My Rocket Scientist Brother: How the Mind Works

By 11 years of age, I was reading the newspaper from cover to cover. In addition with my limited pocket money I did not purchase comics like the rest of my friends but magazines such as Look and Learn. I was enthralled with the world that opened up. What finally caught my attention was the part work by Purnell entitled The History of the Second World War. Even though Blaine was only 9 years old, he had to listen to my expounding on all these issues – the Holocaust, the rabid racist Nazis and of course their wonder weapons. Initially it was a monologue but soon Blaine would contribute. What was fascinating partly in retrospect was how his mind worked compared to mine. This is that story.

Main picture: This Guy Fawkes was not going to have a huge straw Guy Fawkes or an even bigger bon fire. Rather being Kentron engineers, it might not be a guided missile but at least it was a potent rocket. Talk about taking work home with you.

The one aspect that I never considered in those days was the age difference. What interested me when reading was not the bland history but rather its implications in terms of technology, tactics et al. This is what Blaine would have to endure at a tender age. Why was the 88mm anti-tank gun so formidable? How was Rommel able to keep the British at bay?

Purnell's History of the Second World War in 8 volumes

Purnell’s History of the Second World War in 8 volumes

By 11 years of age, Blaine would add his own theories. Instead of brief discussions, they became epic, each adding to the points that the previous person had made as if in a competition. What I came to realise – albeit at some later stage – that Blaine could make connections much quicker than other people. What I had to do was read it, think about the implications, mull it over and finally arrive at a conclusion. Instead Blaine was quick off the draw.

Even in the late night discussions with Blaine at his house in Cape Town when I was still running the Two Oceans, the ability to make connections would fascinate me. They are always so obviously true but they are revelatory, like an epiphany. They unclog the thinking, allowing new mental patterns to emerge. So it was in those discussions at 57 Mowbray Street, Port Elizabeth.

One of my favourite magazines as a youngster

One of my favourite magazines as a youngster

I have to thank Blaine for forcing my mental juices uphill to the next level. Instead of exertion, picture it as enabling by opening the window or the door to the next level. Not for us heated arguments, rather it was reasoned discussion with each acknowledging what was moot and what was incontestable.

Why I always comment that Blaine does not realise that he is much brighter than me, if that he chats to me as if I am a whizz, which I am not.

Maybe this email will give the lie to his denial.


An example of a minor triumph that was a previously intractable problem.  At Kentron I started working on the V3C IR seeker head under Graham Dibbs.  The solution was pretty conventional comprising a Cassegrain telescope with a N2 gas cooled cryostat mounting the IR detector at the focal point.  This is mounted inside a gimbal ring and is driven in elevation.  The gimbal ring in turn is driven in azimuth.  This isolates it from the base motion of the missile.  The missile has very powerful fin servos enabling it to pull 60g turns and the high bandwidth means that the missile makes extremely rapid twist and turn adjustments of its body. 

V3C Darter Missile

V3C Darter Missile

For the extremely high level of stabilization of the telescope, it must be well decoupled from the base.  Direct drive torques instead of geared motors must be used and the bearings must have very low friction.  Any electrical wires connecting the base to either the gimbal ring or the telescope must have no springiness.  Within 4 months, Graham left and I was put in charge of the design.  The mechanical assembly drawings were complete except for one teeny weeny problem.  High pressure N2 gas had to be conveyed from the body across the gimbal ring and onto the telescope.  The pipe was stainless steel about 1mm diameter and thick walled giving it the stiffness of the wire in a large paper clip.  Not good.  The design had proceeded for more than a year without anyone having a solution.  There was vague chatter about how we could wind it into little compact pigtails which would improve its flexibility and apply these pigtails across the various bearing pivots. 

V3C Darter Missile

V3C Darter Missile

The compact nature of the seeker head perforce made these pigtails small and tight and hence still incredibly stiff.  Taking over, it became my problem.    They had actually been on the right track all along but their brains had got stuck.  Instead of a compact pigtail, a slinky spring was required.  I got a piece of spring steel wire and a 5mm rod and hand wound a slinky spring about 100mm long on the lathe.  Within an hour I had a physical concept demonstrator and the design was back in business.  Once that conceptual leap had been made, it was a simple process to design in guideways between each rotating element so that as it wound off one guide, it wound onto the other.  The guideways were deep grooves so that the springs wouldn’t flap around under lateral G’s and the flexible electrical wires were in turn carried inside the spring.  To balance things up, 2 Slinkys were used across the azimuth axis and two across elevation.  Due to the tight winding of the Slinkys, approx. 8m of tube is used on each seeker!  It sounds crazy but it works.

