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The B-2 Spirit stealth bomber is a marvel of modern aviation engineering. In a world where computer technology changes daily, the B-2 remains a vital piece of the United States’ arsenal more than 15 years after the first operational aircraft was delivered.
Its departure from traditional design into a giant flying wing created the need for new technology. The demand that it operate at high velocities at low altitudes – fighting high stresses, dynamic pressures and wind gusts – required new materials, new designs and new computer models. After nearly a decade of hard work, the plane was in the air, and Al Myers ’69, ’71 played a major role getting it there.
Myers was the chief architect of the flight-control systems and managed the flight testing of the B-2; a role for which he will be awarded the 2009 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ (IEEE) Simon Ramo Medal. The award has been given annually since 1982 for exceptional achievement in systems engineering and systems science.
“It was truly a once in a lifetime experience to do a program with the degree of technical challenge that this possessed,” said Myers, who received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering, and was inducted into the University of Idaho Alumni Hall of Fame in 1997. “It was almost an invention-on-demand set of requirements to get through. But it got built, does exactly what it was intended to do, does it extremely well and continues to do so today.”
Getting the job done was not an easy task. Besides the obvious technical difficulties, Myers had to contend with a decade of working in an office with no windows from before sunrise to after sunset. The job also required frequent trips to meet with subcontractors and a high level of security; a combination which meant Myers’ wife could not know where he was going and had to contact his secretary to get in touch with him.
But Myers was the right man for the job.
Born and raised in Boise, Myers attended Shattuck School, a preparatory school in Fairbault, Minn., and attended college for one year at Northwestern University before deciding it was time to return to his native state. He enrolled at the University of Idaho because he felt if one was interested in studying engineering in Idaho, it was the only choice.
“That and the skiing is much better in Idaho than in the Midwest,” said Myers.
Myers’ graduate research involved work on the development of the vapor pressure equation for oxygen, which was used by NASA’s Skylab program. It was only the beginning of his career at a NASA facility.
After graduation, Myers entered active service in the military since he had already acquired service credit through his years in prep school and Idaho’s ROTC program. He was assigned to the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif., where he saw more than half a dozen aircraft go from drawings on the back of an envelope to flying in the skies.
For most of the projects, Myers was involved in some aspect of the simulation, design, or development of the flight control systems or aspects related to the dynamics of them. He worked with the world’s first fly-by-wire airplanes; planes with computers between the pilot and the physical movements of the devices that control the plane’s movement. He also worked with the world’s first digital engine control system.
These projects allowed Myers to deal with the difficulties associated with the design of the B-2 Spirit after he moved from military service to work for Northrop Grumman.
“It turned out that what we needed to do was well beyond available state-of-the-art analytics and models,” said Myers of the task to make a flying wing stable and maneuverable at high speeds and low altitudes. “The equations we came up with wouldn’t make me nervous with today’s computers, but back then it was a little bit awesome.”
Myers currently is retired from Northrop Grumman and runs his own consulting service. He remembers his time in Moscow fondly, seeing the College of Engineering’s mechanical engineering program as a crucial part to his success, and returns to the Palouse when he can.
“The University of Idaho never lost track of the fact it was training engineers so they could design things,” said Myers. “There was a trend in the 60’s and 70’s to focus on applied physics and analytics. In retrospect, I really appreciate the education I got at Idaho because they focused on the steps required to go through to get a project from conception to completion. I clearly enjoyed my time there and my return visits as a member on the College of Engineering’s board of advisers. Even in today’s hectic world, it’s a little calmer atmosphere in Moscow. There’s a different outlook on life and – I believe – a healthier perspective.”