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Many Small Steps, One Giant Leap

How WPI People Helped Shape Powered Flight's First Century

Many Small Steps, One Giant Leap: Do you remember your first airplane ride? The giddy thrill you experienced as the engines roared and you sped down the runway? That moment of panic as the ground slipped away beneath you? The awe you felt at seeing the world for the first time from a bird’s eye view?

For centuries, humans watched with envy as birds flaunted their mastery of the air, and they dreamed of taking wing themselves. They ventured aloft first on kites and gliders, or buoyed by balloons. Then, on a cold, windy December morning in 1903, they found that to truly conquer the air, one needed not just wings, but power.

Since the Wright Flyer’s 12-second hop across the sands at Kitty Hawk, people have stretched the envelope of powered flight to remarkable lengths. Propelled by piston engines, jets, rockets—even human muscles—powered vehicles have gone ever faster, higher and farther. They’ve taken people around the world, into space and to the moon. They’ve pushed unmanned craft to the very edge of interstellar space. And they’ve fundamentally transformed our notions of space and time.

Through a combination of ingenuity, grit, and scientific and technical know-how, WPI people have made contributions small and large to many of the milestones of powered flight’s first century. Over the past year, we’ve shared some of their stories with you in Transformations. With this special section, we bring our coverage of this milestone in human evolution to a close—just as the world prepares to observe the 100th anniversary of the flight that started it all.

You’ll read a few more chapters in the continuing story of WPI and flight. Beginning below, you’ll find a chronicle of many of the key moments in powered flight’s first 100 years that have been engineered, in whole or in part, by our alumni, faculty and students. And you’ll read why one graduate feels most at home when she’s in the air.

Which brings us back to where we began: to the sheer joy of flying. For behind all of the technological breakthroughs, the theoretical leaps, and the engineering brilliance that WPI people have contributed to the evolution of powered flight lies one fundamental truth: taking wing and looking down on the world is one of the greatest pleasures known to mankind. That’s why, in the centuries ahead, people will keep trying to advance the frontiers of powered flight, and why WPI people will be there to help make those dreams take wing.

—Michael W. Dorsey


As the Wright brothers grapple with flying straight and level, patent attorney George F. Myers, Class of 1888, focuses on vertical flight (he filed for his first helicopter patent—unsuccessfully—in 1897). One year after the first flight at Kitty Hawk, he builds a machine, dubbed the “flying doughnut,” that rises six inches before its engine blows up. (In 1926 a Myers helicopter flies 3,000 feet at 10 feet off the ground.)


Twenty-five students form WPI’s first Aero Club. Activities include constructing a glider with a 20-foot wingspan, building and flying model airplanes, and taking flying lessons at the Grafton (Mass.) Airport.


Mechanical engineering professor David L. Gallup, Class of 1901, launches a course in Air Engineering. Gallup later gains recognition for his pioneering experiments on the design of aircraft propellers, conducted using the rotating boom at Alden Research Laboratory in Holden. Several Gallup propellers are in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.


The V-12 Liberty engine, the standard power plant for World War I-era military aircraft, debuts. Raymond P. Lansing ’15, an engineer for Bendix Aviation, wins the first of his 150 patents for the first direct-cranking aircraft starter, which Bendix builds for the Liberty. (Lansing goes on to become vice president of Bendix Aircraft Corporation, a major player in the aircraft instrument and accessory market.)


The NC-4 is the first airplane to cross the Atlantic Ocean, making the trip from Rockaway, N.Y., to Lisbon, Portugal, in several hops over the course of 57 hours. The plane, built by Curtiss Wright, was developed in part by George W. Smith Jr. ’15, chief engineer at the Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia.


A Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Co. biplane with a revolutionary D-12 engine breezes by the competition at the Pulitzer Trophy Race on Long Island. The engine is an early triumph for young motor engineer Arthur Nutt ’16, a future inductee into the Aviation Pioneers Hall of Fame. (Nutt would oversee the development of the Wright Whirlwind and Cyclone engines. The Cyclone eventually powered 90 percent of the world’s commercial aircraft.)


On his aunt’s farm in Auburn, Mass., Robert H. Goddard ’08 launches the world’s first successful liquid-fueled rocket, the same technology that would send satellites into space and land humans on the moon within 45 years. (Goddard died in 1945 before seeing most of the fruits of his labor or receiving the numerous honors his work would garner.)

Richard Byrd becomes the first person to fly over the North Pole. With no visual landmarks and unable to use a magnetic compass, he navigates with the sun compass, an invention of Albert Bumstead, Class of 1898, chief cartographer for the National Geographic Society. (Bumstead’s invention has been used on all subsequent polar expeditions.)

