Introduction to the Case
On June 18, 1967, the B.F. Goodrich Wheel and Brake Plant in Troy, Ohio, received a contract to supply wheels and brakes for the new Air Force light attack aircraft. Goodrich won the contract based on their competitive bid and, more importantly, their innovative technical design, featuring a lightweight four-rotor brake1. Before the Air Force could accept the brake, B.F. Goodrich had to present a report showing that the brake passed specified qualifying tests. The last two weeks of June 1968 were set aside for flight-testing the brake, giving Goodrich almost a full year for design and testing.
Following brake failure at the June 1968 flight tests, and the ensuing accusations by a former B.F. Goodrich employee, Kermit Vandivier, regarding qualification test report falsification and ethical misconduct on the part of specific B.F. Goodrich personnel, Senator William Proxmire (D-Wisconsin) requested a governmental inquiry into the brake qualification testing performed by the B.F. Goodrich Troy Plant. On August 13, 1969, a four-hour Congressional hearing2, chaired by Senator Proxmire, was held to investigate the Air Force A7D Aircraft Brake Problem.
In 1972, Vandivier wrote a well-crafted article, "Why Should My Conscience Bother Me,"3 which depicted his version of the Goodrich incident. Consequently, his article formed the basis of what is now known in professional business and engineering ethics circles and in the literature of whistle-blowing as "The Aircraft Brake Scandal." As one of the most famous whistle-blowing cases in the literature, The Aircraft Brake Scandal has been hailed as a paradigm case of the courageous individual challenging an unscrupulous corporation.4 Whistle-blower Vandivier is treated as a hero, a man who lost his job for doing the right thing.
Unfortunately, life is more cluttered, more ambiguous than Vandivier presents. Reexamination shows that the The Aircraft Brake Scandal case is, precisely because of the ambiguous nature of life inside corporate America. The case shows that whistle-blowing was merely a symptom of larger ethical problems within both Goodrich and the aircraft brake industry as a whole, from engineering responsibility regarding rationalizing ineptitude and failed innovation to the case actors' accountability for deficiencies in communications to governmental and industry culpability in allowing erroneous qualification testing procedures to continue.
The case shows how engineers can be responsible for failed innovation, how easy it is for events to escalate (in this case, to a formal Congressional hearing) when people fail to communicate and get their facts straight, and how innovative design often makes testing procedures obsolete, or worse yet, shows that they were in fact erroneous.
1. The rotor is a rotating metal disc interspersed with stators, which are stationary metal discs carrying brake lining material. The rotor and stator discs, when compressed, perform the braking action.
2. Air Force A7-D Brake Problem: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Economy in Government of the Joint Economic Committee, Congress of the United States, Ninety-First Congress, First Session, August 13, 1969. LC card 72-606996. Hereinafter referred to as "Goodrich Hearing."
3. Vandivier, Kermit. "Why Should My Conscience Bother Me?" in Heilbroner, Robert L., et al., In The Name Of Profit, Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1972, pp. 3–31. See also the reprint of this article, "The Aircraft Brake Scandal," in Harpers Magazine, 244 (April 1972), pp. 45–52.
4. Fielder, John H. "Give Goodrich a Break,'' Business and Professional Ethics Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Spring 1988), p. 21.
Organizations and People Involved
Several sets of characters played important roles in both the events that eventually resulted in whistle-blowing, and the 1969 Congressional Hearing.
Kermit Vandivier, technical writer. As whistle-blower, Vandivier claimed that he and Searle Lawson were ordered to falsify the qualification report. Went to work as a reporter for the Troy Daily News following his resignation from Goodrich.
Searle Lawson, young design engineer (with a certificate in aircraft design technology and an undergraduate degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering) on the A7D brake. Partially corroborated Vandivier's accusations against Goodrich personnel. Went to work for LTV following his resignation from Goodrich.
Richard Gloor, laboratory test engineer. First to confirm Vandivier's suspicions regarding falsified testing.
