A Century of Imagination

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Von Ohain’s work for Heinkel continued throughout the war. He was not involved in any political action and disclosed afterward a sense of great disgust with Hitler’s violent aggression. 

Later work involved the development of axial compressors and dual-engine designs. Yet work was abruptly halted due to Allied advances on both Eastern and Western fronts. With the Allied occupation of Germany, teams of American intelligence experts sought to identify talented German scientists. Captain Earnest Simpson was the first American to encounter von Ohain:

“Both Hans and I tried to communicate and did succeed in building trust in each other. I was not exactly sure what Hans had done, but as a result of our conversation, in garbled German and broken English, I concluded that one of the things he had not done was stand around twiddling his thumbs.” 

Supervisors like Simpson were not certain what to do with the German scientists, who were better educated and more advanced in their work than many Americans in the same field. Ultimately it was resolved to bring a select few to America to work on appropriate projects. This was Operation Paperclip. 

Von Ohain was assigned to the Aero Facilities Group formed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. After demonstrating his thorough technical knowledge and attention to the goals of the organization, von Ohain was made director of the Air Force Aeronautical Research Laboratory in 1956, and by 1975 he was the chief scientist of the Aero Propulsion Laboratory. There he headed development of a nuclear Colloid/Gas Core Reactor for propulsion. He also initiated advances in the fields of power generation via electro-fluid dynamics, laser aerodynamics and thrust augmentation systems using fluid dynamic energy transfer.

Much of his work is still classified. 

Von Ohain had four children with his wife Hanny. He retired from civil service in 1979 and took up an associate professor position at the University of Dayton, where he accumulated numerous awards and recognition for his outstanding contributions to aviation. 

Those who knew von Ohain said his real genius was in living, that his technical achievements were secondary to what he was as a person. He was also exciting to work with, say his collegues, because he was always looking to the future, to the next possibility, and he often demurred when the topic of past accomplishments was raised. 

“People loved him because he was a humanitarian above all else,” says his son, Chris von Ohain. “He was a mentor. People still come up to me and tell me what a good man he was.” 

Chris began his own career as an officer in the Marine Corps, where he gained experience in logistics systems. He rode the wave of the computer revolution in the early 1980s and is now director of IT at Makino, a global company that builds high-end machine tools for the automotive, agricultural and aircraft industries. Interestingly, Makino builds machine tools that fabricate the cambered turbine stators with thin-film cooling slits that feature in modern airplane engines. The He S 3 had a rudimentary version of these stators as well, though without the benefit of computer simulations, Chris’s father could not model the circulating airflow or engineer the cooling slits, both of which have dramatically improved the efficiency of the modern engine. Yet the German physicist’s work still resonates at places such as Makino and GE, where engineers seek to improve upon his concepts without fundamentally altering them. 

Chris has had a prosperous career in his own right. He’s overseen the expansion of Makino’s computing network so that today most aspects of the company are efficiently integrated. The move to scaled data solutions is an important frontier for Makino, as is the management of custom product installations in the field. Chris is expertly navigating these transitions. 

It is difficult to discern the veracity of Chris’s words when he says he didn’t inherit many of his father’s traits. From an outsider’s perspective, it seems the opposite: Chris inherited a great deal, including the characteristic modesty that would cause both of them to demur in the face of praise.  

Whatever the actual inheritance, the narrative is there: two generations of innovators, one in aerospace, the other in information technology. The world is a more integrated, efficient and compact place because of them. Or perhaps the father forges a path through the wilderness and the son builds the road behind him, as Makino now turns out by the thousands machine tools that manufacture what Chris’s father first pioneered. 

Yet these narratives prove trite. The relationship between fathers and sons is infinitely more complicated, subtle and interesting. There isn’t a baton to be handed off between them. Generations are not successive and discrete, but interwoven and continuous. Each life is immeasurably bound up in the next. It is enough that one is preserved in the memory of the other. It is enough that, though Chris himself was not there, he can still imagine what it was like on that hazy morning in August of 1939 when his father changed the world.