My First Job – Shooting Chickens Out of a Gun
Yep, you read that correctly. My first job was shooting chickens out of a gun. Not shooting chickens with a gun.
Because my first job was so unordinary (the stuff of urban legends), it made me think,
How important is your first job?
It may be the only place you’ll ever work or the first stepping stone of your career. Either way, your first job is the training ground for the rest of your working life.
The Story of the Chicken Gun
Fresh out of engineering school I went to work at a very large (and secret) government test facility in Tennessee. Located within this massive compound, there are more than 50 test areas including aerodynamic and propulsion wind tunnels, environmental chambers, ballistic ranges and rocket engine test cells. And the Chicken Gun.
It’s a pretty cool place, out in the middle of nowhere. On purpose.
I didn’t know how cool this job really was, until I saw an episode of MythBusters, where the guys were trying to find out if launching a chicken out of gun is destructive.
Yes, yes, it is.
Google the Chicken Gun and you’ll find all kinds of urban legends. Most of what you read is inaccurate.
Here’s the real story.
People like to share funny stories about their job. But for me, the funny story was my first job.
The Chicken Gun is meant to simulate a bird strike and the resulting damage to the aircraft windshield.
My job was to pass or fail windshields, primarily on fighter jets.
The test is performed by placing the front portion of the plane in the test house, a 3-sided
building shed. The plane is placed so that the windshield faces the open side of the building.
The bird is launched from a massive gun (approximately the size of 3 school buses), housed in a separate enclosure. As the bird impacts the windshield, the amount of deformity on the windshield is measured. If the windshield cracks or breaks, the windshield automatically fails. If, on inspection, there is no apparent sign of damage to the windshield, the data is reviewed. Each windshield has a specified deformation limit that it can not surpass.
One of my responsibilities was to determine the accurate placement of strain gauges on the windshield. The strain gauges measure the amount of deformity that occurs when the bird makes impact.
Don’t Believe Everything You Read on the Internet
On the internet, there are tales of people trying to launch frozen chickens out of a gun. This creates 2 problems:
Frozen chickens hurtling through the air at the speed of sound (Mach 1) are incredibly destructive.
Contrary to popular belief on the internet, frozen flying birds are not a natural occurrence.
Since the goal is to simulate a bird strike as accurately as possible, recently deceased chickens are the next best thing to live birds.
I’m sure that at some point to create the most realistic scenario, someone tried to stuff a live chicken down the barrel of the gun.
I pity the fool that had that job. No doubt, the angry chicken won that battle and the human still has the scratches to prove it.
For testing at our facility, the chickens were recently deceased.
There was a large gas barrel just outside the building. Shortly before the launch was to take place, the unlucky bird was placed in the barrel and gas was pumped in to asphyxiate the bird.
Carefully, the barrel lid was removed. Standing upwind of course.
Because the weight of the bird must be within a specified tolerance, it was often necessary to make alterations to the bird. Think cutting off various chicken parts.
The bird was then put into a plastic bag, which looked like a specialty Ziploc bag. Since this was a government facility, each Ziploc bag probably cost thousands of dollars.
The bag was positioned into a lightweight sabot, made of balsa wood, and
carefully placed shoved down the barrel of the gun.
The gun was prepped, the building was cleared, the countdown started, the gun fired, and that bird flew like lightning. Well, at least thunder, since we’re talking about the speed of sound.
Most of the windshields I inspected after the tests appeared to have no damage.
Unless you count the large blood splatter on the windshield. Normally there was blood splatter on the windshield and a large spot on the wall or ceiling where the bird was deflected after the initial impact on the windshield.
Of course, there was nothing left of the chicken. And I mean nothing.
When you entered the shed after the launch, there were millions of tiny white particles seemingly suspended in the air. It reminded me of the nuclear fallout I had seen depicted in the movies. There were so many particles flying about, it was surreal.
Then there was the smell. The unmistakable aroma of fried chicken.
Once the test was finished, the data was collected, as well as the footage from the slow motion cameras placed in the cockpit.
After every bird launch, I would take the footage down to the basement where all the other engineers would gather to watch the show. There was this one engineer, who was a master of cinematography. He added music and special effects to the footage.
As the blob hurtled toward the plane, the chicken would regain its shape. As it flew, you could see the wings and feet spreading apart, just before impact.
With the added special effects and music, it was quite a movie.
How Important is Your First Job?
Was launching chickens out of a gun the job I dreamed about when I was a kid? No.
Did I make a lot of money launching chickens? No. Less than $30K per year.
Was I able to parlay my first job into something better? Yes. Because I learned a lot from that first job.
That first job was much more valuable to me than just the money.
I learned what I didn’t want to do for the rest of my life.
I learned how to work on a team.
I learned that all honest work is good work.
I learned to live on a little and save a lot. Probably the most important lesson of all.
And the lasting impression my first job made on me?
Let’s just say, I don’t eat chicken.