Australian ingenuity is still flying high

| August 11, 2018

The conference rooms scattered through Lockheed Martin Australia’s headquarters in Canberra are each named after high-achieving scientists and other thinkers and doers—and they’re all Australians. That was done deliberately to highlight the fact that the flow of top-quality engineering and ideas between the American giant and its local arm goes both ways.

‘Australian inventors have changed the course of humankind’, says the US corporation’s chief executive in Australia, Vince Di Pietro.

Those who’ve loaned their names to conference rooms include Ruby Payne-Scott, an outstanding physicist and global pioneer in the fields of radio astronomy and radio physics who, during World War II, was involved in secret work on radar. In 1951, she was forced out of what is now the CSIRO because she was pregnant and was found also to have been secretly married.

Another is David Unaipon, a brilliant Indigenous inventor born on a remote mission station in 1872, whose ideas provided the basis for modern sheep shears. Before World War I, he studied the principles that make a boomerang fly to produce drawings for a type of helicopter. Because of the depth and range of his ideas, he was referred to as Australia’s Leonardo da Vinci. His portrait features on the $50 note.

Another room is named after yachtsman and marine architect Ben Lexcen. He designed Australia II with its winged keel, which won the America’s Cup in 1983.

Then there’s Graeme Clark, who developed the cochlear implant which has allowed hundreds of thousands of deaf people around the world to hear.

Fiona Wood, the British-born Australian plastic surgeon who invented spray-on skin to treat burns victims, has a room.

David Warren, a scientist with Australia’s Aeronautical Research Laboratory, invented the ‘black box’ flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder, which have aided air crash investigators and so saved thousands of lives by preventing avoidable disasters. There’s an ironic twist in the black box saga: in its early days, the Americans were offered a demonstration and turned it down.

John O’Sullivan, an electrical engineer, was a key member of the CSIRO team that invented WiFi.

Anaesthetist and cardiologist Dr Mark Cowley Lidwill invented the pacemaker. Doctors George Kossoff and David Robinson invented the first grey-scale ultrasound scanner, creating a commercially viable technology that assists countless medical procedures around the globe.

Aviator Sir Charles Kingsford Smith is clearly one of Di Pietro’s favourites. In his office is a model of the Lady Southern Cross, the Lockheed Altair monoplane in which Kingsford Smith and his co-pilot, John Thompson Pethybridge, disappeared in the Andaman Sea while attempting to break the speed record for a flight from England to Australia.

Di Pietro, a former chief of the Royal Australian Navy’s Fleet Air Arm, loves the links between Kingsford Smith’s aircraft and the two Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighters which flew from the US to Victoria in 2017 for the Avalon air show.

‘It’s a fantastic story’, says the endlessly enthusiastic Di Pietro. ‘Through significant cooperation of the corporation, the Royal Australian Air Force and the US Air Force, we were able to get the machines out here for the public to see them for the first time.’

Like the Lady Southern Cross, the two F-35s were each powered by a single Pratt and Whitney engine. They travelled from Luke Air Force Base in Arizona with three stops, in Hawaii, on Guam, and at RAAF Base Amberley in Queensland. They flew to Avalon, did their display at the air show and then did the whole trip again in reverse.

‘When they got back to Luke they’d flown both ways across the Pacific, refuelled 22 times in the air, done an air show and got all the way home with not a single part unserviceable’, says Di Pietro.

‘I’ve got 5,000 hours in military aviation, and I can tell you, to fly an aeroplane for a few days without something needing attention or going wrong is quite remarkable. And these flew something like 25,000 miles.’

He says that soon Australians will get used to seeing F-35s in our skies. ‘It’s going to be exciting. Kids will say, “What’s that?” And parents will say, “It’s a joint strike fighter”.’

Di Pietro says the US is aware of the intellectual potential and inventiveness in Australia and that’s why his company opted to set up its Science Technology Engineering Leadership and Research Laboratory—or STELaR Lab—in Melbourne.

Lockheed Martin picked the city for its only such facility outside the US because it viewed it as one of the world’s most advanced university research centres and it recognised Australia as a world leader in fields ranging from engineering and computer science to physics, space science, medical research and molecular biology.

‘Australia’s an amazing place. It’s generated some of the world’s most incredible people and ideas. We seem to know an awful lot about other nation’s incredible people and ideas, but we don’t talk anywhere near enough about our own’, he says.

‘Consider someone like Fiona Wood being inspired by tragedy to think of plastic skin, and all of the suffering that step outside the box has saved people. Think of Professor Clark’s bionic ear, and how many people’s lives that’s changed. And the continuing impact of ultrasound and pacemakers and WiFi as everyday imprints on humankind. Our Australian of the Year, Professor Michelle Simmons, is a world leader in quantum technology.’

These are most inspiring people, Di Pietro says, and their stories need to be front of mind in every Australian and the seeds of attraction to STEM and its part in tackling big challenges for every young Australian.

He notes that Kingsford Smith predicted his achievements would pave the way for intercontinental flight to one day become routine.

‘Now, people fly across the globe, and someone will say: “Oh, my baggage got lost.” And I sit there quietly thinking that you’ve just been across the world in a flying machine made of aluminium one-sixteenth of an inch thick. You’ve had two gin and tonics, watched three movies and had a sleep, safe from the ever-thinning air when you’re flying at 40,000 feet. And the biggest problem in your life is the fact that your bag’s late?’

Di Pietro gestures towards his hero’s 1934 monoplane. ‘And this guy in that machine, single engine across the Pacific, what could possibly go wrong? Extraordinary stuff. Extraordinary … ’

This post was published by The Strategist.

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Brendan Nicholson

Brendan Nicholson is the Defence Editor at The Strategist. He joined the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery in November 1995 and has covered federal politics, foreign affairs, defence and national security issues for two decades, with The Canberra Times, The Age and The Australian.

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