Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering
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Early Faculty Contributes a Great Deal


K.O. Thompson with early computer

K.O. Thompson with early department computer

Ten students were enrolled in the Aeronautical Engineering Department when it was founded in 1929. From this first class, six students graduated with a Bachelor of Aeronautical Engineering degree in June 1930. A St. Paul Pioneer Press article of the day said their degree "entitles them to go out into the cold world to make good as designers of non-ailing ailerons and propellers guaranteed to propel. Their job will be to make the world safe for aviation and aviation safe for the world."

These first six graduates were given flight instruction in six different types of ships, such as light planes, training planes, and heavy transport planes. At the conclusion of training they were able to solo in each kind. Professor Akerman said, "The purpose was not to make the six students into six more pilots, but to help make them aeronautical engineers."

Ivan Dawson from the first graduating class, has shared with us some of his early recollections. "Several of us worked for the University during the last few quarters of our stay there designing the department's first wind tunnel. Into the summer we worked for Professor Akerman on The Buzzey, an unusual little two-place plane designed as a pusher with the tail supported by two booms out behind the prop. It was powered by a three-cylinder Zekely Motor, and was the same basic arrangement as the Ford Flying Fliver promoted by Bill Stout that came out a few months after our plane was test flown (by Speed Holman). Professor John Akerman and Professor Charles Boehnlien were, I believe, Associate Professors of Aeronautics, and Mr. Claude Gage joined the teaching staff as an instructor or Assistant Professor during 1929-1930. Ora M. Leland was Dean of Engineering, and Doc Holman, Dr. Hans Dalaker, Dr. Joe Wise, and many others managed to pound enough knowledge into us to get us through."

The Aeronautical Engineering Department expanded rapidly. In 1930 there were 200 students, exclusive of freshmen, and the department ranked in size ahead of Civil Engineering and the combined Architecture and Architectural Engineering branches. About 20 students graduated in the second year.

Professor H. W. Barlow came to the University as an instructor in September 1932. He was a native of Cleveland, Ohio, and obtained his B.S. degree from Purdue and an M.S. in Aeronautical Engineering at Minnesota. Professor Barlow worked with John Akerman on designing and building racing airplanes for Colonel Roscoe Turner, holder of several long-distance speed records from New York to Los Angeles and back and from England to Australia. One aircraft they designed was a streamlined single-seat land monoplane that was expected to have a record speed of 400 miles per hour.

By 1939, there were about 3,000 aeronautical engineering students in the United States and Canada. Of these, 455, or 15% of the total, were being trained at the University of Minnesota.

There was decidedly an international flavor about the early faculty of the University of Minnesota's Aeronautical Engineering Department. At one time, four of the 11 faculty members were natives of European countries. John D. Akerman, the department head, was born in Latvia; Albert Gail was German-born; Jean Piccard was born in Switzerland; and Joseph Foa, was Italian-born. Others on the faculty at that time were Howard Walter Barlow, Robert Ruszaj, G. L. Von Eschen, B. J. Robertson, Norman Erickson, S. H Stillwell, and Sidney Serebreny.

After World War II, Dr. Rudolf Hermann came to the University to work and teach. He was one of the colony of German rocket scientists who came to the United States. As a young scientist in Germany, Dr. Hermann was in charge of a top secret supersonic laboratory at the famed German Army rocket experiment station at Peenemunde where he perfected the aerodynamic design of the V-2 rocket. (Military historians have said that if Hitler and his top lieutenants had put Hermann and his co-workers to work a year or so earlier, the outcome of World War II might not have been the same.) At the University of Minnesota, in addition to teaching graduate courses in supersonic aerodynamics, he was the technical director at the Rosemount Aeronautical Laboratories where he did much to advance hypersonic research and missile and rocket technology.

Doctor Helmut G. Heinrich will be fondly remembered by all recent graduates from the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics. Dr. Heinrich was also one of the German scientists who came to America after the war. Educated at the Technical University of Stuttgart, Germany, "Doc" Heinrich, as he was known to his students and associates, died of a heart attack on March 7, 1979 in Houston. Professor Heinrich was in Houston attending the AIAA 6th Aerodynamic Decelerator and Balloon Technology Conference and had just received the first AIAA Aerodynamic Deceleration Systems Award. He was a fellow of the AIAA, a Fellow of the RAES, and a charter member of the AIAA Committee on Aerodynamic Deceleration Systems formed in 1965. Heinrich taught courses and did pioneering work on deployable aerodynamics deceleration devices. A number of undergraduate and graduate students worked on government contracts and grants under the direction of Dr. Heinrich. He invented the guide-surface-type parachute and several related devices that significantly improved parachute construction and performance. Most recently, his contributions to parachute systems were used for soft-landing scientific probes on Venus and Mars which played an important role in the success of these planetary probes.

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Last Modified: 2007-07-24 at 10:10:25 -- this is in International Standard Date and Time Notation