February 28, 2005 —
Joe Bok has two degrees from the USC Viterbi School, a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering
and an M.S. in Engineering Management.
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.
While studying engineering, Joe Bok was an inside linebacker for the Trojans.
“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 and his crew prepare the model of the H-1 racer. The real H-1 set a world speed record in 1935.
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.”
Leonard DiCaprio in the full-size mockup of the H-1 racer. Photo by Andrew Cooper, courtesy of Miramax Films.
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
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.
Bok and his team prepare their XF-11 model for takeoff
“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
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.”
On The Aviator set, Bok controls one of the models used in the movie.
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
Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose flies in
once again. Bok’s model built for The Aviator had a25-foot wingspan.
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
*Except as otherwise noted, all photos are courtesy of Aero Telemetry Corporation.