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Electronic Imaging & Signal Processing

Flying through the years

Bud Weisbrod piloted his career with planes and cameras.

From oemagazine February 2003
31 February 2003, SPIE Newsroom. DOI: 10.1117/2.5200302.0007

Bud and Gladys Weisbrod at the Experimental Aircraft Museum (EAA; Oshkosh, WI). Bud is holding his hat, which is featured in an EAA museum exhibit; it has 23 years' worth of patches sewn on by Gladys.

If anyone has managed to have fun through the years, it's SPIE Fellow Bud Weisbrod. Not only has he been an active pilot for five decades, but he's also designed and used cameras in airplanes, underwater, and everywhere in between—particularly in anything moving. And he's done much of it from his home base, one of the paradise spots of the world: Hawaii.

When he was 5 years old, Weisbrod saw a bi-plane spin in at a nearby backyard in California and has been hooked on airplanes ever since. He bought a quarter share in a Piper Cub while in college and learned to fly it. He even proposed to his wife of 48 years, Gladys, in a tail-spin. "After a few seconds," Weisbrod says with a laugh, "she said 'Yes,' and later she also became a pilot . . . probably in self defense!"

A high-school valedictorian, Weisbrod received a B.S. in engineering and was snapped up immediately by Douglas Aircraft as a flight-test engineer. Within weeks he was designing a photo recorder to go in the nose of a jet fighter. According to Weisbrod, the recorder was a small instrument panel, photographed by a 35-mm movie camera that recorded things like speeds, temperatures, and fuel consumption while the aircraft went through its paces on test flights. It was here that he honed his understanding of lens angles, focal length, f/stops, and everything photographic. That first design worked and it gave him access to his real love: airplanes. Weisbrod says he hung cameras "everywhere in and on airplanes" and went on many test flights in those early years. "I set up a Cine-Theodolite and tracked the DC-8 jetliner on its very first flight from Long Beach in 1958."

Shortly thereafter, he moved to Benson/Lehner to help design and sell instrumentation cameras. It was during this time that Weisbrod invented the time stamp; something that is taken for granted in today's world of photography. PUPPET, the Precise Universal Photographic Presentation of Elapsed Time, was designed with electronics that let the user energize the proper cathodes in four Nixie bulbs, synchronized to the start time of an event—a rocket launch, an ejection seat, or an explosion—and optically print the elapsed time in milliseconds on the edge of each motion-picture frame. This made plotting the data and analyzing the film quick and accurate, even in the days before computers and plotting machines. Since solid-state devices soon replaced the Nixie tube, not many Benson/Lehner systems were built. "But the concept worked, and led to other much-improved designs," Weisbrod says.

From there, he moved to a position as chief photographic engineer of Edwards Air Force Base, then became the Photo-Optics Supervisor on Kwajalein, Marshall Islands, filming intercepts of ICBMs launched from Vandenberg AFB in California. His group documented the first ballistic missiles intercepted by defense missiles.

Following a transfer to another company division near Dallas, Texas, the Weisbrods decided they missed island life, so they moved their growing family to Hawaii to start a business "without realizing," he says with a laugh, that "there was little or no instrumentation being done there." Weisbrod's company, Pacific Instrumentation, evolved into the show-business side of movie cameras; he provided camera equipment and services through suppliers he knew from his early SPIE days.

Weisbrod designed and built a camera bracket that replaced the landing light in the nose of a twin-engine plane. "Just install the bracket, hook up the camera to the landing light wires, turn on the landing light from the cockpit, and voila, the camera runs," he says. With it, he filmed the title shots for The Muppet Movie and the TV series "From Here to Eternity," as well as United Airlines commercials, and some opening sequences for ABC Sports.

In 1974, Weisbrod was one of only a few people in the world to witness Charles Lindbergh's funeral on Maui. Lindbergh was famous for being media shy and he wasn't about to let that change just because he was gone. Weisbrod flew TV news crews to the funeral at what he thought to be an hour early, only to find the grave being filled. The crews filmed that portion, then inside the small church, and reversed the sequences for broadcast.

In December 1986, the Voyager aircraft, constructed almost entirely of lightweight graphite-honeycomb composite materials, made an unrefueled flight around the world, departing from Edwards AFB in California. The wing tips were scraped on the ground during take-off and a friend of Weisbrod's called to ask if he could intercept them when they passed Hawaii and evaluate the damage. At midnight, "we got a call that they were approaching Hawaii, so we headed east to intercept them," Weisbrod says. "Due to some confusion, we were a bit too far north, and they sneaked past us in the dark—it turns out their clearance lights had been scraped off during take-off. Within a few minutes we had found them. We helped them get out of some turbulence and talked with them, supplying a friendly voice for a while, but it was too dark to see the wings clearly enough to make a damage report. We flew with them for about four-and-a-half hours, then broke formation a little before dawn. They flew on for eight more days, landed back at Edwards AFB and set a record that can never be broken." (For more details on this portion of the Voyager flight, see page 238, Voyager, by Jaeger, Rutan, and Patton.)

Every summer, Weisbrod and his wife pick up their RV (stored in Los Angeles during the winter by long-time SPIE friend John Kiel and family) and travel the United States. They nearly always stop at SPIE headquarters. "When I visit the Bellingham headquarters," Weisbrod remembers, "I think back to the mid-'50s and remember rushing to the print shop in the afternoon [of an SPIE meeting] to pick up the programs for the meeting that night, worrying about having enough money to buy the coffee—we couldn't even afford doughnuts—and wondering what we would do next month. When I see the beautiful headquarters, the multi-million-dollar budgets, world-wide influence, and paid staff, it leaves me in awe."

When asked what the highlight of his career has been thus far, Weisbrod whittles it down to three: Being "lucky enough" to be involved in the formation of SPIE, being elected president of the first SPIE chapter in Los Angeles, and being selected a Fellow of SPIE. "SPIE literally changed my life, opened many doors that I didn't even know existed, and gave me life-long friends who I still cherish," he says.

Weisbrod can't be serious for long. With his trademark laugh, he told me about one of the names he rejected for the PUPPET time-stamp system. I know, but you'll have to find out. Ask him yourself—and get ready to share a good laugh.