Dr. John Coutinho

Dr. John Coutinho

Aerospace Engineer

Dr. John Coutinho was an Aeronautical Engineer with specialties in designing structures and stress analysis. He was educated at the University of Berlin in Germany, a contemporary of Dr. Wernher von Braun (rocket technology). In 1935, he spent the summer working at the Maybach Motor Company, assembling engines for the Zeppelin Airships. He spent his lunch hours walking through the hangar as they were completing work on the newest airship, the Hindenburg.

His studies were interrupted when he received a telegram from his father informing him that his mother was very sick, and he should come home. He left Berlin in April 1938 to return to Washington D.C. As his mother was recovering, John decided to find a job. He met Bill Schwendler, Chief Engineer of Grumman Aircraft Engineering Company who offered him a position as the 27th engineer at Grumman. In 1939, his first job was calculating the wing stress loads for all flight conditions of the F4F Wildcat Navy fighter.

In 1942, the TBF Avenger torpedo bomber, was designed to launch a torpedo at a ship while flying at 150 knots and escape in a 3-gee pullout. The first squadron of 17 Avengers attacked the Japanese fleet in the Pacific. The planes flew in on a straight run at 150 knots to launch their torpedo’s, intending to escape in a 3-gee pullout. All 17 aircraft were shot down.

The Navy asked Grumman what would be required to modify the Avenger for a 6-gee pullout at 300 knots. John had designed the wing attach fittings using torsion-bending formulas he learned in Berlin (unknown in America). His testing resulted in the wing failure at 6.7-gees. John showed the Navy his test results and the Navy bought 20,000 Avengers. One Avenger pilot was George H. W. Bush!

After the war, Leroy Grumman was concerned how the introduction of new powerful jet engines would affect aircraft flight control systems (rudders, flaps etc.) The flight controls, on piston aircraft, are operated by the pilot’s hands and feet pushing and pulling on control wheels and foot pedals. When jet engines are installed, the speeds and loads increase exponentially, and a pilot needs a power assisted flight control system using hydraulics (like power brakes and power steering on a car). What happens if a part in the system fails? Is there a backup? John was tasked with developing a system to assure safety called “Failure Effects Analysis” which analyzes each part, failure modes and its backup. He presented it to The New York Academy of Sciences and the Flight Safety Foundation. This started his career as a Reliability Engineer. Now called Failure Mode, Effects and Critically Analysis (FMECA).  He was the Reliability Director for the Lunar Module project at Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corp.

His book, Advanced Systems Development Management, was used as a textbook for reliability courses he taught at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. (This book was also translated into Russian.) His discussions with the NASA leaders was instrumental in Grumman’s selection to design and build the Lunar Module in November 1962. NASA recognized that Grumman had the only viable Reliability Program that they could trust.

John spent several years visiting Grumman’s LM suppliers (150 subcontractors and 3000 suppliers) to ensure their Reliability Programs met his requirements. When he visited a supplier, he would request a drawing of any small part they chose. The company would scramble to find the drawing. This was John’s test to see how quickly the company could react. He would then ask to meet the engineer who approved the drawing. When the engineer showed up, John asked how he controlled the weight of the part because the LM was restricted to 28,000 pounds. One pound on the LM required 800 pounds of fuel to reach space. Then he was asked to give a tour of all the stations on the part manufacturing routing card. This process always created quite a stir, but he could evaluate a company based on their processes.

John was very proud that his life focus on Reliability was a key factor to the success of many different aircraft programs and ultimately, landing astronauts on the moon and bring them home safely.