Product Development and the U.S. Air Force

Paul Burri, RSA

When my son was about 8 years old, he and I belonged to the YMCA Indian Guides which is a program for fathers and sons to do things together such as camp outs, hikes, fishing trips, crafts and contests. An annual event was the kite fly during which each father/son team would design and build a kite. Prizes were awarded for highest flier, biggest, smallest, most unusual, etc.

Just about the time that the annual kite fly was kicking off, we happened to visit a family member who was an Air Force officer. There on his coffee table was an Air Force magazine with the picture of an unusual kite-like device that the Air Force was experimenting with as a way to drop heavy equipment from cargo planes. It was a para-sail sort of thing with a double V-shape and a flexible, tough parachute material loosely bridged that across the two Vee’s – a sort of V-shaped parachute. I asked him if we could have the magazine and using the pictures in it as a guideline, we made a smaller version out of rolled up cardboard and an old bed sheet. It was a very simple project and it was about as hard to do as a Paris Hilton jail sentence. It took us about two hours and $2.50 worth of material. We were going to enter it in the Most Unusual category.

The day finally arrived when it was time for us to try it out. I was holding two strings and my son held the kite a short distance away. At my word he launched it into the air and it went up about 30 feet and then it veered over to one side and crashed. We tried it again and again and if it didn’t crash to one side, it crashed to the other side. No mater how much I tried, manipulating the two strings wouldn’t make it fly more than a few seconds.

We went back to the workshop and I added a simple cardboard vertical rudder-like appendage. Still no luck. I tried about five different changes and modifications (for an additional $2.00 worth of material) and still no luck.

It just so happened that at this time, the same family member was attending a special class exclusively for Air Force officers at a local college. I called him up and reminded him of the project that my son and I were working on. I described the problems that we were having with our $4.50 kite. Then I asked him to “poll” his class to see whether any of his fellow officers had worked on that project and how the Air Force had solved the problem of its instability.

A few days later he called me laughing. He said, “You remember asking about that para-sail kite? If you figure out how to stabilize it, be sure to let me know. The Air Force is having the same problems and so far they have spent over $250 million on the program.”

P.S. We finally got it to fly using three strings – one in each hand and one between my teeth. And yes, we won the prize for the Most Unusual kite.

The Air Force spent an additional $31 million and then canceled the program.

© 2017 Paul Burri


Paul Burri, RSA, retired inventor & entrepreneur, writer, columnist, life-long woodworker, photographer, general know-it-all. He and his wife life in Santa Barbara, CA. 

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