Meet Burt Dicht!
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to design air or spacecraft? We’ve interviewed Burt Dicht who spent several years working as an engineer in the aerospace industry. Mr. Dicht is currently Director of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) University Programs where he is responsible for directing IEEE’s engineering education accreditation activities and for developing programs for faculty and students. Immediately before joining IEEE, Mr. Dicht was the Managing Director of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ (ASME) Knowledge and Community Sector.
Mr. Dicht began his career in the aerospace industry in 1982 and held the position as a lead engineer for Northrop Grumman and Rockwell Space Transportation Systems Division. He has worked on such projects as the F- 5E Tiger II, the F20A Tigershark, the F-18E/F Super Hornet, the YF-23A Advanced Tactical Fighter, and the Space Shuttle.
Q: How did you decide to study mechanical engineering? Was it a tough decision?
I had entered college as a chemistry major and I was studying to be a doctor. But I soon determined that being a doctor was not really what I wanted. I had put in almost two years of pre-med work before deciding I wanted to something different. I briefly explored studying physics but I quickly decided engineering was what I wanted. I had always liked math and science, but more importantly I liked to solve problems and engineering seemed the best option.
The decision to choose mechanical was actually quite easy. Working in the aerospace industry was my intent, and since my university did not offer an aerospace program, mechanical engineering was the most obvious choice. Mechanical engineering is an incredibly diverse discipline, offering avenues into almost any field or industry. And mechanical engineers are involved with devices that have moving parts or are in motion. I liked that aspect.
Q: Were you interested in engineering as a child? What was your experience then?
As I child I really didn’t have a true understanding of what engineering was about. I did like science, but the path that led me to engineering was the Apollo program in the late 1960s. I remember in December 1968 hearing the television in the living room late at night. I went downstairs and saw my oldest brother watching something and asked him about it. He told me that Apollo 8 was around the moon and they were broadcasting from the spacecraft. It was like a light went off as I just couldn’t comprehend that people were around the moon.
From then on I was consumed by the space program. I was ten years old when Apollo 11 landed on the moon and I went outside to look up at the moon. I couldn’t believe people were walking on the moon and I kept asking, “How did they do that?” As a learned more about the space program I found out about the role of engineers. I had even written a letter to NASA asking how I could become an astronaut. And Deke Slayton, one of the original seven astronauts wrote back to me and told me to study hard in math, science and engineering. So the engineering seed was planted.
Q: How did you get interested in engineering as a career?
It was my interest in the space program and aviation. I liked things that went very fast and made a lot of noise. I tried to learn more about how aircraft and spacecraft worked, which spurred my interest in engineering. During high school I was part of a magnet school for aerospace and I participated in an after-school program called SPARC – Space Research Capsule. We actually built our own spacecraft to run simulated missions. But as it turned out, by high school I was leaning more toward medicine and I became part of SPARC’s medical team.
When I was 17 I was asked by a member of my school’s staff to consider joining SPARC’s astronaut corp. Since I knew they were planning for a simulated flight that year I decided to apply and I was accepted. We had to learn a lot about engineering as we designed and built our capsule and I served as the astronaut-engineer on a 24 hour mission. I didn’t know it at the time that this firmed up my path toward engineering, even though I entered college as a pre-med.
Q: What was involved in your roles as lead engineer working in the aerospace industry?
At Northrop Grumman I was involved in configuration integration. I liken this to being an interior designer for an aircraft. My department’s role was to oversee the overall integration of all of the aircraft systems. It required a great deal of interface with all of the design groups. It was very challenging and enlightening as well, since I got to see the big picture, and how the overall aircraft came together. I had to track the equipment that was to be placed into the aircraft and in many cases I did studies to determine if a new avionics box would fit and where to place the equipment.
I was responsible for several drawings that were used by the other engineering groups. One was called an Inboard Profile and this depicted all of the systems that went into the aircraft. The other was called an Aperture Arrangement which showed all of access panels, openings and antennas on the aircraft. This was especially important for a stealthy or low observable aircraft, since any door openings could increase the radar cross section. And that’s bad. As a lead engineer I was not a direct supervisor, but I did lead engineering teams and projects. One of the great experiences was serving as a mentor to entry-level engineers as they came into the department. Helping an engineer develop was a very satisfying part of the job, along with creating something that made a lot of noise and went very fast.
