Author: Margot Lee Shetterly

Turbulence – Summary

In chapter 13 of “Hidden Figures”, Katherine Goble’s temporary assignment at the Flight Research Division becomes more permanent, and her supervisor Dorothy Vaughan meets with Henry Pearson to resolve her situation. Pearson offers Goble a permanent position in his group with a salary increase, and Vaughan’s insistence also results in a white colleague receiving a promotion. Pearson was not fond of women in the workplace, but Vaughan’s position as a section head gave her authority and visibility at Langley. Vaughan also worked as a consultant for Monroe, a calculating machine manufacturer.

The engineers at Langley’s Flight Research Division were impressed with Katherine Goble’s mathematical skills and decided to keep her on board. The division was filled with highly intelligent and adventurous engineers who worked on live, dangerous projects. Katherine’s confidence in her abilities allowed her to ask questions freely and learn quickly. She joined the Maneuver Loads Branch, which researched the forces on an airplane as it moved out of stable flight. The branch also examined safety concerns related to increasingly crowded skies.

Katherine was assigned to analyze the flight recorder of a small plane that crashed, which involved hours of analyzing photographic film records. She plotted the data and discovered that the plane had flown perpendicularly across the flight path of a jet plane, causing it to stumble and crash due to the rough river of air left behind by the jet. This research led to changes in air traffic regulations. Katherine loved her work and her colleagues at Langley, including the lunchtime bridge game, and felt tremendous satisfaction in participating in something that would have positive, real-world results.

Katherine felt at home at Langley, despite the racial segregation. She initially didn’t realize the bathrooms were segregated and later refused to change her habits of using unmarked bathrooms. She brought a bag lunch to avoid the segregated cafeteria and create a work environment that conformed to her sense of self. Katherine’s confidence and intelligence made her popular among her colleagues. With her fair skin and accent, she occupied a racial middle ground, which sometimes made it difficult for others to determine her race. Her colleagues referred to her simply as “Katherine.”

Katherine Goble was comfortable in both her office and church despite being aware of the racism towards black people. Her husband wanted to move their family out of the projects, and they settled in Newsome Park which had ties to the shipyard and Langley, providing them with a community. Newsome Park managed to persevere despite the threat of demolition due to the shortage of adequate housing for black residents in the area.

In the postwar period, upwardly mobile black families in Hampton, Virginia, aspired to homeownership in desirable neighborhoods. Katherine and Jimmy bought a lot in Mimosa Crescent, a subdivision built for middle-class black families, and planned to build their dream house. However, Jimmy fell ill with an inoperable brain tumor and eventually died in 1956, leaving Katherine and their three daughters to mourn. The community offered support during this difficult time, with both Jimmy’s and Katherine’s families staying in town and fraternity and sorority members providing practical help.

Katherine Goble, a widow and single mother of three daughters, made a solemn promise to her late husband to ensure their children’s bright future. She established new rules for the household and maintained high standards of education for her children. Katherine was determined to keep her family together and not let the hardships of segregation affect her. Her pragmatic father’s dictum, “You are no better than anyone else, and no one is better than you,” was her guiding principle. Katherine’s ability to treat her white male colleagues as equals and her willingness to acknowledge their intellect and curiosity paved the way for her success. Her husband’s death was a turning point in her life, but Katherine’s strength and self-possession enabled her to navigate life’s challenges with ease.


  • How does Dorothy Vaughan help Katherine and a white computer?

Dorothy Vaughan helped Katherine and a white computer by advocating for their promotions and salary increases. She met with Henry Pearson, the head of the branch that had “borrowed” her computer (Katherine) and forgotten to return her. Dorothy insisted that either Katherine be given a raise or be sent back to her. Pearson eventually offered Katherine a permanent position in his group, the Maneuver Loads Branch, with a corresponding increase in salary. As a result of Dorothy’s advocacy, one of the white computers in the branch, who was also in a limbo position like Katherine, went to Pearson to petition for a raise, but her request was initially denied. However, Dorothy reminded Pearson of the rules and wielded her influence to win promotions for both Katherine and her white colleague.

  • What kind of research does the Maneuver Loads Branch do?

The Maneuver Loads Branch conducts research on the forces on an airplane as it moves out of stable, steady flight or tries to return to stable, steady flight. They examine safety concerns provoked by increasingly crowded skies.

  • Katherine’s first assignment was to investigate the crash of a small Piper propeller plane. What is learned as a result of her contribution?

Katherine’s first assignment was to investigate the crash of a small Piper propeller plane. As a result of Katherine’s contribution, it was learned that the small Piper propeller plane had crashed due to flying perpendicularly across the flight path of a jet plane that had just passed through the area. The disturbance caused by the larger plane’s wake vortex had acted like an invisible trip wire, causing the propeller plane to stumble in mid-air and fall to the ground. This research, and other investigations like it, led to changes in air traffic regulations that mandated minimum distances between flight paths to prevent such wake turbulence accidents.

  • There are two places in Langley in which Katherine refuses to conform with southern convention. What are these places, and why is her refusal to conform significant? How does her reaction differ from Miriam Mann’s?

Katherine does not follow the southern rules of segregation in the Langley workplace. She uses the unmarked bathrooms and eats at her desk instead of the cafeteria. This shows her determination to fight against racial discrimination in the South. She refuses to let segregation dictate her daily routine and limit her actions. Katherine challenges social norms that keep African Americans in a lower position.

Unlike Miriam Mann, Katherine does not protest or openly defy the system of segregation. She quietly and firmly refuses to follow the rules of segregation without causing a scene. Miriam Mann is more confrontational in her approach, stealing the cafeteria sign to protest against inequality and discrimination. Both women challenge racial segregation and discrimination, but they do it in different ways that reflect their personalities and approaches to social change.

  • What tragedy reshapes Katherine’s family? How does it change it?

Katherine’s family went through a tragic event that changed their lives. Her husband, James, got sick with headaches and weakness in 1955. Doctors tried to help him, but they found out he had a tumor that they couldn’t operate on. His health got worse over a year, and he passed away on a Thursday, just before Christmas in 1956. This left Katherine and their three daughters alone.

James’ death made their lives different. They had to face grown-up problems instead of just being kids. But Katherine promised her husband that she would do everything she could to keep their daughters on the right track. She made new rules for the family as a single mother. When school started in January 1957, she took her daughters to meet with the school principal to make sure they were ready for college.

Even though the family went through a tragic time, Katherine did her best to be a good mother and father. She gave her daughters love and discipline, and she was the only one who worked to earn money for the family.

  • Explain the title of the chapter, turbulence.

The title of the chapter, “Turbulence,” refers to the research that Katherine Goble, a mathematician at Langley’s Flight Research Division, conducted on the forces on an airplane as it moved out of stable flight. Katherine was assigned to investigate the crash of a small Piper propeller plane, and her analysis of photographic film records showed that the plane had flown perpendicularly across the flight path of a jet plane, causing it to stumble and crash due to the rough river of air left behind by the jet. This research led to changes in air traffic regulations. The word “turbulence” is used metaphorically to describe the challenges that Katherine faced in the workplace due to racism and sexism, as well as the difficulties she faced in her personal life after her husband’s death. Despite these challenges, Katherine remained determined and focused, ultimately making significant contributions to her field and paving the way for future generations of women and minorities.

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