An editorial for Project Mangement World Today Web Magazine. Published here February 2001.


Musings Index

Project Success and Failure

As a small boy, my father delighted in making small wooden boats for me. They were very simple. They were made from a plank of wood, sawn into a vee-shaped front end and slightly rounded back end. The inside was painstakingly carved out with a wood gouge. On the under side, a small curtain hook was screwed in at the front end as the anchor for a rubber band. At the back end was a masterful piece of engineering. A glass bead sat snuggly in the eye of a closed hook, next to which was a smaller bead acting as a bearing. Through both was passed a piece of wire, the end of which was hooked to take the other end of the rubber band. The opposite end of the wire was passed through a small hand-carved propeller and the end of the wire turned back on itself to pierce the propeller wood locking both securely together. By carefully winding up the propeller it was possible to store sufficient energy to propel the craft from one end of our bath tub to the other.

The fact that it was necessary to fill the bath almost to the top for the small boy to reach over and launch the craft; that the small boy got soaking wet, possibly accounting for a subsequent severe cold; and the bathroom floor awash with water caused the floor tiles to curl up at the edges; were all small environmental penalties for the satisfaction of the small boy (me).

When I grew older, I determined on a more advanced project. It would be at least twice as large, and store much more energy. It would also fly rather than float. It would be modeled on the pre-war high-wing Lysander, an elegant single-engine craft of its day. To this end, a large propeller was purchased, complete with a free-wheeling trip, so that the propeller would not impeded flight once the energy ran out. Three heavy-duty 12 inch long rubber bands were also purchased to store the propulsion energy. Balsa wood, the recommended light-weight structural material of the day would obviously not be strong enough to resist the force of the wound up bands.

Bamboo shoots were therefore carefully split into strips and formed the main structural members, and so the fuselage and wings were built. The wings and tail had adjustable ailerons and, for advanced control, stability was maintained by mechanical linkage to small lead-weighted pendulums mounted amidships in the body. The whole was covered with tissue paper, painted and painstakingly covered with shellac for strength. Came the day for launch. The weather was sunny and mild. To give the aircraft a head start, it was launched from the top of the chicken breeder house (we lived on a chicken farm at the time.) The rubber bands were twisted to their maximum, the craft held high in the air - and launched into space.

It seems that the propeller was not quite matched to the craft, or maybe there was some other aeronautical inconsistency. At any rate the craft traveled a few yards and promptly descended in an ignominious nose dive. Upon hitting the ground, structural failure resulted in all the rubber band energy being released with the body ending up as an unrecognizable twisted mess. At that point my flying model aircraft days were over for ever.

The moral of this story? Threefold. Projects come in all shapes and sizes. To be successful, you must get the concept right and, thirdly, don't be overly ambitious!

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