John Tracy: Senior Vice President Gives Boeing Technology its Wings
The 50th anniversary of California State University, Dominguez Hills also coincides with the centennial of the 1910 Air Meet, the first aviation exhibition to take place on the West Coast. Among the attendees of that historic event was William Boeing, who went on to create his own aviation company six years later. Today, a CSU Dominguez Hills alumnus is leading the technology efforts at The Boeing Company, the world’s largest aerospace manufacturer.
As senior vice president of engineering, operations and technology and the chief technology officer for Boeing, John Tracy (Class of ’76, B.S., physics) is responsible for the strategic direction of more than 100,000 employees internationally. Within the corporation, he is responsible for a multitude of organizations that include engineering, operations, supplier management, quality assurance functions, information technology, intellectual property management, and environment, health and safety.
Tracy joined McDonnell Douglas, now part of Boeing, as a stress analyst in 1981. Since then, he's held a wide variety of leadership roles at the company, including vice president of engineering and mission assurance for Boeing's defense and space business unit and vice president of structural technologies, prototyping and quality for the company's advanced research and development organization.
The Southern California native is a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the past chair of its 6,000-member aerospace division. He has also been elected as a fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Royal Aeronautical Society, and was named the 2006 Hispanic Engineer of the Year by the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Corporation. Tracy received his doctorate in engineering in 1987 from the University of California, Irvine and his master’s of science in physics from CSU Los Angeles.
In the face of a dwindling U.S. military budget and the repurposing of the space program, Tracy discusses with Dateline what Boeing is doing to maintain its stature as the world's aerospace leader, what students need to do to prepare for the upcoming demand for qualified professionals in this industry, and what childhood memories encouraged his vision of enabling the world to fly.
Dateline: What inspired you to become an engineer?
John Tracy: It was when my dad gave me a model of the X-15 back in elementary school. It's a rocket-powered airplane that was used for research mainly during the 1960s. In fact, until the Space Shuttle came along, the X-15 held the record for the fastest-moving manned flight, when it flew at more than six times the speed of sound. I remember seeing pictures of this rocket-powered airplane that didn't land on three wheels. It landed in the desert on a wheel and two skids, and I thought, ‘Wow, what an amazing sight! How can I get involved in designing and building something like that?’
I’m proud to say that my mom helped convince me to become an engineer. I grew up in Gardena, and when I was a kid, we’d drive through our neighborhood, and she’d point out the places where engineers lived. She’d say, ‘See that house over there? That's where Mr. So-and-So lives, and he's an engineer.’ That made a big impression on me.
Dateline: How is Boeing pioneering a new era of commercial aircraft with the Dreamliner?
JT: The 787 Dreamliner is going to be a fantastic airplane for our customers. It’s a textbook example of how we’re using cutting-edge technology to create a product that meets our customers’ needs and provides them with game-changing benefits.
This isn't just technology for technology's sake. It's something that our airline customers want. At Boeing, we believe that people want to fly nonstop to their destinations, instead of changing airplanes at large airports. The 787 has a range of about 8,000 miles and can carry between 210 and 250 passengers. So we're providing airlines with an airplane that can be operated economically and can cover long, long distances, which helps them open new routes.
About 50 percent of the structure, including the fuselage and the wing, is made from composite materials. That lets the 787 use 20 percent less fuel than similarly sized airplanes, even though it will fly as fast as today’s fastest passenger jetliners. That means it’s environmentally progressive because it produces fewer emissions. Also, the 787 will cost 30 percent less to maintain and will be more reliable and easier to repair.
Also, passengers will enjoy benefits. The airplane has technology that senses turbulence and commands wing control surfaces to counter it, which smoothes out the ride. The interior environment will [maintain] higher humidity, meaning the inside air will be more comfortable. And there are design features that will help rekindle the magic of air travel. Not only do the interior design and lighting make the cabin stand out from any other airplane, but the windows are 65 percent bigger than on current airplanes.
How do we know we've got a hit? [To date], customers have ordered 847 787s – even though the first one won't be delivered to a customer until the first quarter of 2011. That makes the 787 the fastest-selling commercial jetliner. The people of Boeing have worked extremely hard to bring this airplane to life, and we can't wait to see it in service.
Dateline: How will Boeing maintain its standing in the aerospace industry with the reconfiguring of the United States space program?
JT: Boeing has been a leader in space technology for more than half a century. For just about every achievement of the U.S. space program, you'll find that Boeing has been involved, so we're supportive of maintaining U.S. leadership in space. Right now, our focus is on meeting our existing customer commitments: We must safely fly the space shuttle and complete the International Space Station to honor commitments to our international partners. There are shuttle flights scheduled for November 2010 and February 2011.
As for the future, we’re committed to participating in the nation’s next chapter of space exploration. In June, President Obama issued the National Space Policy, in which he stated his commitment to reinvigorating U.S. leadership in space for the purposes of maintaining space as a stable and productive environment for the peaceful use of all nations. We will work with our customers to help shape the future of spaceflight, just as we’ve shaped the future of flight throughout our history.