V3C Darter Missile#3 

I just thought of an excellent example.  Elon Musk’s Tesla.  It is actually quite conventional.  Everything about it is technology that is in everyday use (except for his latest foray into driverless cars).  He just posed one question: Why does an electric car have to be a mundane performer?  That essentially was the only bit of thinking that was unconventional.  After that all the bright engineers can join the dots.

Picture this: Kentron has an intractable problem. They had been battling for a few years to resolve it. Along comes a snotty nosed youngster of 26 and tells the 50 year olds to move aside and he resolves it!!

Or am I misreading what Blaine is blandly stating.

Enormous Bonfire#2

I happened to meet this team at Blaine’s plot at Crowthorne. I had been invited to a special occasion – the nerd’s version of Guy Fawkes. Instead of a conventional straw man, it was a real live rocket on which they had wasted Kentron’s valuable time and materials. At the festivities was a subordinate of Blaine’s whose sister, Denise, I had recently had a hectic affair with. As that was in the past tense, that topic was left unmentioned. By the way I often wonder what happened to her as she was a hottie!! Back to the story. No mention was made of his sister or his gay brother but what I do remember him stating to me was that Blaine was one of the brightest guys that he had worked with EVER. Even hotter than his blond petite sister. Sorry I digress again. Oh, he was telling me how hot – I mean – bright Blaine was. Did I repeat that? If anybody knows Denise’s Cellphone number just let me know!

Then it was time to light the straw Guy Fawkes – I mean ignite the fuse – no press the detonator. With a flash in the sky the two metre rocket whooshed up arching over eastward towards Jan Smuts Airport.

Missile launch

A groan arose, “Too successful”

“Where is the plane’s flight path?”

“What altitude is it now?”

“Two kilometres!”

“Oh no! Where is it falling?”

With the excitement over, the cops possibly on their way and no unattached women around, it was time to go home.

Like a party without booze, it is useless.

Rocket launch

When Blaine still owned his mansion in upper Claremont, I can still vividly recall Arnold and I being lectured on how a GPS worked. It was a daunting one and half hour affair. I could not turn the pages of the dictionary quickly enough to digest the concepts that Blaine was expounded. We both found it interesting but do quiz us on it. We would definitely get an F for fail!!

Of course I always indulge Blaine by nodding sagely and uttering some profundities but nothing in essence to advance the debate

Right of reply:

Let me get the details straight about “The Great Guy Fawkes” episode.

I always loved Guy Fawkes.  I think our kids have missed out on a great deal of fun: Launching rockets from your back garden, Catherine wheels, Roman candles and daring each other to hold lady crackers in your hand.  I think I managed to progress to a big bang resting on an open palm.  In short I was a woes.

Guy Fawkes fire crackers#1

It was about 1984 and Guy Fawkes was coming up. I motivated my friends to make it a memorable event as I had the ideal place in the sticks at Crowthorne.  We passed the hat around the department at Kentron and collected enough to buy a number of big boxes of fireworks.  My partners in crime in those days were Martin Clark (RIP), aero engineer, Grant Wilson, mechanical engineer, better known for pulling a moonie at the drop of a, well – pants – and myself.   Other notable miscreants were Dave (RIP), and Richard Wainwright.  The first three formed the Terrible Trio as we shared a lift club and were similarly irreverent.  We decided that we were well qualified to design a proper skyrocket, stand aside Elon.  Martin had dug up the ideal rocket propellant, namely flowers of Sulphur mixed at a stoichiometric ratio with Aluminium powder.  No problem.  Got all the supplies from the chemist (this was still the days that chemists actually did things rather than count out the number of tablets according the script).  The right ratios were weighed at Kentron and sneaked out through security again.  The next problem was the nozzle.  We were determined to do it professionally so Martin Clark was designated to design a convergent/divergent rocket nozzle.  Being very concerned about range safety, ha ha, we decided that it had to be light hence Al was chosen.  Since we really didn’t want to kill anyone, it was further decided that the solid booster containment should be made from fiberglass.  Martin was busy making a KR2 homebuilt aircraft and so was appointed to be the manufacturer.

