywell Building between Ridgway Parkway and I-35W in northeast Minneapolis had played a vital role in making those controls available.
The “Ring Laser Gyro,” first developed at the Minneapolis facility in 1966, was probably the most important sensory device aiding Sullenberger. Three RLGs, mounted at exact right angles, detect even the smallest amount of rotation around the three axes of an airplane — pitch, roll and yaw. Measurements of these minuscule rotations are used for a number of control functions, including long-range navigation. But displaying the aircraft’s attitude precisely was key to the “miracle.”
In a forced water landing, a pilot has only a tiny window of attitude within which to land the plane without things becoming very bad very quickly. Touchdown attitude has to be perfect.
It’s like skipping a stone — but not just two or three skips, more like skipping it 100 times.
Come in too “nose up,” and the tail will strike first, likely breaking the plane in half with fuel and sparks everywhere. Come in too “nose down,” and the plane won’t skip but will plunge into the water, flipping and again breaking apart.
The accuracy and reliability of the RLG was crucial in determining the precise angle at which to touch the water.
Technically speaking, an RLG consists of a triangular glass block with high reflectivity mirrors at each of its corners. Any imperfection in these mirrors reduces the gyro’s accuracy. Years of research and development led to the production of mirrors with 99.999 percent reflectivity.
Clockwise and counterclockwise laser beams are excited inside a hollow, pencil-size cavity around the sides of the triangle. When the glass block is rotated by even the slightest motion, the two beams no longer have exactly the same path length. The RLG measures changes in path length as small as one-quintillionth of a meter.
This is the kind of accuracy needed to safely fly an airplane across the country — or, as we learned 10 years ago, for a dead-stick landing on a flowing river.
The story of how that aircraft’s fly-by-wire controls came to be based on the RLG is remarkable. All the more so because, if we were to apply today’s business principles to the history of the RLG’s development, there are many reasons it shouldn’t have been there.
The initial product development required more than 13 years of research and development to achieve a design that met a commercial need. Yet the product line lost $90 million in its first five years in production.
The original design encountered a reliability issue that was not evident until thousands had been produced, resulting in huge warranty and credibility issues. A million-dollar R&D effort was undertaken to solve this durability issue.
In 1989 the company was hit with a $2 billion patent infringement lawsuit resulting in a $1.2 billion fine that was later reduced through years of litigation.
Airbus preferred another gyro technology based on fiber optics in which the French had significant investments.
But it was the RLG made in Minneapolis that was on Sully’s plane — his crew and passengers are alive in part because of this sensor.
The survivors of US Airways Flight 1549 have probably never given a moment’s thought to this remarkable piece of technology, but there are hundreds of people in the Twin Cities who spent entire careers thinking about it. Two of them, Joe Killpatrick and Ted Podgorski, continue to live here in retirement.
Killpatrick’s contributions to aviation were recognized just last year when he was inducted into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame (“When you land safely, you can thank 85-year-old Joseph Killpatrick,” April 22, 2018).
In 1966, Killpatrick and Podgorski convinced Honeywell management to invest in the RLG technology. They continued to fight every year for continued R&D funding. They built prototypes for the Air Force, Navy and aircraft manufacturers. Each year, the gyro’s accuracy and reliability improved.
After 13 years, the technology was deemed ready and Honeywell invested an initial $50 million to open the RLG production line in its Ridgway Parkway building. The RLG became an instant success for Boeing. The 757 aircraft was the first commercial plane to replace a human navigator with a flight computer and high-accuracy gyros.
Since that 1979 introduction, RLG production has never stopped. Today, the RLG has been expanded into various sizes and accuracies for hundreds of applications.
In reviewing this product development history, two questions come to mind.
First: Is it the company or the people that make great things happen?
The RLG has long been recognized as one of aviation’s greatest innovations, superior in accuracy and reliability, well before its Hudson River heroics. When organizations reward such accomplishments, they recognize the people. Killpatrick and Podgorski have received many plaudits for their work and are regarded as the originators of the aviation-grade RLG. They certainly understood the physics of lasers and precision manufacturing as well as anyone. They were able to leverage one another’s skills while tempering one another’s weaknesses for more than 25 years.
Together, Killpatrick’s technical direction and Podgorski’s laboratory investigations in turn leveraged the skills of hundreds. The company that allowed them to do this was Honeywell, which provided opportunity as well as extensive expertise, technical and otherwise. In the 1970s and early ’80s, Honeywell’s management philosophy embraced long-range opportunities and investments, and it recognized that innovation included both invention and commercialization.
Great innovations take both great people and great companies to commit to long-term goals and labor through thousands of details.
Second question: Would the Honeywell of today be willing to develop the RLG?
Most of us who were employees from the “RLG days” agree that Honeywell has changed from its technology-driven business model. As in most of today’s firms, no business plan would now be approved that forecast all the challenges the RLG faced.
It should be worrisome to us that businesses can no longer be expected to invest in multiple-decade innovation projects. Perhaps we’ve built enough of these specialty devices for future artificial intelligence-based systems to have a solid foundation. However, there is a looming problem that AI is not going to readily fix with data and software:
Climate change is a very real and physical thing, like flying an airplane safely. Addressing it requires long-term R&D, and a willingness to face many complications along the way.
If there are no longer organizations that will make these types of investments, what are we to do? Where are the Killpatricks, Podgorskis and Honeywells to help us?
James Lenz worked for Honeywell in Minneapolis from 1980 to 2002. He is an adjunct professor at the University of llinois Business School (firstname.lastname@example.org) and author (under the pen name T H. Harbinger) of “Gyro Landing.”