Henry J. E. Reid ’19 becomes director of the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory (now NASA’s Langley Research Center), and over the next 35 years helps build it into one of the world’s foremost aeronautical research facilities. (Reid also designed many basic instruments for flight research.)

Former Naval aviator Paul K. Guillow ’20 starts a company in Wakefield, Mass., to make balsa models of famous World War I airplanes. Nucraft Toys is an immediate success. (Renamed Paul K. Guillow Inc., today it is the world’s largest maker of simple hand-launched balsa gliders.)


WPI launches the Aero Program for a select group of mechanical engineering majors, under the direction of Professor Kenneth G. Merriam. Several alumni and friends prominent in the aviation field, including Capt. Edwin E. Aldrin of the United States Air Corps, father of future moon walker Buzz Aldrin, offer advice and donate technology. (Over the next 30 years, Merriam’s program prepared nearly 250 men for careers of achievement in aviation and other fields.)


Lt. Col. James Doolittle leads 16 B-25s from the carrier Hornet on a daring raid over Tokyo. The power and air-speed settings that enable the bombers to reach Japan are the work of Robert E. Johnson ’27, an engineer with Curtiss-Wright. (Later, as chief field engineer for the company, he became known as the “father of cruise control” for his pioneering techniques for maximizing cruise performance in multi-engine aircraft.)

The Tech Air Raid Prevention Squad is formed. Students from seven fraternities are on watch around the clock to protect the campus in the event of air raids.


P-47 Thunderbolts powered by Pratt & Whitney R-2800 “Double-Wasp” engines, which use water injection to give them an extra burst of power, enter service in Europe. Pioneered by engineer Arthur E. Smith ’33, at right, water injection will prove to be an important factor in the Allied air supremacy during World War II. (Smith later became chairman of United Aircraft, forerunner of United Technologies, and helped the company make the transition from the Piston Age to the Jet Age.)


General Electric begins making its J47 jet engine, which will become the most widely produced engine in the world and the first turbojet to be certified for commercial use. Emeritus trustee Hilliard W. Paige ’41 managed the J47 (and later the J73) development and production from 1951 to 1956. (Paige went on to a stellar career at GE, making major contributions to missile guidance systems, satellite navigation systems, and other areas of space technology.)


Richard T. Whitcomb ’43 conducts the key tests in the transonic wind tunnel at Langley Research Laboratory that lead to his discovery of the Transonic Area Rule, the principle that makes flying beyond the speed of sound practical. Three years later, the discovery earns Whitcomb the coveted Collier Trophy. (Whitcomb went on to develop the supercritical wing and winglets, inventions that were also recognized with his recent induction into the Inventors Hall of Fame.)


J. Adams Holbrook ’38, in WPI’s Washburn Shops, adapts a coupling invented in the 1920s by Louis W. Rawson, Class of 1893, for use in helicopters. Rawson’s coupling permits a motor to come up to speed before a load is applied. (The patented coupling is incorporated in helicopters made by Sikorski, Kaman and other leading manufacturers.)


C. Chapin Cutler ’37, an engineer at Bell Labs, starts a recording of President Eisenhower’s voice broadcast coast to coast by being bounced off the giant balloon-like ECHO satellite. Cutler, a key player in the Echo project, has already won acclaim for the Cutler Feed, a waveguide-antenna system for radar that was on every World War II allied bomber that flew over Japan, and radio proximity fuses that helped win the Battle of Britain.

In a 1992 WPI Journal article, Cutler recalled starting the tape recorder with Eisenhower’s message.”I remember starting that tape with my own fingers,” he said. “It was probably the most exciting period in my life, because everything had to be done on the second. We had to have that antenna pointed exactly right, because this thing went whizzing from horizon to horizon in just 20 minutes.”


ROBIN, a sounding rocket system developed under the direction of John B. Wright ’42 at the Air Force Cambridge Geophysics Laboratories, flies for the first time. The system uses a falling sphere to measure atmospheric density, temperature and winds before the launch of larger rockets. Wright had spent many years at the NASA Langley Research Laboratory as a project engineer on designs for transonic and supersonic aircraft, including the B-52 and the D-558 Skystreak research plane.


The X-15 rocket plane, designed to explore the limits of winged aircraft, climbs higher (to 354,000 feet) than any other plane. X-15 pilots (and the seven Mercury astronauts) received their acceleration training in dynamic flight simulators developed by Carl C. Clarke ’45, utilizing the human centrifuge at the Aviation Medical Laboratory in Pennsylvania. (Clark later developed the first practical airbag safety systems.)


Gus Grissom and John Young fly into space in Gemini III, the first Gemini mission, atop a modified Titan II rocket. Development of the Titan series of missiles at the Martin Marietta Co. was directed by Albert J. Kullas ’38, director of engineering, who later, as a Martin Marietta vice president, secured the contract and directed the initial design and engineering of the two Viking spacecraft that soft-landed on Mars in 1976 in search of life on the Red Planet.


