Pioneers of innovation

  • Published
  • By Maj Mark Wagner
  • 22nd Contracting Squadron
Americans are innovators. We are part of a remarkable bloodline of problem-solvers, tinkerers and out-of-the-box thinkers. As Airmen, we continue this heritage by pushing the boundaries of what is possible, but I think it is important to give our inventive culture some historical context.

We all have an origin story and if you look for it, you may likely find some innovators in your lineage. My great, great, great grandfather, Phillip, was a young soldier in Germany. His experiences working closely with the Kiser motivated him to look for new opportunities abroad. One day he asked his brother to meet him on the docks in Hamburg and flip a coin: Heads – America, tails – South Africa. America won, and after a hard journey in 1894, they settled about 70 miles west of McConnell near Zenda, Kansas, with little more than $50, two shovels and a shotgun; just enough to start a farm.

Soon after that, things got innovative. Questions of what to eat, where to sleep or how to make a living were not answered for them. Their solution was creativity. They dammed creek for water and fish, broke sod for crops and built a home from local limestone. They didn’t call it innovation, it was just survival.

Across the country, hundreds of thousands of Americans were doing the same thing, taking on problems and solving them wherever they were. Mr. Levi Strauss was in San Francisco making a better pair of pants with a cotton called jean. The Wright brothers achieved their first flight in 1903, and only five years later, the first airplane would fly over Wichita. By 1925, three men named Stearman, Beach and Cessna were building airplanes on what would become McConnell AFB. Think about that: It only took 22 years from Kitty Hawk to the founding of the aerospace industry in Wichita—that’s amazing.

In our current day, one thing hasn’t changed: survival and innovation are still entwined. Today, we don’t need to bust sod, we need to bust bureaucracy. We don’t need to carve a prop from wood, we need to 3-D print jet engines. Not too long ago, a pair of jeans was an advanced material; now it’s carbon-fiber polymers. We don’t need to solve many of the basic hardships that the original pioneers did, but we do face challenges. Yesterday’s innovation success allows us to stand on the shoulders of giants and reach even higher. Our air, space and cyberspace domains are contested, and we have to step up.

We’re the Airmen of McConnell and we have the honor of serving our nation on hallowed ground. This land was tamed by pioneers who broke the ground, who gave it to pioneers who built some of the first aircraft here, who gave it to us to pioneer new ways to defend this great land. Innovation is not a buzz-word. It’s in our blood, and it’s who we are. Let’s do this.