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Engineer follows path to education, success

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- Dr. Nelson Forster readies a bearing test rig for measurement. Nelson, who works for the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, holds five patents. He hopes more young people will follow in his footsteps as the Air Force faces a critical shortage of scientists and engineers.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Michael Kelly)

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- Dr. Nelson Forster readies a bearing test rig for measurement. Nelson, who works for the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, holds five patents. He hopes more young people will follow in his footsteps as the Air Force faces a critical shortage of scientists and engineers. (U.S. Air Force photo by Michael Kelly)

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFPN) -- More than 25 years ago he set off on the path of opportunity he imagined lay before him in the Air Force's scientific and engineering communities. Today, with doctorate, master's and bachelor's degrees hanging on his wall, five patents to his credit and four more patents pending, Dr. Nelson Forster is as humble as he is accomplished.

Nelson, who got his start in the research business as a Sinclair Community College cooperative education student in 1978, only hopes that more young people will follow in his footsteps as the Air Force faces a critical shortage of scientists and engineers.

"I wanted to get a job as a draftsman, but one thing led to another, and I just followed where that path led me," said the senior mechanical engineer.

Fortunately for the Air Force Research Laboratory here, that path brought him to the propulsion directorate where he worked as a young engineering technician conducting experimental tests on lubricants and gas turbine engine mechanical systems.

"The Air Force is a great place for opportunity," said Forster. "I simply took advantage of the opportunities available to me at the time."

Opportunities, he explained, that included all the education he was interested in receiving and the freedom to experiment and explore his own boundaries of discovery. Nelson has also attended Wright State University and the University of Dayton. Along the way, Nelson racked up the coursework necessary to complete his undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees, primarily going to school at night.

"Essentially I went to school at night from the time I was 20 until I was 40," he said. "It took a long time, and there weren't a lot of breaks along the way, but the opportunities here in the lab were tremendous."

Two of those opportunities were going for Air Force-funded long-term, full-time training.

"The Air Force sent me to finish my senior year at Wright State (from) 1983 to (1984), and again (from) 1992 to (1993) to complete the course work for my (doctorate). There aren't many outside organizations that provide that kind of opportunity to their employees," he said.

A quick look at his resume, reveals Forster did not just follow the opportunities as much as he lassoed them, hog-tied them and branded them like some mad cowboy scientist. His list of successes, awards and accomplishments fill multiple pages, yet despite the honors, Forster retains a certain amount of pure wonder at his ability to push the envelope of discovery.

"The opportunities here in the laboratory at Wright-Pat are better than any where else I'm aware of, in industry or academia," he said. "I like every aspect of this work."

His enthusiasm is evident in his work.

He is considered the Defense Department's leading expert in the development of all types of mechanical and lubrications systems hardware and acts as the lead engineer for the research and development of these systems in gas turbine engines, said Dr. Alan Garscadden, the propulsion directorate's chief scientist.

He is also one of only a handful of Air Force engineers to receive the Harold Brown Award -- the highest Air Force award for applying engineering science to a field related problem. His work developing corrosion-resistant materials for engine mechanical systems was noted by former Secretary of the Air Force and Secretary of Defense Harold Brown.

Bearing corrosion is the leading cause of bearing rejection and failure in military engines, and Forster's work laid the cornerstone to solving this costly problem.

"One of his most significant accomplishments is his work leading the discovery, development and deployment of a process to manufacture 'carbon-carbon' bearing cages in advanced turbine engines, air vehicles and missiles," said Garscadden. "This new material and his use of it in engine-bearing cages far exceed current engine operational capabilities. These cages, to which he holds the patent, are light, generate less heat, provide low friction and exhibit essentially no wear compared to traditional metal-bearing cages that melt, char, burn or seize under similar conditions."

Development of these high-speed bearings has been a research objective for more than 40 years. The breakthrough promises to lighten engine weight, improve engine performance and reduce the engine cost, Garscadden said. Testing of these carbon-carbon cages also indicates they can extend the life of engine bearing cages up to 10 times.

Besides providing support to the warfighter, Forster believes the payoff of his work is both professional and personal.

"One of the most rewarding parts of my job is having the ability to change the outcome of experiments and see them end up in a successful product," he explained. "We're developing critical core technologies that are already distributed among many engine companies."

But perhaps just as important to Forster as creating new technologies that support America's warfighters is the need to develop the next generation of scientists and engineers to carry on the work he has begun.

"We definitely need young engineers, and we need to start training the next generation," he said. "The sky is the limit for these young co-ops and even summer interns. The opportunity is there just as it was for me."

And it is an opportunity that Air Force Materiel Command officials believe needs to be exploited if the command is going to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Polly Sweet, AFMC's personnel management and workforce shaping chief, said in the next five to seven years the command, which employs the lion's share of Air Force scientists and engineers, will need to recruit more than 3,000 civilian engineers to keep America's warfighters on the cutting edge of technology.

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