AIAA Member Spotlight on Col. Charles Vono (May 18, 2020)
Col. Charles Thomas Vono
AIAA Associate Fellow
Retired, Northrop Grumman (legacy TRW) and USAF
Born in 1952, Charles Thomas Vono grew up in Wasco, a small farming town just north of Bakersfield, California. His father, Mike, had been a ball turret gunner in B-24s, flying up the Adriatic to deliver death to Nazi industry. Charlie was named after his uncle who was a gunner as well, fighting in every major naval battle of the Pacific and then on to exploring Antarctica post WWII. The battles started with assignment to the New Orleans, dry-docked in Pearl Harbor and fighting back with their guns. (See the famous WWII song, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition”). As a kid, Charlie got various jobs around Wasco where he was known as the nephew of the man who ran Vono Jewelers. (Uncle Chuck took over after Charlie’s father passed away in 1956.) Around 15, he got various jobs at farms outside of town, and then his last civilian job was selling door to door in Bakersfield. Like Dwight Yokum he has “Walked the Streets of Bakersfield”.
Althought he wasn’t exactly Merle Haggard’s “Radiator Man from Wasco”, Charlie’s maternal grandfather was the top mechanic at the Dodge Garage in Wasco. Charlie’s paternal grandparents were from Curcoli, Calabria, Italy. He had the good fortune to visit his ancestral village last July where they still remember Tommasso Vono as a “mean SOB” or words to that effect in Italian. Concetta died of the Spanish Flu in Des Moines, and Tommasso died in the Des Moines prison, leaving orphaned two sons (Mike and Chuck) and 3 daughters.
Moving along to 1969, it was “cutting over rows” with a shovel in 110-degree heat, at a farm west of Wasco Charlie remembers most clearly looking up and seeing a jet flying overhead from Edwards AFB. “I bet,” he thought “those guys have air conditioning in those cockpits”. This is somewhat akin to the answer Buck Owens gave when asked, “Why’d you get into Country Music?” “I sure as hell didn’t want to pick cotton the rest of my life!” Why join the AF? The air conditioning!
Charles graduated from the USAF Academy in 1976 with a bachelor of science degree in Astronautical Engineering with significant coursework in control theory and computer science. Charlie says he owes a lot of his academic ability to the good Sisters of Saint Francis who taught him at St. John’s Elementary School and his realization he could take on any profession to the local priest who told him he could. While at the USAF Academy, Charlie met his future wife, Juanita Williamson. They are celebrating their 44th wedding anniversary 4 June 2020. They have 3 married children and 3 grandchildren… so far. Nita is a real estate agent, Utah state fair blue-ribbon quilter (she’s sewing lots of face masks right now), and rescues turtles. Charlie’s place in southeast Ogden is a turtle sanctuary with hills, creek, and a pond.
Charlie’s first assignment in the USAF was at Beale AFB in Strategic Air Command as a KC-135 air refueling pilot supporting the worldwide reconnaissance mission of the SR-71. Charlie also has a Master of Science in Systems Management from USC. He got this during his second USAF assignment in 1982 as Inertial Upper Stage Software Systems Chief at Space Division (now Space and Missile Center) in Los Angeles back in the days of Systems Command. This degree stood him in good stead during his 25-year career with TRW and Northrop Grumman sustaining our nation’s ICBM force in Utah (1985 to 2014 with a 4 year pause in the middle). Many of his fellow sustainers possessed the same degree and applied the principles of systems engineering to management of this complex system. Charlie also has a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Utah State University, again with significant coursework in control theory. Charlie was thrilled to have his primary professor be a man who had been on the control systems design team for the Saturn V.
While he separated from the USAF at the end of his Los Angeles career, he stayed active in the USAF reserves filling various positions at Hill AFB in Utah. He was a structural engineer in F-16s, a quality control engineer (writing Hill’s first Quality Plan for competition), and manpower. Upon promotion to colonel, Charlie applied and won a full-time position on the commander’s staff at Pacific Command, a joint command responsible for 2/3rds of the Earth. Charlie was the Reserve Forces Division Chief at a time when the US was generating its first ever partial mobilization of all reserve forces after the 911 attacks.
After this assignment, in 2003, Charlie returned to his position at TRW sustaining ICBMs, except TRW had been bought by Northrop Grumman. Charlie took on various challenges at that time, including acting chief of ICBM Propulsion and Northrop Grumman manager for ICBM Guidance Systems, before retiring in 2014.
Before retiring, one of Charlie’s duties was teaching Minuteman III ICBM general familiarization to contractors and USAF personnel. In retirement, Charlie remains active in AIAA, INCOSE, and SAME and is an AIAA distinguished lecturer. He travels the country (pre-virus) giving presentations on “Refueling the SR-71 during the Cold War”, “How to Keep Complex Systems Effective for Decades”, “How ICBMs Work and Why They are Important”, and “Evans’ Flour Mill, the First Modern Factory”. Charlie loves to show how today’s world sprang from Industrial Revolution and WWII innovations. He gave a half-day class on keeping complex systems effective for decades at the 2018 INCOSE Western States Regional Conference.
Just before the virus, on 3 March, he was the keynote speaker for the 45th Dayton-Cincinnati Aerospace Sciences Symposium, where he became the first ever aerospace speaker to start his keynote leading the auditorium crowd in several verses of “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition!”.
Charlie is past chair of the Utah Engineers Council, a council of 17 engineering societies in the State of Utah that celebrate engineers week each year by declaring Utah engineer of the year and giving away 15 to 20 scholarships to undergraduate students in engineering. Charlie started the annual tradition of supporting a STEM booth at the Salt Lake City FanX comics convention, the 3rd largest in the US. Teaming with Hill AFB on this endeavor ensures amazing displays such as an F-16 cockpit for the kids and their parents to try out.
Charlie has posted his AIAA technical papers, posts, and presentations at his web site: charlesvono.com. He has ebooks on sustainment available at Amazon.com. You can find him on facebook (Charles Thomas Vono) and LinkedIn (Charles Vono).
Charlie will give an exciting and popular lecture/webinar with AIAA LA-LV “In-flight Refueling the SR-71 During the Cold War” on August 8, 2020. Please join us and enjoy!