Franken remembered– by Joe Jenney

My first encounter with Peter created an image that has remained with me ever since. I had just arrived at the University of Michigan to start work on a master’s degree in physics. One of the first tasks was to meet with a counselor to go over classes for the summer. Peter was the assigned counselor and I was standing in a long line of students waiting outside his office. He came out of his office and said something to us. I don’t remember what he said; it was just the energy that was in both his body language and his comments. I had never encountered a professor who behaved with such energy and candor. I had a very positive reaction to Peter at that first meeting.

My next encounter with Peter was when I monitored his course in classical optics.  Again he demonstrated an unusual energy and enthusiasm. He also taught in the manner of others in the physics department that stressed clear and simple physical arguments over abstract mathematical explanations. A teaching methodology I was sincerely thankful for and have always tried to emulate in my training and writing. The most memorable event from that class was when he was explaining some principle of optics and said “and then the photon goes tear assing from here to there” as he literally ran across the room point to things he had drawn on the blackboard.

After completing my course work for the PhD program I began approaching professors to find a mentor for my research. I wasn’t having much luck finding anyone that thought the problem I was interested in would make a reasonable thesis topic. One day a friend who had shared an office with me at Willow Run Labs and was working on his thesis for Peter. He said Peter was looking for students and suggested I go see him. The first question Peter asked was “would you jump out of an airplane wearing a parachute?”  When I said yes he asked if my grades were “ok”. I said yes and he nodded and told me he was looking for someone to help with his flight experiments on clear air turbulence. I started work a few days later.

A few weeks later David Rank joined me and we worked on Peter’s ideas for finding quarks in the mornings and then spent our afternoons and nights at Willow Run finalizing the setup of a laser radar in a twin Beech airplane Peter had on loan from the Army. Peter had decided that if quarks existed naturally they might form a hydrogen like atom and have an optical spectrum that would identify them. I had done optical spectroscopy both at Willow Run and Randal lab so we rounded up the necessary equipment, got it working and began to think about how we might seek the quarks. Peter believed the best source would be in water so we collected water from a mile out in Lake Huron. We didn’t detect any. Dave came up with a better search method based on Milliken’s oil drop experiment and he based his thesis on that work while I pursued the turbulence experiments.

Peter was consulting for the laser company in Ann Arbor and they had built the laser and optical receiver. Our job was to align and calibrate the laser radar and prove it was seeing backscatter from atmospheric aerosols. We aligned the laser and receiver by firing the laser at the side of a hanger next to the one the plane was in. It was a ruby laser so we could see where the light was hitting and then move the receiver to be in alignment. This was before there was any safety standards for using lasers so we did our own safety calculations based on energy levels Peter said were safe.

The next step was to prove the alignment would hold during flight. Peter decided the best way was to dive the airplane at the large parking lot at Willow Run, which then served a GM car factory. The pilots didn’t want to do it and came up with arguments that the wings would be torn off the airplane. Peter would come out to the airport and try to convince them that the resulting g forces were well within the design limits of the wings. Once the pilots found they couldn’t buffalo Peter we were able to proceed. Having confirmed the optical performance we next needed to establish that signals from backscatter could be correlated with turbulence. Peter came up with the idea of tucking our plane close in behind departing passenger planes from Willow Run. We would fire the laser into the wake of the large planes and then fly through the wake turbulence. That allowed us to correlate the accelerometer reading with the backscatter signals. Fortunately the FAA didn’t know we were firing lasers in the direction of passenger planes.

In the spring Peter arranged for us to work with the National Severe Storms Center in Oklahoma and introduced us to people from the Flight Safety Foundation that he had met and invited to observe our experiments. I learned that Peter was a master at securing publicity for our work. We went to the Quantum Electronics conference in Phoenix that year and Peter held a press conference. Lasers were still relatively new and optical radar was very new so he was able to generate interest from the local press.

The reason Peter became interested in clear air turbulence was had just obtained tenure and decided both to learn to fly and to do whatever experiments sounded fun to him. He experienced turbulence in his flight lessons and the commercial airlines were struggling with turbulence effects on the new generation of large jet aircraft. He calculated that there should be enough backscatter from atmospheric aerosols to detect aerosol variations that he postulated would be correlated with turbulence so he initiated the experiments. By the time I started working for Peter he had his license and was working on a multiengine instrument rating. He used every excuse for flying. A couple of times he wanted to go to Willow Run with me so we went to Ann Arbor airport rented a plane and flew to Willow Run; about a ten minute flight.

Several flights with Peter are memorable. We had funding from Wright Field and one day the sponsor rented a small plane and flew to Ann Arbor to visit us. Of course Peter decided we would fly to Willow Run. The sponsor was an inexperienced pilot and unfamiliar with the plane he had rented. When we landed the plane began to shake violently. Fortunately Peter recognized the problem as nose wheel oscillation. He grabbed the control stick, pulled back sharply so that the nose of the plane came up until we were almost standing on the tail. The sponsor and I about had heart attacks but the oscillation stopped and we landed safely.