Dateline: How will the decrease in defense spending going to affect what has long been a mainstay of Boeing contracts?
JT: We have a tremendous array of products. It's our job to understand what our customers need for today and tomorrow; design with products and services that meet these needs; and work together to do a stellar job of delivering these solutions. So there are two parts to this answer: addressing international defense opportunities, and developing new products and services that meet our customers' evolving needs.
You're right when you talk about the Pentagon’s budget flattening. As a result, international defense contracts have become more important to our business. We already have many of our products in use by defense forces worldwide, but the goal of our defense business is to boost its share of international sales from about 15 percent today to between 20 to 25 percent by 2014.
Among the many products we are currently making for international customers are fighter jets for Korea, Singapore and Australia; airlifters for the United Kingdom and Qatar; and airborne early warning and control aircraft for Turkey and Australia. We’ve submitted proposals to India for Apache attack helicopters and Chinook heavy-lift helicopters. India and the United Arab Emirates are among the many nations interested in the C-17 Globemaster airlift aircraft. And we're competing for two of the biggest defense contracts outside the United States: fighter jet competitions in India for 126 aircraft, and Brazil, with up to 120 [aircraft].
I want to clarify that the U.S. government has a robust process that international defense forces must follow to procure defense products or services from companies in America. Our government must approve the acquisition to ensure that it is in the nation’s best interests. If they approve it, [the government] actually buys the product and then sells it to the other country.
When we conduct business in other nations, we look to create a long-term presence by getting involved in the fabric of [those countries]. We want our presence to be that of a partner, not merely a supplier. To build that, we’ve done [projects] ranging from opening research centers in Spain, Russia, India, and Australia to being actively involved in community service projects worldwide.
As for new products and services in the U.S., the biggest development for the near-term is the P-8A Poseidon, a U.S. Navy submarine hunting and intelligence aircraft based on a 737. We will be producing 117 of them, with the Navy scheduled to get the first one in 2013. Looking at the long-term future, among the [projects] we are working on are unmanned aircraft. That includes the Phantom Eye, a surveillance aircraft that will stay aloft at 65,000 feet for up to four days, and the Phantom Ray, designed for missions such as surveillance, suppression of enemy air defenses, electronic attack, and aerial refueling.
But we're not just working on aircraft. We are involved in cyber security, which makes use of our expansive technology know-how. Did you know that Boeing operates and protects the world's sixth-largest virtual private network? We are also involved in energy management and smart grid strategies to help improve the efficiency, security and reliability of the entire U.S. energy system.
Dateline: How did your education at Dominguez Hills prepare you for your career?
JT: My experiences at Dominguez Hills really helped me in my career and I have tremendous memories. The college [CSU Dominguez Hills was designated as a CSU in 1977] was small enough to give me the chance to have direct interactions with my professors, who made sure that I understood all the concepts I needed to learn. In fact, the professors there encouraged me in all aspects of my studies. I especially remember James Imai [emeritus professor of physics]. I started out at Dominguez Hills as a math major with a minor in physical education. But I took [one of his classes] and he convinced me I could be a physics student. Also, H. Keith Lee [emeritus professor of physics] took a personal interest in teaching me how to learn, and Sam Wiley [emeritus professor of physics] was helpful in so many ways.
[CSC Dominguez Hills] was also small enough to give me the opportunity to participate in all aspects of student life. Student government, intercollegiate athletics—you name it—if there was something I could do on campus, I would, because the campus was easy to navigate and the professors were so encouraging.
Dateline: How would you encourage more students to prepare for careers in engineering and aerospace?
JT: There is a huge opportunity in the near term for people to have great jobs in engineering and aerospace. With the upcoming retirements of baby boomers from the workforce, there are many engineering and technology jobs that will be available and lots of opportunities to advance. But today, companies have a limited pool of college graduates to draw from to fill their openings. In 2009, there were only 74,000 engineering graduates in the United States. I don't mean in only aerospace engineering; I mean in all engineering fields.
Obviously, getting a solid background in science, technology, engineering and math areas is important. But [students] should also think about what they have a passion for and then follow that passion. At Boeing, we're convinced that anyone who wants to become an engineer can do so if they want to and are ready to work for it. We are looking forward to today’s students becoming part of a diverse and talented workforce that will help us build on our legacy of technical leadership. And we really want to encourage students to consider careers in technology and engineering fields. We are involved in so many different activities to help inspire students—even children in their pre-kindergarten years. We are [supporting initiatives] like robotics competitions and giving science teachers ideas for activities that will really motivate kids. Many of our employees volunteer at local schools to help tutor and inspire students.
I can't say enough about the importance of inspiration when it comes to getting young people interested in science and technology. The sight of a rocket airplane helped inspire me to pursue a career in this field. I hope the products that [we at Boeing] are working on today will encourage students to become the designers of tomorrow’s awe-inspiring products.
- Reported by Joanie Harmon