When John Stafford was growing up in Altoona, Pa., in the 1960s, a family friend invited him to help fix up a 1957 MG convertible. Stafford threw himself into the project, assembling a complete wiring harness for the car by hand. Not bad for a 13-year-old.
In gratitude, the car’s owner allowed his young assistant to drive the reconditioned roadster on local backcountry roads, and Stafford soon decided he wanted to make his living designing and driving race cars. Like more than a few young men coming of age at the time, he imagined himself as the next Bruce McLaren, the famed New Zealander who was then building and racing Formula One cars.
No, this isn’t one of those straightforward stories about a wunderkind who goes on to realize his adolescent dreams by dint of his single-minded focus. There’s nothing straightforward about Stafford’s career path, which has more twists and turns than the track at Le Mans.
WHAT HE DOES
Leads avionics development
where he does It
White Salmon, Wash.
Develops UAVs by strapping them to cars, flying them indoors—and yes, with conventional flight tests.
Aerovel’s vehicle mimics the experimental "tailsitter" fighters of the 1950s, which the U.S. Navy had hoped to deploy on ordinary naval vessels.
For example, right now, Stafford is helping to construct a composite-body hybrid-electric vehicle. It’s as sophisticated as any Formula One racer, but it’s not a car—it’s an unmanned aerial vehicle that takes off and lands like a helicopter but otherwise flies like a plane. And it’s no big deal that the thing can’t burn rubber: Stafford long ago outgrew his ambitions to become a professional race-car driver and designer, when he switched his major at college from mechanical to electrical engineering. But in 1977—just two courses shy of an EE degree—he quit.
"I got tired of being in school," says Stafford. "People were offering me jobs, and I had a pretty independent outlook on the world, and I just thought that [a bachelor’s degree] didn’t matter."
As it turns out, it didn’t. For the past 35 years, Stafford has done both mechanical and electrical engineering in a variety of industries. Along the way, he’s developed a fondness for small, informal companies, where managerial tasks are few and the focus is on solving technical problems with your own two hands.
Stafford’s current employer, Aerovel Corp., is so laid back that its 10 or so employees work out of what was until recently the home of one of the company’s two founders, located near White Salmon, Wash. Nestled next to a private airfield in the hills above the scenic Columbia River Gorge, which straddles the border between Oregon and Washington, the spacious former residence includes two separate two-car garages and a large sunken living room, now used as a general staging area. A broken-down single-engine plane rests in a nearby barn. An aging dog serves as receptionist of sorts, barking to announce the arrival of visitors.
From what used to be a back bedroom, Stafford leads the company’s avionics design team, although he does mechanical work as well, sometimes using the well-equipped machine shop in his home. "We don’t really have titles," says Stafford, which is fitting given the scope of problems he’s handed. "I thought my first project in the door would be to design avionics, yet I spent most of the first three months testing rotor blades and working on a transmission to drive them," he says.
Aerovel’s UAV, the Flexrotor, looks more or less like a small conventional plane, but it sure doesn’t fly like one. It lifts off vertically using the oversized prop on its nose and two small, motor-driven props on its wingtips to balance the counterrotation. Once airborne, the 3-meter-wingspan flier tips over and flies horizontally, supported by its slender wings. Stafford and his colleagues kicked off their testing of the craft by strapping it to the top of a Jeep—"a poor man’s wind tunnel," as he calls it. They’re now flight-testing the design.