A good example of ordinary people doing extraordinary things is Mel Melzian. Born to an itinerant minister in Minnesota in 1912, Mel was fascinated by airplanes. When his father moved to Southern California, Mel got an after school job as a grease monkey at what later became John Wayne Airport in Orange County. There in 1928 he met Charles Lindberg, the famous pilot, and there he got his pilot’s license at age 16.
Mel worked his way through junior college, then a four year college and finally through graduate school, getting a masters degree in mechanical engineering. He also taught in several colleges along the way.
He married an artist, Lannea Spink, about 1937.
In 1940, by accident, Mel got a job with Douglas Aircraft. They had a huge contract from the government to make the A-20 attack planes and were not set up for large scale production. Mel got the factory going for them. Bored, Mel moved on to Lockheed Aircraft where he increased production from four P-38 planes a day to sixteen per day. He was beginning to have a substantial impact on the war effort.
There was a new development at Caltech in Pasadena, California. They had stopped teaching in 1942 and began making aircraft ordinance rockets. By 1943 they needed design help and all kinds of other training assistance.
Mel joined Caltech to work on the rocket program. He and Lannea became good friends with several of the scientists and their wives for the rest of their lives. Mel designed hangers that held rockets under the wings of aircraft. Since he was a pilot, he became the den mother of the military pilots assigned to Caltech. He also flew around the country, telling generals what Caltech rockets could do and he trained pilots to aim and fire them.
Caltech founded and built China Lake, the Naval training facility, so Mel spent much if his time fighting the raw, wild desert. Then a man he had known at the University of Minnesota, Fred Hovde (later the president of Purdue), arranged for Mel to become an “expert consultant” to the War Department. Mel began traveling to his office in the Pentagon.
The War Department made Mel a colonel in the army and sent him to the fighting area in Germany as the war in Europe came to a close. With a lieutenant, a sergeant, and a jeep, Mel toured the devastated war zone, investigated German rocket launching sites and assisted fighter pilots with Caltech rockets. He made a report to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and then became a civilian once more.
Helping air force base personnel with their rocket program as they prepared to invade Japan and China, Mel continued his more normal tasks for Caltech. Then the atom bomb exploded and Japan surrendered.
The war was over and Mel became just another guy looking for work.
Overqualified for most tasks, Mel went to work in the missile field and spent the rest of his career productively engaged, but never at the fevered pitch and at the high level he experienced during WWII.
Mel died in Southern California in 1995 at the age eighty-three