One time I came back from a flight out of Willow Run with a WW II fighter pilot who was very experienced and an expert pilot. His landing impressed me greatly. He brought the plane within a foot of touching down within ten feet of the beginning of the runway and flew at one foot altitude until he was about 50 yards from the turnoff to our hanger before he set it down on the concrete. He made it seem effortless but I knew it wasn’t as easy as it looked. When I described it to Peter he said he could do that and would show me the next time we went to Willow Run.  It wasn’t long until we made one of the flights from Ann Arbor airport to Willow Run and Peter proceeded to show me he could do the special landing. However, he flew about five feet above the runway and we hadn’t gone 100 yards until a wind gust caught the plane from the side and nearly tipped us over. I didn’t describe any more flying tricks to Peter that he might try to emulate.

Working for Peter was always a joy. He taught us many useful things that were invaluable to my career. He was rigorous in ensuring data was accurate. He would question us in detail about data. Was the equipment calibrated? What simple checks had we done to ensure the calibration was accurate? He always shared tricks that were useful in the lab and techniques that were critical to effective management of experimental work. As he developed confidence in us he gave us free rein to manage our work, including in my case the interactions with the management people associated with airports we worked with in Michigan, Colorado and Oklahoma. I benefited greatly from this leadership experience.

Peter had an interest in photography and since we had a camera installed in the plane to record the atmospheric conditions during our experiments he used that as an excuse and opportunity to teach Dave and me how to develop and print film. Peter obtained a room in Randal and we put all our experiments aside for ten days. He showed us how to set up and work in a photo lab. He even showed me how to take credible portraits. I still have a fine portrait of me that he took to demonstrate a technique.

Of course everyone will remember the Saturday lunches at the Brown Jug and the conversations about physics. I probably learned as much from those conversations and the accompanying nickel bets as I did from my thesis work. Since Peter was active in consulting for industry and the Defense Department he was often gone but he would see us on Saturdays and if he was in town he would pop in the lab, sometimes late in the evenings. One memorable event was when he popped in my lab one night and announced that he had just invented a diffraction limited camera with infinite depth of focus. I sensed a test, thought a minute and said “you mean a pin hole camera?” He smiled and shared with me what fun he had pulling that on the guys at the laser company where he was consulting. They had jumped for their notebooks and were ready to file a patent application, much to Peter’s amusement.

Peter took an appointment as the Deputy Director of DARPA near the end of my work. He told me if I would commit to finishing the management of the contract we had secured for the development of an advanced airborne optical radar and the associated flight experiments he would facilitate my degree work. I could finish the contract as either a post doc or working for the Ann Arbor company that was building the optical radar. Peter’s philosophy was that five years of graduate study was enough and spending any longer was not of much benefit to a student. With a wife and two kids I was eager to graduate and not have to live on $209.50 per month any longer. I quickly wrote up my thesis, graduated  and finished the contract working for the local  company.

Peter enjoyed recognition and status. I remember when he was given a membership in American Airlines Admirals Club for having flown 75,000 miles. (In those days membership was honorary.) He went around the lab proudly showing off his club membership card. When he received the appointment to DARPA he explained to us that his office would be in the E ring, the most prestigious location. Once when I visited him in Washington D.C he took me to dinner at a private club he had joined. If I remember correctly it was the Athenaeum Club or a similar name. I do know that it was a very exclusive club but Peter and I were 30 years younger than any of the other diners. Another time when I visited him at the Pentagon he took me to lunch in one of the private dining rooms reserved for the highest levels of the Secretary of Defense’s staff. He really enjoyed showing off.

He shared with me a story of his first days at DARPA which I came to appreciate a decade later when I was an executive at DARPA. In one of his first significant meetings at DARPA, while he was still trying to figure out what was happening, he was asked for his opinion on some important topic. Peter gave some excuse to avoid answering as he was so new. The official running the meeting wouldn’t let him off the hook. He said something to the effect that Peter was now in Washington and expected to give his opinion so give it! When I joined DARPA I found, as had Peter, that there is no time there to study things; you are expected to perform with what you bring to the job. It’s stressful work and it led to Peter collapsing during a meeting. If I remember correctly he left shortly afterward.

When I remember Peter I see him in his office on the phone. He is standing up and walking back and forth behind his desk as far as the phone cord allows. I witnessed this many times in Ann Arbor and the last time I visited Peter in Arizona he was still doing it. Arguing with some Washington official about funding for some new idea Peter had that he felt must be funded. For Peter everything was urgent and important.

by  Joe Jenney,  December 2010 

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