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Marine Systems and Operations
A Slippery Slope to Engineering

Navy engineer Tony Blair’s great-grandfather was a marble designer who emigrated from Italy to work at the Vermont Marble Co., once the largest commercial producer of outcrop marble in America. In the 20th century, Proctor, Vt., was a “company town” and everybody’s livelihood was connected in some way to the production of marble products. Today, kids from the town have more career choices. For young Tony, becoming a “ski bum” was his single-minded ambition.

Tony’s mom, who was also his math teacher in high school, knew her son’s aptitudes. When he talked about spending his life on the slopes, she told him quite firmly, “You can’t.” She wanted him to continue his education, and he says, “I had to admit, no school teaches you to be a ski bum.” With some additional parental guidance and the advice of a family friend, he visited Maine Maritime Academy (MMA) on the scenic coast of Maine.

Impressed with what he saw but secretly keeping his dream alive, Blair entered the uniformed cadet program at MMA, which offers a technician degree in marine engineering operations and a five-year program in marine systems engineering. As it turned out, his adventures at the academy convinced Blair that he really is an engineer at heart.

There was the summer after his freshman year when he sailed across the Atlantic aboard the academy’s 500-foot training ship, only to break down in the middle of the ocean on the way back. “The 3-inch cast-iron rocker arm on the main diesel engine cracked, and it was pretty cool to see the effect of forces our instructors had been talking about,” he says. The next summer, Blair worked as a cooperative student aboard a high-speed catamaran that carried passengers between Bar Harbor, Maine, and Nova Scotia. On the “CAT,” he once worked a 26-hour shift after a generator problem prevented the vessel from leaving dock. After his junior year, he participated in another cruise on the big training ship, this time to Aruba and the Bahamas. On all these adventures, Blair was getting practical, hands-on experience with ship machinery and propulsion systems and seeing first hand the ocean and atmospheric forces that a marine structure contends with. Back at school, he was also taking courses in mathematics, thermodynamics, fluid dynamics, and engineering design, among others.

Before his senior year, Blair spent the summer as an intern at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division in Bethesda, Md. He was assigned to work on a future concept involving selective off-loading for sea basing. He explains: “When a friendly port is unavailable, sea basing will employ automated systems on a sea-based platform to supply a Marine Corps unit with everything from an M-1 Abrams tank to food.” The Carderock researchers told the group of young engineers: “This is a real problem that we haven’t figured out yet, and we want you to propose an answer.” Some of their ideas are being prototyped today, which is “pretty gratifying,” says Blair.

During his fifth year at MMA, Blair completed a capstone design project on tidal-power generation. Where Maine’s Bagaduce River empties into Penobscot Bay, the current reaches 6 knots, making it a potentially ideal site for a tidal-power generating facility. Working with his professor-mentor, Blair researched tidal currents and wave energy in the area and came up with a novel design for putting a turbine in the river and protecting it from the corrosive effects of salt water. This is important because the greatest tidal power is usually located in brackish water, where salt water mixes with fresh water.

Blair often found himself out on a research boat in winter, dropping current profilers and taking measurements. As a former “ski bum,” Blair wasn’t phased by the cold. “Not many people get to go on joy rides up and down the coast of Maine for school,” he says.

After receiving his B.S. in marine systems engineering and marine engineering operations in 2007 and obtaining his U.S. Coast Guard license as a third assistant engineer, Blair took a job in Carderock’s Center for Innovation in Ship Design. “The Center often uses new engineers straight out of school to come up with new designs and develop future concepts. They recognize that young people have forward-looking ideas, plus it’s a good way to practice using fundamental principles of engineering and science to execute novel ideas,” Blair notes. He also does rotations and has worked on submarine acoustics, total ship monitoring systems, and early-stage ship design, as well as projects involving the Navy’s current fleet of combatants.

After three years at Carderock, Blair enjoys life as a marine systems engineer and is able to pursue outdoor sports near the Navy laboratory on the Potomac River. But his Vermont roots run deep. “I still try to be a ski bum as much as possible,” he says.

Note:  Blair is getting ready to leave for a three-year overseas assignment as part of the Engineer and Scientist Exchange Program. He will be working at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory in England. Some of Europe’s best skiing will not be far away!

Navy engineer Tony Blair in the Rockies, “trying to be a ski bum as much as possible.”

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