How not to build an airplane.

Two summers before I got my first job making ads I got my first job building airplanes.

My dad was an aircraft engineer for Lockheed. His amazing career spanned more than 40 years. He got me a summer job as a riveter on C-130 wheel pods.

What’s a C-130? It’s a four-engine turboprop military transport aircraft.

What’s a C-130 wheel pod? It’s kind of like a fender skirt on a ’75 Cadillac (except if a fender skirt falls off by the side of the road, no harm no foul.)

In advertising we learn that making mistakes are good. Mistakes are how we learn. Mistakes are how we reach farther than we ever thought possible. The best agencies in the world take the fear out of making mistakes not only by encouraging them, but by rewarding them.

Lockheed had a different point of view about mistakes. They discouraged them. Lockheed’s customers were equally prickly about mistakes. (1) They wanted their aircraft to be air-worthy. (2) They didn’t want parts of their aircraft falling off in mid-flight.

Here’s something you may not know about rivet guns. I certainly didn’t. The trick to riveting is to hold the rivet gun against the skin of the aircraft before you pull the trigger. If you pull the trigger first, the pneumatic pressure on the rivet hammer will shoot a hole clear through the part you are working on, and it has to be taken away to be repaired.

Normally, mistakes are not pointed out for everyone to see. But at Lockheed, it was the only way to remove a damaged part on the assembly line for repair. Did I mention the aircraft plant I worked at measured 4.2 million square feet?

There was a huge crane that ran on tracks in the ceiling of the plant. Whenever a large part of the aircraft had to be removed, the crane would go into action. Complete with flashing lights and blaring horns the crane would travel slowly to the work station of let’s say, where the C-130 wheel pods were being riveted. Cables would descend from the crane, lift the offending part off the assembly line and carry it away.

Oh, and you know that saying, you learn from your mistakes? Apparently, I never heard that saying, because I kept making the same mistake more than once, more than twice–I”ll just leave it there if you don’t mind.

So, there you have it, how not to build an airplane. Needless to say, the next summer, Lockheed did not invite me back.

But the real lesson here is whatever creative field you’re in, mistakes are a good thing. They will help you connect the dots in ways you never thought possible. And when you do make a mistake, have no fear. There is no overhead crane just waiting to lift you up and carry you away.

Published by bassetts49

50 years in advertising, 20 years as the creative lead on Geico. A life in creative thinking.

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