USC Viterbi Alumnus Joe Bok Makes Howard Hughes’ Airplanes Fly Again for The Aviator
How many people do you know who have founded two companies, earned two engineering degrees from USC, played Trojan football and have shaken hands with Leonardo DiCaprio?
Meet Joe Bok. Bok’s special effect company, Aero F/X Inc., a spin-off of his Aero Telemetry Corporation, created the large-scale models of Howard Hughes’ airplanes used in Martin Scorsese’s film The Aviator. The models—including the XF-11 with a 30-foot wingspan, the H-4 Spruce Goose with a 25-foot wingspan and the 18-foot wingspan H-1 Racer—all fly in the film, and that’s where he met met stars like DiCaprio.
“My first day on set started around 5:30 a.m. I needed to inspect the runway we would fly from. The studio had bulldozed it for us the night before. As I walked along the runway, I had a chance to look at the full-size, non-flyable mockup of the H-1 Racer parked to one side.
“I was under the plane looking at the landing gear, and someone inadvertently stepped on my boot. I pulled away and stood up thinking, ‘Who could this be?’ As the person turned around, I stumbled back and nearly fainted from fright—I thought I was seeing a ghost of Howard Hughes himself.” Bok quickly collected himself, to discover he stood face to face with Leonardo DiCaprio. “He was in full makeup, coming over to get ready for his shot in the cockpit of the H-1. Since there was no one else around, he was startled to find someone under the airplane. We introduced ourselves and spoke briefly.”
The large models lend realism to the film’s crucial action scenes. “There is still something about a computer-generated shot of a flying airplane or helicopter that just looks like a cartoon,” says Bok. “Real airplanes have an asynchronous motion about them that our brains recognize as ‘real.’” Bok understood the stakes involved in his work. “We used every ounce of engineering muscle we could bring to bear on The Aviator project to make sure that each and every one of our planes flew safely and came home in one piece. There was a tremendous amount of pressure on us. Someone could have been killed if we had calculated wrong.”
Bok’s work on The Aviator has opened other doors in the entertainment industry. “We are producing a nine-part series called The Aviators for cable television. It chronicles the amazing real life drama and story of the Howard Hughes airplanes we built.” Before Aero F/X, Bok started Aero Telemetry Corporation, which specializes in the design and manufacture of unmanned air vehicles and airborne satellite communication systems, used both commercially and by the military. The creation of his company—as with most of life’s biggest events—involved considerable serendipity. “In the 1990s I decided to get a pilot’s license,” Bok recalls. “I liked flying so much that I decided to learn how to fly old World War II airplanes and maybe even race them at the Reno National Air Race Championships.”
In flying, he discovered a need for a wireless method of transferring electronic data from the airplane to the crew chief on the ground. “This would allow a person on the ground to manipulate some of the engine tuning controls and would free me up so I could concentrate on flying the airplane.” With this goal in mind, Bok quickly set to work, collaborating with classmate Greg Petrisor. “He and I came up with a very compact and integrated design for a telemetry system that became the basis for all of our other designs at Aero Telemetry Corporation.”
From there, things grew quickly. “My first order came from TRW, and I was off to the races after that.” The company subsequently branched out into supporting products for the U.S. military’s unmanned air vehicles (UAV), including telemetry receivers, communications repeater systems, and satellite transponders. Today their products can be found on almost every major UAV project in the world.
Working both for the military and for Hollywood, Bok splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. Despite a jammed schedule, he manages to volunteer for charitable organizations, from Athletes and Entertainers for Kids to USC’s Swim with Mike. His professional success has its roots at USC, where he earned a B.S. in aerospace engineering in 1985. He was an inside linebacker on the football team and cites Artie Gigantino, his well-known linebacker coach, as a key mentor.
“A great coach like Artie could see my mistakes and help me understand how to change. As a player you need to be open-minded enough to know your coach is there to help you become the best you can be,” says Bok. “In business and in life, it’s the same way, you have to change to remain competitive. I’ve always respected and encouraged the helpful criticism of people I knew were more intelligent than I was about a particular subject.”
This mindset has surely helped Bok succeed. “It works like a charm,” he quickly adds. What else does he remember about his undergraduate experience? Giving it more thought, he recalls the challenge of juggling football practice with the rigors of engineering classes. “My junior year we were ranked the number one team in the country—with the number one rush defense!—coming off the 1985 Rose Bowl victory against Ohio State, 20-17. So, there was a lot of pressure on the team and players in practice, especially in spring training and summer camp.”
Bok remains an avid fan of Trojan football. “I had the opportunity to stand on the sidelines for the USC-Notre Dame game for the past few years,” he says, his pride apparent in his tone. “I couldn’t help but remember what it was like to be down on the field as a linebacker getting ready for what was always one of the biggest games of the season. The Coliseum still has that effect on me.” Bok watched USC claim the most recent National Championship title from his home. “The game was very personal to me,” he says. “I knew we had a lot at stake. I didn’t sit down once until about the middle of the third quarter.” In the late 1990s, when Bok returned to campus for an M.S. in Engineering Management, he had already started his own company. “I got to a certain point in my professional career when I decided that I really needed more information on how to run a rapidly growing business.”
He was able to apply what he learned right away. “I remember taking coursework from Dr. (Ann) Ehringer’s class and going back into the boardroom with it. As the CEO, I could implement these new processes and see the results within just a few months. It was exhilarating.” His education has served him well over the years. Armed with his experiences in the classroom and the lessons he learned on the football field, Bok has certainly seen his career take flight. And now he’s seen the stars. -- Christian Camozzi