The F-111 all-weather fighter-bomber, with its distinctive swing-wing design and terrain-following radar, enters service. Frederick A. Curtis Jr. ’48, director of product engineering at General Dynamics Convair division, is heavily involved with the engineering of the plane, known informally as the Aardvark, and helps address metal fatigue problems that arise during its development.


As his feet—the first ever to touch the moon’s surface—settle into the dust on the Sea of Tranquility, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong tells an awestruck world, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong’s words are captured by a headset developed by the David Clark Co. in Worcester under the direction of R&D head Joseph A. Ruseckas ’65.


After a harrowing flight around the moon in a crippled spacecraft, the crew of Apollo 13 floats toward the Pacific Ocean under three huge red and white parachutes. The sight of the chutes, developed by Robert W. Rodier ’51, parachute engineer for North American Aviation, which built the Apollo command module, heralds the safe return of every Apollo crew.


The first UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter enters service with the U.S. Army. The design of this versatile flying machine, which features a number of innovations including a novel canted tail rotor, was directed by David S. Jenney ’53, whose career at Sikorski included work on many pio-neering helicopters, including the new Comanche (model at right). (Harry T. Jensen ’33, who became vice president of engineering at Sikorski, also contributed to the design of the Blackhawk, the Super Stallion and the S-76.)


The Gossamer Albatross wins the $200,000 Kremer Award by becoming the first human-powered plane to cross the English Channel. The plane’s propeller is designed by E. Eugene Larrabee ’42, an MIT professor known in the aeronautics field as “Mr. Propeller.” (In 2002, he co-authored Airplane Stability and Control: A History of the Technologies That Made Aviation Possible.)


A prototype develpoed by WPI students makes it to the finals of a NASA competition to design a better space glove. WPI doesn’t win, but getting to the finals helps spur excitement for a new aero option for mechanical engineering students. The university receives $20,000 from NASA to create the Advanced Space Design Project Center, which provides opportunities for students to complete space-related projects in conjunction with NASA centers.


A paper in the British science journal Nature by WPI chemistry professor Robert C. Plumb solves a mystery left over from the Viking missions that landed on Mars 13 years earlier. Viking experiments designed to detect the presence of life instead found evidence of unusual chemical reactions in the Martial regolith (soil). With persistence and elegant chemical experiments, Plumb proves that irradiated nitrates, which he shows must exist on Mars, are the key to explaining the unexpected results.


A GASCAN (Getaway Special Canister), containing within its five cubic feet several experiments designed over nearly a decade by some 250 WPI students, flies into orbit on the shuttle Columbia. The experiments included growing zeolite crystals and studying fluid behavior in microgravity.


The shuttle Columbia lifts off from Kennedy Space Center on a 16-day science mission. Aboard is WPI’s first astronaut, Chemical Engineering Department head Albert Sacco Jr. (now a professor at his alma mater, Northeastern), mission specialist for the flight. An experiment to grow zeolite crystals in space, developed by Sacco, professors Robert Thompson and Anthony Dixon, and many WPI students, is included in the Spacelab mission.


The Learning Factory, an off-campus project center created in conjunction with Pratt & Whitney, is founded to send student teams to Pratt’s jet engine manufacturing facility in East Hartford, Conn., to help the company identify and develop solutions to problems that impact the design and assembly of engines that power more than half of the world’s commercial fleet.


WPI launches a project center at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., named for WPI graduate Robert H. Goddard ’08. Each fall teams of students complete major projects at this NASA center dedicated to expanding our understanding of the Earth, the solar system and the universe.


NASA cancels funding for the X-34, which was to be a test bed for technologies that could lead to a new generation of reusable unmanned launch vehicles. The innovative spacecraft was developed by Orbital Sciences under the direction of Robert E. Lindberg Jr. ’74, who also contributed to Orbital’s successful Pegasus launch vehicle. Lindberg today heads the new National Institute of Aerospace.


The WPI faculty approves the creation of a new major program in aerospace engineering, making WPI one of just 61 universities with degree programs in this field. The program is directed by mechanical engineering professor Nikos Gatsonis, who was named director of the Aerospace Engineering Program in 1999.

On Dec. 17, the nation will focus on ceremonies at Kitty Hawk, N.C., where the first Wright brothers’ flight will be commemorated. Current plans call for guests at the festivities to witness the dawn of a new era in flight when an electric airplane developed by James P. Dunn ’67 takes wing. The plane, flown initially on batteries, will ultimately be powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.

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Last modified: Aug 31, 2004, 17:07 EDT
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