KR2 home built aircraft

KR2 home built aircraft

On about the Tuesday before the designated launch window the first prototype was tested on my plot after work.  The rocket was clamped horizontally in a 6 inch bench vice and placed in a clear area.  To ignite the propellant a toaster was stripped and the element wire was unwound.  The wire was stuffed into the nozzle and attached to a car battery via twin flex.  We crouched behind my Beetle when we completed the circuit. Schurrie (I don’t how to write what we used to say when firecrackers misfired) It was a dud although the nozzle did fly across the grass quite nicely.  The internal pressure forced open the interface between the nozzle and the composite and it was back to the drawing board.  Martin promised to make a better one.  Thursday afternoon arrived with the same result.  Martin really promised to get it right for Saturday Night.

Enormous Bonfire#3

On Saturday morning, I decided that we needed a backup.  There was no way I was going to be able to make a sophisticated rocket in time so I took the Boer maak ‘n plan route.  I had some 1” pipe.  I moered the one end closed and brazed it tight. I cut out about 8” and cut Vee’s in the end, bent and brazed them together to make a converging nozzle of arbitrary dimensions.  I tamped it full of mix and set it aside – in case.

We have to digress for a while.  I had an old mechanics overall, a polystyrene head for wigs (I had used it as a stand for my headphones while I was growing up.  I used to think it was cool), and a single hand from a mannequin.  I constructed a serious Guy.  Marese came around to help Pat but got distracted to help me with the Guy.  We used to call Marese Magenta (Martin coined that) from the Rocky Horror Picture Show because of her predilection for that colour makeup or Leatherlungs.  She was a determined dope smoker but once single handed resurrected a braai fire from the dead.  We carefully stuffed my overalls with dry grass and a bit of green grass for a smoke effect and put various fireworks in the pockets and inside.  He was placed in pride of place ready for the great event.

Magenta from the Rocky Horror Picture Show

Magenta from the Rocky Horror Picture Show

Grant arrived late from a day of hot air ballooning and asked if he could light the Guy.  “No problem. Go for it.”  Wrong, very wrong.  He and his mates hauled out the balloon gas burner, tilted it horizontal and just blasted the bejesus out of the Guy from about 3m.  OK, so that didn’t work.  We lit all the other fireworks one by one until the main event came.  Martin had dropped me after all.  I had a piece of exhaust tubing about 400mm diameter and 700mm long.  We had no more toaster element what with all our failed prototypes so I took the thread from a bunch of ladybirds that is woven to hold them all together.  This thread is actually the same as the fuse for the crackers.  This was stuffed inside the nozzle and about 2” was left trailing outside’ I placed this in the exhaust tubing and leant that against some bricks.


I lit the fuse and fell flat on my back from the explosion.  The rocket streaked off into the night but the trajectory could only be estimated from the first second or two while the propellant burnt.  For the rest, who knows?  I reckon it easily went a kilometer.  I actually had an image of some nearby farmer inspecting his cow the next day and wondering where this steel tube had come from that was presently stuck in his cow’s head.

Now you know the tawdry but true saga of that Guy Fawkes.


Details of V3C Darter Missile:

A greatly improved version of the short-range V3B AAM, it was cleared for use with the Mirage III, Mirage F1 and Cheetah aircraft. The missile is linked to the helmet-mounted acquisition system which allows the pilot to lock the missiles seeker head onto the target well outside his aircraft’s axis. It is comparable to the AIM-9L Sidewinder. Using both contact and laser proximity fuses, launch velocity is the aircraft’s speed plus 600m/s. It can be fired against targets within 15 degrees of the sun, and in look-down mode.

Kentron: A Darter missile

Kentron: A Darter missile

Produced from 1986, the Darter has a larger-diameter fuselage when compared to the V3B, gimble limits were increased to 55 degrees and incorporated shorter reaction times and a laser fuse. Lead bias was optimised from 20 to 160 degrees by using a colour guidance system to distinguish between aircraft and decoy flares. The Bush War ended before it entered service in 1990, but was still used by the Impala Mk II. Further development of the Kenron V3C ceased in favour of the larger U-Darter.


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