Flying high

From flipping burgers to working with the innovators of tomorrow.

Bart Barthelemy is an advocate for collaborative innovation. — Eunki Seonwoo

Bart Barthelemy, the founding director of the Ohio-based Wright Brothers Institute, has always had a fascination with aircraft and innovation. He served in the U.S. Air Force, was the national director of the National Aerospace Plane Program, and is an author of several books about leadership and innovation. However, this New Bedford–raised man’s journey began by flipping burgers in Oak Bluffs during his teen summer months. 

“I got a job on the Island at one of the original hamburger joints right on Circuit [Avenue] in Oak Bluffs,” Barthelemy said. “I had a great time. I stayed the whole summer, and that was exciting to a 15-year-old boy, you know?” 

Barthelemy told The Times he loved the Vineyard from his summers on the Island. From there, he attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to earn his degree in chemical engineering. However, he decided to join the Air Force around 1958, the earlier years of the Vietnam War. “I thought I better join because otherwise I’d be drafted into goodness knows where,” Barthelemy said. He was able to graduate from MIT, and was stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. 

Barthelemy set roots in Dayton, earning a master’s degree in nuclear engineering from Ohio State University. He visits Martha’s Vineyard two to three times per year. He also earned a Ph.D. in nuclear physics and mechanical engineering from Ohio State for his job as a rocket scientist. 

“I actually did a lot of work in the early days of NASA, when we were putting people on the moon and all of that,” Barthelemy said. “But I was Air Force, and one of the big programs I had was developing an airplane that would go to the moon.”

This was the National Aerospace Plane Program, which began under former President Ronald Reagan, with the idea of a plane that could travel 25 times faster than the speed of sound and into space. An example Reagan used for a commercial route was traveling from Washington, D.C., to Tokyo, Japan, in a couple of hours.

“He called it the ‘Orient Express,’ and that was not the right term, but when a president calls it that, you just say, ‘Yes, sir,’” Barthelemy said. 

By the time the program began, the U.S. had already set itself apart by completing the first manned mission to the moon in 1969. Barthelemy also said the aerodynamics made developing the plane more difficult than the moon mission, in certain aspects. The project aircraft, called the Rockwell X-30, was canceled in 1993. Barthelemy said he had a “great time” during the five years he worked on the plane, meeting many other rocket scientists and astronauts. He even got to fly in a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird “at three-and-a-half times the speed of sound.” 

“That was probably the peak of my career,” Barthelemy said about working on the X-30. “I was a rocket scientist and a nuclear scientist for most of my career, but that was pretty special.”

After serving in the Air Force, Barthelemy has also acted as a consultant for various aerospace companies and federal government organizations such as Boeing and the Air Force Research Laboratory. His most active role now is with the Wright Brothers Institute, which helps the Air Force and other companies with innovation. In particular, Barthelemy has an interest in collaborative innovation, which he describes as a process in which people from varying backgrounds come together to bounce ideas off one another. Barthelemy also wrote a book called “Collaborative Innovation” in 2020, which was one of the factors that led Vineyard FutureWorks co-founder Bob Johnston to reach out and connect with him.

“Bob and I are involved in many things around collaborative innovation,” Barthelemy said. Some of these efforts include having the Imagine Corps program bring together students from Dayton, Martha’s Vineyard, and the Virgin Islands, and ask them to “look into the future.” Another was Barthelemy’s recent visit to the Vineyard, where he met some of the Island’s leaders, like Dukes County Commissioner Tristan Israel, to discuss issues relating to Island communities. 

Barthelemy said he has also seen a shift in young people’s aspirations. During his generation, young people had an enthusiasm for creating physical things, such as airplanes, alongside a mixture of patriotism to help the U.S. against its Cold War rival, the Soviet Union. This national enthusiasm only increased when the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit in 1957. Barthelemy never saw combat while in the Air Force, but he contributed to the patriotic zeal through his research. 

“There was an excitement about being in airplanes and in space, and we hadn’t landed on the moon yet,” Barthelemy said. He reminisced about how President John F. Kennedy led a “charismatic” call for people to contribute to the advancement of the U.S., which lit a fire in Barthelemy and his peers. 

These days, young people are more interested in the digital realm, such as creating apps. However, there are also other changes. When Barthelemy attended MIT, it was all men. Now, around half of the MIT student population is women. Barthelemy also said recruiting young people into the Air Force, which he occasionally goes back to MIT to pitch to the students, has become harder. 

This sense of change is also present at the Wright Brothers Institute, where research into artificial intelligence has been added to its repertoire. One field Barthelemy highlighted being looked at was virtual reality, which he thinks will see increased educational use in the near future. 

“Let’s say you had a course on changing tires, like a vocational [course]. You have a person in the virtual world changing tires that you can couple with, and he or she can teach you like a teacher would,” Barthelemy said. “But the teacher is live, and you’re virtual, and in the middle is you, the teacher, and a fake mechanic that is showing you those ropes. Much more effective than trying to do it yourself or going to school and trying to do it, and a lot less space.”

Barthelemy said the more technologically advanced teaching styles seem to capture the attention of today’s youth. 

“They’re only 15 years old, 16, but they know what they want,” he said. “Of course, they’re probably not as worried about money as we are as adults.”

The varying experiences and technological speeds of old and young people can blend together to make brighter futures, according to Barthelemy.

“If I work with a 20-year-old, I learn so much. I think the 20-year-old probably thinks he’s going to learn from me, but actually, I’m learning a heck of a lot from him,” Barthelemy said. “Hopefully, it’s mutual.”