Marking its 98th year in 2012, the Department of Aerospace Engineering has been an integral part of the College's tradition of quality. It was borne out of the nation's first collegiate aeronautics program, begun at Michigan in 1914, just 11 years after the historic flights at Kitty Hawk. The first course was taught by Felix Pawlowski, who had been a student of Professor Lucien Marchis at the University of Paris in the first course in aeronautics given anywhere. In offering aeronautics at Michigan, Pawlowski was building on interest created by Professor Herbert Sadler. The grandnephew of Britain's first balloonist, Sadler had recently reorganized the Michigan Aero Club. Both Pawlowski and Sadler had seen the Wright brothers and other aviation pioneers at flying exhibitions, and the enthusiasm of these two teachers would be the driving force behind aeronautics during its first years at Michigan.
The early years of the Department of Aerospace Technology were filled with daring experimentation in balloons, gliders, and when available, powered airplanes, including a model "B" hydroplane built by the Wright brothers. These experiments in flight, the research on airplane designs, and the basic course work were all marked by camaraderie and a shared commitment to expanding the knowledge in and the possibilities of this exciting new field. The Department grew quickly in scope, enrollment, and stature. Graduates of the program distinguished themselves as pilots, designers, industry leaders, and as officials in the new government agencies established to promote and regulate aviation.
One graduate became a legend. Clarence "Kelly" Johnson, B.S.E. '32, M.S.E. '33 is considered to have been one of America's greatest aircraft designers. In 1933, Lockheed sent to Michigan for review its model of one of the world's first twin-engine aircraft, the Electra. Johnson tested it and found instabilities in the aircraft. He was later hired by Lockheed and went on to establish the legendary Lockheed Skunk Works and create such classic aircraft as the P-38, the F-104, the U-2, and the SR-71 Blackbird during his 40-year career.
In the years since Kelly Johnson was a student, the size and focus of the Department have changed in response to economic conditions, the exigencies of war and advances in the field, but one constant has remained: quality. Evidence of this quality can readily been seen in manned space exploration. Among the Aerospace Engineering Department's many prominent alumni are five astronauts who have orbited the earth, with three going on to the moon. During the Gemini program, Ed White, who later died in the Apollo launch pad fire, made the first spacewalk by an American. Other Michigan astronauts include Jack Lousma, who commanded Skylab and piloted the third space shuttle flight;James McDivitt, commander of Apollo 9; and James Irwin and Alfred Worden of Apollo 15. The Michigan mementos (including the seal of the Department) placed on the moon by the Apollo 15 crew are fitting symbols of the impressive achievements of the people who have been part of the Department's first 95 years.
Interesting links on the history of the department :
- Early courses in Aeronautics (published in 1915)
- Anecdotal history of the first 50 years (published in 1964)
- Anecdotal history of the first 75 years (published in 1989)
- Summary of department activities in 1964
- A Century of Engineering Education (published in 1954)
- Prof Adamson's AIAA paper on UM Aero department (published in 2002)
- Powerpoint slides on department history (2008)