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Fred E. Weick

Fred E. Weick
In recognition of pioneering full-scale propeller research, development of the low-drag NACA engine cowling and spin-resistant aircraft design. Credits: NASA

Fred E. Weick (1899 – 1993) contributed major innovations in aircraft design that significantly enhanced the overall performance, safety, and handling qualities of civil and military aircraft. He was one of the nation’s earliest aviation pioneers — airmail pilot, research engineer, and aircraft designer. His genius touched virtually every aeronautical discipline, during a career that spanned over a half-century. Weick was a personal friend of many famous aviation figures such as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart; but his technical contributions to the aviation industry were far more important than most of his peers. 

His career was characterized by frequent job changes; but each change was filled with outstanding contributions that were recognized throughout the world.

Fred Weick was born in Berwyn, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. His aviation career was inspired at the age of twelve by watching airplanes built by the Wrights, Glenn Curtis, and Bleriot, flying at a nearby airfield. Soon he began making model boats and planes, and even a full-sized automobile, which he finished at 17 and called the Baby Bullet. He had no knowledge of the field of engineering, but was steered in that direction by his high-school science teacher. 

He graduated from the University of Illinois in 1922 with a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering, and quickly found that there was not a call for aeronautical engineering talent in the United States. He applied to the U.S. Air Mail Service, and was hired as a draftsman and implementer of facilities, such as emergency landing fields. In 1923, he joined the Yackey Aircraft Company, responsible for everything from refueling airplanes to selling rides to passengers. While employed at Yackey, he applied for a junior aeronautical engineer position in government service, and went to work for the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics, in Washington, D.C., where he became its first civilian assistant for propeller research. The offices and technical library of the NACA were within walking distance of his Navy office, and he spent considerable time studying reports and interacting with NACA personnel. While at the Bureau of Aeronautics, he began a textbook on propeller design that was to become a classic. 

As a Navy engineer, he interacted with nearby managers of the NACA, and recommended that the NACA construct a special wind tunnel for testing full-scale propellers, and that the tunnel should have a test-section diameter of about 20 feet — four times the size of Langley’s largest existing tunnel. When NACA management asked if he would be interested in becoming the designer and head of such a facility, he enthusiastically accepted the opportunity.

He joined the NACA Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1925, and proceeded to work with Dr. Max Munk to design the Langley Propeller Research Tunnel (PRT), the first wind tunnel devoted to full-scale propeller research. He was head of the PRT from 1925-1929. 

After the technical value of the PRT was verified by initial propeller tests, Weick led the development of low-drag engine cowlings for air-cooled radial engines of the day. The resulting technology significantly enhanced aircraft performance, while ensuring adequate engine cooling. This contribution was one of the most important advances in aviation history and, in 1929, earned the NACA its first Collier Trophy. 

Weick also initiated research on the effect of wing-mounted engine location on the performance of multi-engine airplanes. He personally conceived and planned a series of tests for the PRT, in which the vertical position of an NACA-cowled engine could be varied relative to the wing chord. The actual tests were run after Weick had moved to a new job; but the study had a huge impact on airplane designs, showing that the most efficient vertical location of the engines was in line with the wing chord. First applications of the results of the study were to the Boeing 247 and Douglas DC-2 airliners, and the Martin B-10 bomber. This NACA contribution was adapted by almost every designer of multi-engine aircraft, and was viewed by many as the advancement that enabled airliners to become economically viable.

Weick resigned from Langley in 1929 to become chief engineer at the Hamilton Aero Manufacturing Company where, among other duties, he conducted propeller tests on Charles Lindbergh’s Sirius airplane, at Lindbergh’s request.

In 1930, the Great Depression had a severe impact on aviation companies; and Weick rejoined the NACA, accepting an assignment to work on aircraft spinning, which had become a major problem causing a large number of fatal accidents. Before accepting the position, however, he obtained assurance that he could work in the area of stability and control in general, and thereby identify methods to make aircraft incapable of spinning — avoiding the problem of spinning altogether. 

When he returned to Langley, he became the Assistant Chief of the Aerodynamics Division, and was very active supervising research in a new 7-by 10-Foot Atmospheric Wind Tunnel. He and his subordinates directed their research toward high-lift devices and innovative aircraft control concepts that would permit lower speeds for landing, thereby increasing safety. The group approached their research with great enthusiasm, to the point of having a contest to design the most promising single-engine personal-owner-type configuration from a safety perspective. After technical evaluations by the group, Weick’s revolutionary design, called the W-1, was declared the winner. The W-1’s design incorporated a high parasol wing, an unorthodox auxiliary wing forward of the main wing, and a pusher-propeller. After free-flight model testing, Weick and a group of nine other Langley engineers built the full-scale experimental airplane in their spare time. This “home-built” W-1 was the first aircraft to employ a steerable tricycle landing gear. The W-1 airplane was flown in evaluation flights by NACA pilots, and was tested in the Langley Full-Scale Tunnel. A modified version known as the W-1A, was also tested.

Weick left the NACA again in 1936, and joined the Engineering and Research Corporation (ERCO) of Washington, D.C., as its chief designer. His Ercoupe airplane design demonstrated Weick’s passion for safety. He simplified turning the airplane by combining the controls for the rudder and the aileron surfaces into a single-steering, interconnected device that was easy for amateur pilots to use. Built first as a two-seater, and later a four-place model, the Ercoupe was the first personal-owner airplane to be certified as spin-proof. About half of the 6,000 Ercoupes built were still flying at the time of Weick’s death in 1993. 

After the general-aviation bubble burst in post-war years, Weick joined Texas A&M University in 1948. Although he had absolutely no background in the use of aircraft for agricultural applications, he designed and developed a revolutionary agricultural airplane known as the Ag-1 crop duster, and also designed the Ag-3, predecessor to the Piper PA-25 Pawnee agricultural airplane series. His specialized designs for aerial applications were noted for dramatically improved safety features; and he soon became the leading technical expert on the design and use of this class of airplanes.

In 1957, he joined Piper Aircraft as director and chief engineer of its development center in Vero Beach, Florida, remaining there until his retirement. In addition to the Pawnee, Weick co-designed Piper’s popular Cherokee line of personal and business light aircraft.

Weick retired from Piper in 1969, at the age of 70. He continued to be very active and visible as a consultant to the industry, and active member of the Experimental Aircraft Association.

Based on his contributions to aeronautics on the Ercoupe, Fred Weick was awarded the Sylvanus A. Reed Award, in 1945, and the W. H. Fawcett Award, in 1946. An extensive collection of his awards, papers, reports, presentations, and memorabilia are in the NASA Langley Historical Archives. His highly informative autobiography, From the Ground Up: The Autobiography of an Aeronautical Engineer, was published in 1988.

In 1925, he married his high-school sweetheart and next-door neighbor, the former Dorothy Church, who preceded him in death in 1991. They had three children: a daughter, Elizabeth Jane “Betsey,” and two sons, Richard and Donald.

Fred Weick died on July 8, 1993, in Vero Beach, Florida, at the age of 93.