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ODU Graduate Recalls Unique Experience of Designing and Building Armored Vehicles

If you're an engineer, it doesn't get much cooler than this.

Bobby Heninger, a 1977 graduate in electrical engineering technology from Old Dominion University's Batten College of Engineering and Technology, was at the mall with his family, preparing for a post-retirement family trip to Hawaii. His cell phone rang.

It was an official from private military subcontractor Blackwater, now Xe Services. The man on the phone had received Heninger's name from former colleagues at Ford and Volvo, the latter from which Heninger had just retired after 25 years.

Here was the unexpected, unorthodox pitch:

"How'd you like to design a high-speed, super-safe armored vehicle from the ground up?"

Heninger answered the question with a question: "Do I have to wear a tie?"

"No."

"OK, I'll come in for an interview."

A few months later, after negotiations back and forth and trips to Blackwater's top-secret military test site in eastern North Carolina, Heninger found himself in charge of a team of 12. Their job was to produce the "Grizzly," an eight- or 10-passenger armored vehicle capable of driving at high speeds through a variety of terrain, and withstand blasts from improvised explosive devices.

"It was quite an experience," said Heninger, whose team was disbanded 26 months ago, after Blackwater tried and failed to get a U.S. government contract to produce armored vehicles. He's now the director of manufacturing at Wartsila, a military subcontractor in Chesapeake, remanufacturing high-tech items such as propellers for U.S. Navy ships and submarines.

"It was a little bit before its time, because our government didn't think like that," Heninger said, noting that the Department of Defense (DOD) was still using the same modular design for its armored personnel vehicles. The technology the DOD uses is gradually evolving, so that "you see bits and pieces of what we tried to do show up in other people's stuff," Heninger said.

Ultimately, the team - which included many of Heninger's former co-workers from Ford and Volvo - produced 39 of the vehicles, six of which are in operation around the world.

Heninger said his experience at Old Dominion in the 1970s, where his curriculum mandated that he take courses from other disciplines, and where faculty members encouraged cross-collaboration, has been invaluable throughout his career, including when set about making the armored vehicle.

"The different classes engineering students have to take discipline them to appreciate and think of all the issues that a project will have to face," Heninger said. But he thirsted for more tools to use in his career.

"So while my friends took easy classes for electives, I took engineering classes. This made me have to open my mind to a different set of problems when doing a project," Heninger said. "To be a good engineer you must be open and design for change. The different classes in the various disciplines helped that.

"Part of the education I got was you have to be flexible - there's no right or wrong way to get places, but you have to know who you're dealing with."

Heninger also learned those skills with his summer collegiate job - selling ladies' shoes in downtown Norfolk, a job that he said gave him "the gift of gab." In fact, Heninger said he'd purposefully get a less-than-stellar job every summer while attending ODU, "to remind myself why I go to school. It always was a reminder of why you wanted to go back to college, to do what you're doing. It was a reminder that it was worth it."

Hired by Ford out of school, Heninger ended up doing a variety of engineering jobs there and then for Volvo. At the Volvo plant he helped produce "bend in the middle" passenger buses, an experience that proved invaluable when he started engineering the Grizzly. The buses needed to meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) for roadworthiness, side and front impact standards and other federal safety requirements.

"That's where I really got my education on requirements for building a vehicle that would later become so valuable at Blackwater. Probably that was my best education of what it takes to make a vehicle," he said.

"When I started it, Blackwater was not aware that they had to meet FMVSS requirements. They thought you could build a vehicle any way you wanted."

So Heninger and his team put their vehicle prototypes through a battery of tests, to make sure their vehicle was safe. "We tested a hell of a lot. We blew up stuff all the time."

This was no city bus; the Grizzly was the type of vehicle that would operate in unsafe places in an unsettled world.

"The last thing I ever wanted to do was wake up one day and see our vehicle blown up and stopped, and the people inside dead, because that would have been a tragic failure," he said. "My vehicles weren't supposed to do that. That's what the government, the country, the parents of our service personnel and (Blackwater owner) Eric Prince mandated.

"We only get one shot at protecting these kids. This isn't like building a truck."

This article was posted on: April 29, 2011

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