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How a career in aeronautics got liftoff almost 90 years ago

Walter Vincenti, a recent recipient of the ​Daniel Guggenheim Medal, says it all began when he was 10 and saw a news announcement that Lindbergh had landed in Paris.

An F-86 aircraft is lowered into the Wind Tunnel at the NACA Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, Moffett Field California. | Photo courtesy of NASA

 

On May 21, 1927, a news announcement interrupted the Saturday children’s movie matinee in Pasadena, California. Charles Lindbergh had landed in Paris having completed the first ever nonstop transatlantic flight. Everyone in the theater, including a 10-year-old Walter Vincenti, stood and cheered.

That afternoon began Vincenti’s fascination with aeronautics. It would eventually lead him to a distinguished aeronautics career at Stanford and to being the most recent recipient of the Daniel Guggenheim Medal for notable lifetime achievements in the field. Vincenti is the sixth Stanford professor to receive this award, joining a rank of awardees that includes Orville Wright and Vincenti’s childhood inspiration, Charles Lindbergh.

His theoretical work in high-speed flight and high-temperature gas dynamics “gave us the building blocks to create systems that took us to the moon and back,” said Sandra Magnus, the executive director of the awarding American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

As Vincenti, now 99, says, he was in the right place at the right time for a life in aeronautics, which allowed him to meet and work with some of the most lauded engineers in the field and then to become one himself.

A Stanford education

“Like so many of my fellow students, I got interested in building model airplanes and one thing led to another,” Vincenti recalled.

In 1934, Vincenti started as a freshman at Stanford, where at halftime at a football game he watched as the USS Macon ZRS-5 airship hovered over the stadium, opened its bay doors and launched one of its five biplanes.

“If I needed anything to increase my interest in aviation, you couldn’t have done anything better,” said Vincenti. Though Stanford didn’t have a single undergraduate course in aeronautics at the time, Vincenti majored in engineering and determined to stay for the two-year graduate course in aeronautics. In the meantime, he worked as much as he could with aeronautics professors.

Take these papers

As an undergrad, Vincenti was hired to do the “pick and shovel” work on some reports by renowned Stanford professors Stephen Timoshenko and William Frederick Durand. Timoshenko, often referred to as the father of applied mechanics, introduced analytical techniques into structural engineering.

“Timoshenko was among the first to really push the idea that you can develop your own formulas,” said Vincenti’s colleague, friend and past Guggenheim awardee Arthur Bryson.

One Christmas, when Vincenti was going home to Pasadena, Timoshenko asked him to pass along some papers to Caltech’s Theodore von Karman, who had introduced analytical methods into aerodynamics. As Vincenti was delivering the papers, von Karman invited him in to chat.

“Probably the best men in the whole world in their fields, structures and aerodynamics, and I was able to get to know and learn from both of them,” Vincenti said.

That applied engineering background allowed Vincenti to create innovative formulas for the aerodynamics of high-speed aircraft later at the Ames Research Center.

Vincenti landed at Ames in large part because of Durand’s connections. As the first civilian chairman for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), Durand helped many Stanford aeronautics engineers find jobs at NACA Ames.

Growing up

The 1930s global militarization made NACA scramble to convince the government to build a second aeronautics research facility nearer the aircraft factories on the West Coast.

Vincenti was just a few months away from his graduate degree in 1940 when finally the first spade of dirt was turned for the Ames laboratory. Vincenti and his friend Charles Frick would become the fourth and fifth engineers hired at Ames.

The main goal in aeronautics at the time was making planes faster. Vincenti was assigned to the groundbreaking supersonic wind tunnel at Ames, one of only two in the country. Nobody had ever run a supersonic wind tunnel, so Vincenti’s bosses left his team alone.

“We found ourselves doing all kinds of practical, applied engineering, which we had no training for,” recounted Vincenti in a NASA history article (NASA is the successor agency to NACA). Nonetheless, during that period, average airplane speeds increased from 300 to 500 miles per hour.

Breaking the barrier

The sound barrier – at 750 miles per hour – was another matter. By the late 1940s, pilots had occasionally, but not consistently, transcended the speed of sound. No one had yet figured out the aerodynamics behind successful transonic flight.

“So that’s what Walter and I made contributions to, which we hoped would help design aircrafts that would fly at the speed of sound,” Bryson recalled.

At Ames, Vincenti unified existing theories into one mathematical framework that predicted the flow of air around a wing at speeds near the sound barrier. His formulas could predict the pressure, density and velocity at hundreds of thousands of points in the airflow field around the wing. To use Vincenti’s theory, it took a team of three women “computers” using hand-driven calculators a year to do the point-by-point calculations.

What Vincenti and his team were doing is now called computational fluid dynamics. “He was a pioneer,” Bryson said.

Revitalizing Stanford aeronautics

In the mid-1950s, Stanford had just two aeronautics professors left and only four to five students enrolled each year. The legendary Frederick Terman, then dean of the School of Engineering, was seriously considering closing the program.

When they heard the news, however, a group of former students now in the aircraft industry rallied funds to keep it open, cajoling the big aircraft companies on the West Coast to contribute $5,000 per year for five years. Vincenti got a call a few years later from Terman offering him a professorship.

“As a grad student, I rented a room in Fred Terman’s house,” Vincenti said. “He knew me as a student, had heard me give a few lectures and decided I was the person he wanted.”

Vincenti accepted in January 1957. Nicholas Hoff – like Vincenti a Guggenheim awardee and former student of Timoshenko’s – joined him eight months later. Hoff became the head of the Department of Aeronautics in September 1957. Just one month later the Russians launched Sputnik – the Space Age had begun.

In another feat of timing, Vincenti and his new research on gas dynamics at high temperatures, useful for predicting what happens when a spacecraft re-enters the atmosphere, helped the Stanford program make the leap into astronautics.

“I hadn’t even been working at Stanford for a year, and Washington came to us and asked how much money we could use to hire people and build up our program,” Vincenti said.

Vincenti built a hypersonic wind tunnel at Stanford. With colleague Charles Kruger, he distilled his research into a textbook, Introduction to Physical Gas Dynamics. It became the standard and is still cited today.

Diving into history

By the 1980s, Vincenti followed his other passion: the history of technology and engineering. His mentor, Timoshenko, had also enjoyed looking at the humanities side of technology, and had himself written a history of solid mechanics. When Timoshenko retired, he left a fund to the dean of engineering specifically to support study of the history of engineering.

“I had seen his interest and thought it was a perfectly valid thing for me,” said Vincenti.

One of his first projects was a collaboration with a young history professor from the University of Minnesota about the Britannia Bridge, an innovative tubular suspension bridge. The design immediately became useful for steamships and aircraft, which gain strength from their tubular structures.

“The two of us were doing different sides of the same problem,” said Vincenti. “So we wrote a small book.”

Around the same time at Stanford, Vincenti, one other engineer and two professors in the humanities founded an interdisciplinary program now known as Science, Technology and Society. Vincenti served as chair of the program twice. Today, the program reaches students in more than 300 majors.

Looking back on a remarkable career stretching from the era of biplanes to the Space Age, Vincenti’s mark on Stanford and the wider aerospace engineering and history communities is undeniable. That legacy was affirmed when he accepted the Daniel Guggenheim Medal, taking his rightful place beside the other five Guggenheim Medal award winners from the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford School of Engineering: Antony Jameson (2015), Arthur E. Bryson (2009), Holt Ashley (2003), Nicholas J. Hoff (1983) and William Frederick Durand (1935).

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