Q: How are you able to apply your engineering background in your current role?
In my current position I interface quite a bit with engineers from academia and industry. These are volunteers that support IEEE’s educational activities. Being an engineer provides a certain amount of credibility in establishing these working relationships. It’s not only about supporting their activities. As an engineer I understand the technology and the issues they are addressing. Plus I’ve been there and can relate my own experiences as we look to create programs around engineering education. I also serve as a complement to other IEEE professional staff members. To run an organization like IEEE, it takes a lot of skilled professionals with varied backgrounds. Questions and issues do arise that require an engineer’s perspective and I’m glad to provide my knowledge and background to support the activities of the entire organization. Even though you might not practice engineering, you are always an engineer.
Q: How long have you been a member of IEEE? What prompted you to join?
I’ve been a member of IEEE for about 1 ½ years, since I joined the professional staff. I’ve been involved with technical professional societies since I was an undergraduate student. I joined ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers) as a student member and I’m now an ASME Fellow. I am a strong proponent for engineers to join technical professional societies like IEEE and ASME. They foster professionalism and also provide a wealth of professional and technical resources that enable engineers to advance their careers. I joined IEEE because I work directly with IEEE volunteers who are all members. I thought it would help in understanding their needs as members and volunteers if I experience IEEE from the member side. And it’s one thing to advocate for the organization as part of the professional staff. But as a member, whether I’m speaking to students or practitioners I bring the experience of my own involvement as I promote membership and participation in IEEE.
Q: What has been the most rewarding thing about your work?
As an engineer there was nothing more exciting than seeing what you created come to life. The first flight of an aircraft is always exciting and a little scary. When I watched the aircraft accelerate down the runway and then go airborne, it was probably the most satisfying and rewarding professional experience in my life. You know that your hard work contributed to the success of the aircraft and I’ll always have those first flights as part of my memories.
Q: Can you share a story about how the work you do has impacted the world?
I’m proud of the work I did as an engineer and the contributions I made to aircraft development and the space shuttle program. But for this question I’m going to focus on my post-engineering life where the contributions aren’t as tangible or visible. In the course of my 14 years working with technical professional associations, I have visited and made presentations at more than 150 universities all around the world and have had the pleasure to share my own experiences with thousands of students.
During these visits, even though I am not a teacher or professor, I believe I had a similar impact on the next generation of engineers. In sharing my own experiences, in providing guidance and advice on entering the profession and being an engineer I helped better prepare these students for successful careers. And in doing so, in a small way, I impacted the overall profession. It was always so rewarding to hear from students I had met and have them tell me my advice helped them. It is for that reason I am so committed to my position at IEEE and helping to advance engineering and technical education.
Q: What advice would you give a pre-university student who was interested in working in mechanical or aerospace engineering?
Engineering is a great profession and I would encourage students interested in pursuing careers in mechanical or aerospace engineering to start preparing now. The study of engineering requires knowledge in the use of mathematics and science. The best preparation for studying engineering is now while you are in junior high or high school. Work hard in the math and science classes you are now taking. This will provide the foundation you need to succeed at the college level. Also, many schools have courses that provide an introduction to engineering. Take advantage of these courses.
If your school does not offer something like that talk to your science or math teacher about inviting engineers to visit the class room. IEEE, ASME and AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics) all have programs that connect classrooms to engineering projects and engineers. The idea is to learn as much as you can about the profession and the different options you can choose. This can help in deciding on which program and university is best for you.
Also, if you have any family members or your friends have family members who are engineers, reach out to them. It does not matter what type of engineers they are, as they could provide you a snapshot of the profession. Finally, there are many on-line resources. A great one for aerospace is http://www.aircraftdesign.com/other.html. This site can connect you to all of the aerospace company sites, universities that offer aerospace programs, aerospace professional societies and resources for aircraft designers. Good luck with the profession of your choice and I look forward to seeing you at a future airshow.