ICQ 2003/4Class Notes

He Made the Friendly Skies Safer
Gerald Nachman at his home in New Jersey.


Gerald Nachman '51 went from being grounded in the plant business to flying high in the airline industry.

by Wrexie Bardaglio

If you've ever flown on an Airbus, you can credit Gerald Nachman '51 for a safe flight, thanks to wing improvements based on an ancient technology. How Nachman found himself part of such an important development in aviation technology is a classic American success story.

Nachman expanded the application of shot-peening, bombarding the surface of a metal with tiny steel balls, by introducing the process into the production of aircraft wings, including those of the Airbus A340 (top) and the Lockheed Super Constellation (center). Above, a wing section of a Super Constellation.

Born in Germany, Nachman emigrated with his parents to the United States in 1938 and grew up in Queens. During high school he worked at a scrap yard as a scalemaster, an involvement with the world of metals that foreshadowed what would later become his role in a new American industry in the booming postwar years.

Nachman chose Ithaca College without even visiting campus -- an action few college freshmen today would consider. The downtown campus was not much more than a few unconnected buildings. As one of the first business administration majors, Nachman remembers classes taught by local professionals such as an accountant and a banker. "There wasn't much college life," he recalls. Classes were crowded with veterans and married men. "My first year I had a room in Collegetown. My second year I had a room upstairs in the home of the family who owned Joe's Restaurant, for which I paid the exorbitant sum of $5 a week. I cooked on a hot plate."

Needing to make money, Nachman went to work for the Tompkins County forestry department planting trees. It was tough work. "We were bent over all day," he says. "Pretty soon I decided to become an entrepreneur." He started a house-cleaning business, but it wasn't as easy as he'd envisioned. "I engaged other students to help, but that was a disaster!" he remembers. "So I had to develop another money-making strategy. My friend Herbert Barchat ['50] and I figured out that veterans were getting college books free. We'd buy their books when they were finished, refurbish them [using] scotch tape and erasures, and resell them. We called our business B&N," he says with a laugh. "It paid our tuition of $300 a year and provided spending money."

After graduating Nachman took a job traveling -- primarily in the Caribbean and South America -- as a scrap steel broker. The job was short-lived because, as Nachman puts it, "I decided the scrap business was not for me." Soon thereafter, a friend told him about some businessmen and scientists in California who were working with shot-peening, a process that prevented metal fatigue, which was just being thought about for widespread commercial uses besides centuries-old swordsmithing and more recent military uses. He suggested that Nachman join the group.

"It sounded interesting," Nachman says, "so I investigated the process. Long ago someone figured out that if you bombard the surface of a metal with tiny steel balls, the metal becomes stronger. During the war the process was applied to gun parts, military vehicles, and aircraft parts. I decided it might have an even bigger future."

Nachman left the east coast for California, where he and ultimately four other entrepreneurs created a partnership they called Metal Improvement Company, which focused on strengthening parts for the oil tool and aircraft industry in Southern California. "We struggled along for years," Nachman remembers.

But the direction and fortunes of MIC began to change with the advent of Lockheed's Super Constellation and Douglas's DC-7, the first commercial passenger planes able to fly nonstop westbound across the United States against prevailing winds. "There was an engineer at Lockheed," Nachman explains, "who came up with an idea of making a wing out of one slab of aluminum, removing 91 percent of the aluminum, thereby making the ribs an integral part of the wing, rather than riveting the stiffeners to the skin of the wing. He designed this 'integrally stiffened' wing for the Super Constellation," making for a stronger, lighter wing. "The problem with the new technology was how to create the aerodynamic curvature into the wing. So the engineer came up with the idea of shotpeening on one side, which made the wing convex. It worked; Lockheed patented the process, and we became the exclusive licensee for doing it."

Nachman began traveling the country looking for places to open factories. "We grew and grew," he says. "But by 1968 my partners were older and wanted to retire. I didn't have the money to buy them out. So I located a company -- also a customer -- Curtiss-Wright Corporation, and we married up with them. I stayed on as president of the subsidiary, Metal Improvement Company, and executive vice president of Curtiss-Wright. By the time I retired (last year), we had some 1,200 employees in more than 40 factories worldwide, in Belgium, Germany, Italy, France, England, Canada, and Sweden, as well as in the United States, and I'd opened every one."

In the 1970s the company began forming all the wings for Airbus, a cooperative aircraft manufacturing project created in 1970 by a European consortium of French, German, and later Spanish and U.K. companies. The latest development before Nachman retired was the use of laser for increasing fatigue life of aircraft components in lieu of using steel balls to bombard the surface.

Retirement seems an odd concept for someone whose life has taken him back to where he was born and beyond and found him at the center of the aerospace industry boom, but Nachman says he's just as busy as ever. He volunteers with SCORE, a program affiliated with Small Business Administration that counsels entrepreneurs and small businesses. He is also an ombudsman for two nursing homes in New Jersey, representing the residents to make sure they aren't abused and conned. He and his wife, Harriet, have seven grandchildren. "I've taken up golf, although that is more frustrating than anything else," he laughs, "and I'm an avid cross-country skier."

Nachman is enjoying the new demands on his time as much as he enjoyed his business career. "I was really busy making a living and making the company grow, and I was away from home a lot," he says. "It's hard to imagine what one gives up. My wife practically raised the kids by herself. But the result is that MIC will always be mentioned worldwide in conjunction with shotpeening. While we didn't develop the process, we created a broad need for it. And although the Super Constellation put us on the map, we applied the process to other wings, too -- for military and commercial aircraft -- and improved the technology and quality control. And we integrated the application of lasers into it."

Five decades later, Gerald Nachman's life seems light years away from the back-breaking forestry job, the failed cleaning business, and even the successful book resale business. Clearly, however, the resourcefulness and imagination that he summoned to put himself through college later characterized the work that earned him a place among 20th-century aviation pioneers.

Photo of Nachman Shelley Kusnetz; others courtesy of Gerald Nachman


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A. Ozolins, Ithaca College Office of Publications, 30 April, 2004