Kirt's Cogitations™ #228
Not Such a Smooth Operator
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Cog·i·ta·tion [koj-i-tey'-shun] – noun: Concerted thought or
reflection; meditation; contemplation.
Kirt [kert] – proper noun: RF Cafe webmaster.
Not Such a Smooth Operator
Something happened at work that reminded me of a funny event from way back during my time at Westinghouse
Oceanic Division (now part of Northrop Grumman), in Annapolis, MD. There is a moral to this story.
my electronics technician days there, I spent the first couple years building PCBs, wiring harnesses, and
system-level assemblies for Navy sonar systems. We had some really slick stuff like towed vehicles with transducer
arrays along the sides, nose cones for smart torpedoes, flow sensors, proximity fuse elements, etc. The exposure
to all that, and the super-smart people that designed it, fuelled my desire to go to the trouble of earning an
One of my tasks for a while was to build the transducer arrays, which entailed building
the hundreds of tiny transducer elements. The assemblies were made of a machined aluminum base plate (about 1-inch
square), onto which a precisely cut low density foam block was attached. On the top of that was a set of two
machined aluminum plates that sat on either side of a piezoelectric ceramic transducer element, which was in the
center of the foam block. We soldered silver foil tabs onto the element for later attachment to tiny wire leads
that served as pigtails for connecting to an overall array bus. The final assembly was an acoustic antenna. One
mounted on each side of the towed vehicle (the
AN/AQS-14, for those familiar with it).
A CH-53 helicopter was used to deploy the vehicle, or it could be
dragged off the transom of a ship. Shortly after we began delivering the systems, an F-16 went down off the coast
of San Diego, and one of our first AQS-14s was sent to image the ocean bottom during the search. It managed to
locate the wreckage. The images that we saw were incredible! You would have sworn that they were optical
photographs instead of acoustically generated images. We could see bolts in the landing gear and panel lines
around the canopy. It was amazing technology for the early 1980s, and I can only imagine the superiority of modern
Back to my story, though. During the construction of the transducer modules, we attached the aluminum bases to a
precision fixture that sat on a granite surface table. It was very smooth and very flat. That table was measured
and guaranteed by our in-house calibration lab (in those days, most defense contractors had complete in-house
capability for repair and calibration of TE) to be flat across its entire surface with deviations no great than
something like ±0.0005 inches (half a mil). The granite block, measuring about 4 feet by 6 feet and a foot
thick, sat in the middle of the clean room. Although not required to wear the types of 'bunny suits" that you see
in photos of semiconductor fab facilities, we were prohibited from having food or drinks in there. No smoking was
allowed, either (in the early 1980s, people were still smoking at their workplaces – yuk!).
Well, the guy
from the Cal Lab that guaranteed the perfection of our surface table was, to be kind, slightly pompous. He knew he
held the power to shut our operation down and get people in trouble if we were not functioning within the
prescribed guidelines, and enjoyed watching the managers spring into action whenever he "discovered" a violation.
I still remember the glee in his voice when he announced, in an imperious manner of course, that our mammoth piece of
granite had suddenly gone way outside of the required flatness specification. We had not noticed water running uphill or
any new dimension of space appearing in the confines of our room, so presumably basic physics of the universe had
not changed, so our collective suspicions were aroused. While we pondered the situation, Measurement Man bolted
through the door to go find a manager. This was a big deal because it meant possibly have to re-measure all the
modules built since the last surface table inspection, and scrapping any that were out of spec.
Aviation Electronics Technician 3rd Class Cassie Gibson and Aviation Structural Mechanic
1st Class Jeffery Osborne secure an AN/AQS-14 mine detection submersible unit. (U.S. Navy
There is a good chance that I built the sonar transducer assembly on
A few minutes
later, a team of managers returned with our hero to witness the problem. He re-enacted the measurements
in their presence and concluded the same thing – our table was out of specification. Oh, the on-site Navy QA inspector was
there as well. The place fell silent, and then some fur started flying. Finally, managers left the area to decide
whom to best blame for the situation.
Not believing that this could be so, one of the lead technicians
investigated. Incredibly, he discovered that the culprit was not a faulty surface table, but cookie crumbs
on the bottom of the laser measuring instrument! I kid you not. As it turns out, the Cal Lab guy had been eating a
pack of cookies just before coming into the clean room to do the measurements, and had not washed his hands before
commencing with the procedure. We routinely washed the surface of the table down with alcohol and a lintless
cloth, so we were sure it was clean prior to his arrival. When confronted with the situation, he humbly admitted
to his sin, and even produced a partially filled cookie pack from his pocket. From thence forward, he was known
affectionately as the Cookie Monster. Our surface table was re-measured and passed the test. We were back in
business, and the Cookie Monster became a much more humble being, at least in our presence.
This scenario probably would never prompt Aesop to write a fable with an accompanying moral
to the story, but if he did, the moral might be to never be so full of yourself that your
co-workers long for the day that you slip and take a fall. St. Louis Cardinals’ Dizzy Dean
famously said, "It
ain't bragging if you can back it up" in reference to his plan to pitch well enough to win the World
Championship in 1934. Dizzy fulfilled his promise. Be certain that you can fulfill yours.
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