The Customer is Always Right

In the first chapters of this chronicle I have described our stay in the Niederrhein region. I was excited about  Glanzstoff, its industrial character, the young team of laboratory assistants and our efficient work. I loved the somewhat melancholic landscape and the red brick houses of the villages, the straightforward  open-minded joyful people and the  trips across the Netherlands border to Venlo, Sittard and Roermond . But considering the long-term aspects the perspective for the professional evolution of a physicist in a company, dominated by chemists, was not clear. Moreover we felt a little constricted by the ghetto in which the Glanzstoff management people lived.  So finally we decided to quit Glanzstoff and the Oberbruch region for a new challenge.

At that time I found an interesting offer of a rather small privately owned company, Buck, at Bad Reichenhall, in the Bavarian Alps near the border to Austria. They were looking for executives managing projects for the German Defence Ministry. I should explain that in the first years of my professional activity I had no clearly defined plan to build a professional career. I was convinced of my scientific technical capacities and skills  and I had the feeling that with my wide education as physicist there was no challenge that I could not meet. I was guided by my interest to face new challenges in new organizations with new people. And in the case of Buck life near Salzburg, one of the most famous cities of old Europe was extremely attractive. So we crossed Germany from the Netherland’s to the Austrian border.

The Buck research unit was situated in Fronau a very small village of only some houses offering enough space for secret military projects. Fronau was embedded in the marvelous Alpine Area with blossoming meadows, cool woods  and picturesque mountains. A special highlight was the military training ground Reiteralpe, a table mount about 1700 m high where an area was reserved to the German army and where Buck could test its developed products. After a dizzying ride with the cable car we arrived at the top station of the Reiteralm and there was still a 30 minutes walk to the mountain lodge. The walk on the rocky paths to the lodge was a unique event. In the crisp clear air there was no other sound than the birds singing. Between the mountain pines colourful meadows extended, meadows full of columbines, alpine roses and different kinds of gentian, flowers only existing in the mountains. The lodge was a small cottage for final preparation of the projectiles for the launch and where some people could spend the night.

My first project was to develop projectiles to deviate missiles equipped with infrared seekers. In simple words the projectile was a small rocket which after explosion set free hundreds of flaming flares forming an extended object of infrared radiation.  Such defense weapons could be used for example by a  fighter jet attacked by a missile locked on the target by a infrared tracer. The rocket and its propulsion system were standard. The object of development was the heat emitting cloud. But the standard rocket defined by the launcher system was rather small and the space available for about 1000 flares only roughly 5000 cm3. A propellant charge shot the rocket in a height of about 100 m where an axial igniter destructor charge dispersed and ignited the flare cloud .The flares were circular sector shaped and consisted of a combustible paste on a carrier foil. The specification was to deviate the missiles equipped with a infrared seeker by a heat cloud of a certain minimum intensity burning  a certain minimum time.

For the first time I learned the stringent execution of the different phases of a technical project:  concept, definition, development and production. The results of these different project stages were tested on the military training grounds of the German Bundeswehr all over Germany. The concept tests were done on the training ground on nearby Reiteralm. As the launching section of the projectile was fixed by the compatibility with the existing launcher, these first trials concentrated on the expelling and ignition of the flares. We tested two different kind of flares, the first type with phosphorus as combustible material, the second type consisted of flares coated with metal powder layers like boron powder for example. The concept testing was nothing but perfect, from the projectile launching, over the explosive disassembly, the quantitative ignition of the flares until the formation of the heat cloud. For preparation and organization of the test I had the support of an excellent mechanic, Baumgartner, a very talented young man.  There was only one feature which was not entirely complying with the specifications. It was easy to set a phosphorus flare on fire, but unfortunately it  burnt also very fast, so  the burning time of the flares was too short. Therefore  the main goal for the development phase was to obtain a longer burning time complying with the specifications .

After the successful test I was nominated head of the physics project department. These tests were not only a welcome training for me to organize a project, but also the occasion for a first profound contact with the customer. For Buck there was only one customer the German Armed Forces, the Bundeswehr. The Bundeswehrbeschaffungsamt (BWB) in Koblenz was in charge of the defense procurement including the  development and  and tests in cooperation with external firms as Buck. So the BWB official was a very influential man and pampered by the special care and attention of Buck’s top management and commercial people. I met this person for the first time at the launch test of the concept phase. I was naively not aware that the technical success was only a necessary condition to convince and overwhelmed by the flawless test results I did not devote the appropriate time to him, which he could expect as the single customer. During future project progress I always had a hard time to establish a good working relation with him. It was a first lesson for me that technical expertise is not enough to succeed in the professional career.