Ralph Gretzinger, test lab supervisor. Gretzinger initially opposed data falsification but bowed to pressure from his immediate supervisor in the Technical Services section, Russell Line.
Russell Line, manager, Technical Services section. Ordered Vandivier to write falsified qualification report.
Russell Van Horn, Robert Sink's, John Warren's and Searle Lawson's immediate supervisor, and manager of the Aircraft Wheel and Brake Design section, with ultimate responsibility for the A7D proposal and project. Van Horn ordered Lawson to qualify the final brake test, "no matter what."
Robert L. Sink, non-degreed A7D project manager. Sink, along with Van Horn, ordered Lawson to qualify the final brake test, "no matter what."
John Warren, design engineer on the A7D attack aircraft brake.
H.C. (Bud) Sunderman, chief engineer for the B.F. Goodrich Wheel and Brake Plant, Troy, Ohio. Sunderman initially offered to have someone in the engineering department write the qualification report when Vandivier refused to do so.
Senator William Proxmire (D-Wisconsin), chaired the four-hour Congressional Hearing on August 13, 1969. Proxmire had just made a name for himself with his investigation into cost overruns of the Air Force's C5A contracts with Lockheed Aircraft Corp. and General Electric Co. by the GAO and the Congressional Joint Economic Committee. As someone known as the "quality assurance" senator, for his tough stand on government waste, Proxmire's investigations of the C5A and A7D merely set the stage for his later, now notorious "Golden Fleece Awards," handed out monthly from 1975-1980 to federal government agencies deemed most wasteful, nay reckless in their disbursement of the taxpayers' dollars. Proxmire was committed to hunting down what he dubbed legalized thefts, and exposing them to public scrutiny. Thus, Vandivier gave Proxmire an opportunity to unmask yet another possible government procurement rip off.
Joseph Hathaway, FBI agent. Vandivier and Lawson met with Agent Hathaway at the recommendation of Vandivier's attorney.
Robert L. Hartman, Chief Systems Engineer, United States Air Force.
Bruce Tremblay, Systems Group Leader, Headquarters, Aeronautical Systems Division (AFSC), Wright Patterson Air Force Base.
General Accounting Office (GAO) investigators Richard W. Gutmann, Guy A. Best, Stanley R. Eibetz, Jerome P. Pederson, and Steven Haycock. The GAO is the auditing arm of Congress, and thus investigated the allegations against the B.F. Goodrich Company, and documented their findings in GAO Report B167023, "Review of the Qualification Testing of Brakes For the A7D Aircraft."
R.G. Jeter, vice-president and general counsel, and secretary of the B.F. Goodrich Co., Akron, Ohio. Testified on behalf of Goodrich headquarters at the August 13, 1969 Congressional Hearing.
June 18 - Goodrich receives Purchase Order P-237138 (for $69,417) from LTV Aerospace Corporation. LTV orders 202 four-rotor brake assemblies from B.F. Goodrich for the new Air Force A7D light attack aircraft LTV is contracted to build for the Air Force.
LTV sets the last two weeks of June 1968 aside for flight testing of the B.F. Goodrich brake assemblies. Goodrich must qualify the brake for testing prior to flight test commencement.
June - B.F. Goodrich engineer, Searle Lawson, builds and tests braking prototypes. All tests fail crucial temperature tests.
April 4 - Thirteenth attempt to qualify the four-rotor brake begins. No longer any pretense of qualifying the brake to military specifications. The brake is "nursed" through the required 50 simulated stops, with fans set up to provide special cooling for the brake.
April 11 - Vandivier gets involved. Vandivier, in looking over raw data from the A7D brake tests, observes that many irregularities in testing methods were noted in the test logs. Vandivier queries Lawson and discovers that Lawson was instructed to deliberately miscalibrate tests, thereby ensuring the four-rotor brake qualifies to the letter of the government specification.
May 2 - Fourteenth and final attempt to qualify the brake begins. Lawson is told by his superiors, Robert L. Sink and Russell Van Horn, to qualify the brake, "no matter what."
late May - Vandivier refuses to write a falsified qualification report, and is backed up by his immediate supervisor, Ralph Gretzinger.
Despite protests, graphic portion of Qualification Report Q6031 is completed by Vandivier and Lawson (taking approximately one month).
Chief Engineer Bud Sunderman informs Gretzinger that the engineering section has no time to write the qualification report, so the Technical Services section must. Vandivier is ordered to write the report. He does so, despite the fact that he knows it is a falsified report.
late May - A few days later Lawson returns from a conference in Dallas with LTV and the Air Force, where the Air Force officials rescind their approval of Qualification Report Q-6031 and demand to see the raw data from the B.F. Goodrich testing laboratory. Vandivier tells Lawson that his attorney has advised him that both he and Lawson are guilty of conspiracy. Lawson asks Vandivier to see his attorney, and one week later Lawson is introduced to FBI agent Hathaway.
June 5 - Qualification Report Q-6031 officially published by B.F. Goodrich and delivered to LTV and the Air Force.
June 12 - Flight tests begin at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Lawson is present at the tests, and returns two weeks later with reports on testing incidents caused by failure of the Goodrich brake.
late June - On hearing Lawson's story about danger to the pilot resulting from the faulty brake, Vandivier sees his attorney, who advises Vandivier that both he and Lawson might be considered part of a conspiracy to defraud the government.
early July - Vandivier's attorney takes him to Dayton, Ohio to meet with FBI agent Joseph Hathaway, who advises Vandivier not to discuss his story, and assures Vandivier that he will forward the information to his superiors in Washington.
July 27 - Saturday morning conference held between Vandivier, Lawson, Sink, and Warren to discuss strategies for telling LTV about the differences in "engineering" interpretation of the test results found in Qualification Report Q-6031. Sink cautions Vandivier that this is not lying; rather, it is a case of engineering "rationalization," or judgment. During the meeting, 43 discrepancies were noted. Sink deems only 3 of these worth mentioning to LTV.
August - Visits between LTV and B.F. Goodrich engineering personnel.
September - Unbeknownst to Vandivier, a five-rotor brake was being designed and tested, at no additional cost to either LTV or the Air Force, as a replacement to the faulty four-rotor brake.
October 11: - Lawson resigns his position at Goodrich, securing employment at LTV.
October 18 - Vandivier resigns from Goodrich, making his effective date November 1. His letter contains numerous accusations of ethical misconduct at the Troy Plant over the past six months.
October 25 - Sunderman calls Vandivier in and dismisses him immediately for disloyalty to Goodrich. Sunderman asks Vandivier if he will take further action. Vandivier says, "Yes." Sunderman responds, "Suit yourself."
October 27 - B.F. Goodrich recalls Qualification Report Q-6031 and the four-rotor brake, and announces it will replace the brake with a new, improved, five-rotor brake, at no cost to LTV.
May 13 - Senator Proxmire requests GAO to investigate B.F. Goodrich's Qualification Report Q-6031 testing procedures.
August 13 - Four-hour Congressional hearing, chaired by Senator Proxmire, held before the Subcommittee on Economy in Government to determine: (1) the accuracy of B.F. Goodrich's reported qualification test results; (2) the effect the defective brakes had on the test pilot's safety; (3) the identification of additional costs, if any, incurred by the Government to obtain an acceptable brake; and (4) the responsibilities of the Government, including Air Force actions, in the qualification testing.
August 14 - Department of Defense announces changes in inspection, testing, and reporting procedures.
Ethical Issues of the Case
1) Was this a clear-cut case of ethical wrongdoing? If so, what were the wrong(s), and did they justify whistle-blowing? What are the responsibilities of the whistle-blower?
2) How did events escalate such that the only recourse was whistle-blowing? What causal forces spurred Vandivier to action? What personal, social, economic, and political considerations were involved at the time? What roles did failed technological innovation, poor communications and erroneous qualification testing procedures play? And could whistle-blowing have been avoided?
3) What procedures can individuals/engineering societies/businesses/government put in place to ensure whistle-blowing is not the end result?