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Robert T. Jones

Robert T. 'RT' Jones
In recognition of extraordinary contributions to the fundamental understanding of aerodynamic principles and development of the swept-back wing enabling efficient supersonic flight. Credits: NASA

Robert T. “R. T.” Jones (1910 – 1999) independently identified the benefits of swept-back wings for high-speed aircraft, regarded as one of the most important discoveries in the history of aerodynamics. He also contributed many other concepts, including aircraft-piloting control schemes for improved safety, and radical oblique-wing configurations.

R. T. Jones was born in Macon, Missouri, where he attended high school and was consumed by an interest in aviation, building rubber-band-powered model airplanes and devouring magazines such as Aviation and Aero Digest. Ironically, he especially enjoyed research reports of the NACA, the organization he would later join and at which he would record a brilliant career. He briefly attended the University of Missouri; but quit after a year to join a locally-based flying circus, where he carried gas cans, patched wing tips, and did other jobs in return for flying lessons.

In 1929, he was hired by the Nicholas-Beazley Airplane Company of Marshall, Missouri, as an engineer, where he was introduced to aircraft design methods. When the Great Depression forced the company out of business, he returned home to Macon still interested in aviation, but in need of a job.

Jones’ next job was as an elevator operator in the House Office Building in Washington, D.C., and he spent much of his free time at the Library of Congress. He attended night-time undergraduate courses in aeronautical engineering at Catholic University, but never completed his degree. He took three years of courses under the tutelage of the noted aerodynamicist Max Munk, who had become famous while working at the NACA’s Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.

When the Public Works Administration created some temporary jobs at Langley in 1934, Jones secured a nine-month temporary position, working in the 7- by 10-Foot Atmospheric Wind Tunnel. A permanent professional position required passing a standard civil-service exam, which in turn required a bachelor’s degree. A special exam was composed for him and, in 1936 he became a junior engineer working with the legendary Fred Weick on the development of high-lift devices and lateral controls to improve safety of flight at low speeds. In addition to wind-tunnel and analytical studies, he flew stability and control evaluations of several aircraft, including a WWI German Fokker D-VII owned by another member of Weick’s team.

By the beginning of World War II, Jones had published a number of important papers and had become well known in aeronautical circles, especially as an expert on dynamic stability and control. He published over 20 papers, and conceived several schemes for increasing safety through simplified controls. He was the first to propose the idea of two-control flight operations, with the rudder linked to the ailerons. Weick later used this very successful idea for his famous Ercoupe airplane — noted for its ease of control.

However, Jones’ most important contribution was his independent theoretical discovery of the aerodynamic benefits of the swept-back wing. Notable NACA members had attended a 1934 international meeting where German aerodynamicist Adolf Busemann first proposed the idea of sweeping wings to minimize wave drag at supersonic speeds. Incredibly, no one at the NACA saw the importance of his theory.

In 1945, Jones developed the concept of sweeping the leading edge of wings behind the Mach cone generated by supersonic aircraft in flight, thereby obtaining subsonic flow at the leading edge and minimizing wave drag. Unfortunately, other influential researchers at Langley were extremely skeptical, especially Theodore Theodorsen. When an in-house editorial committee headed by Theodorsen reviewed Jones’ report on his findings, they recommended that it not be published. After a months-long impasse, experiments performed using Robert Gilruth’s in-flight free-fall technique, and others in the Langley 9-Inch Supersonic Tunnel (using a simple streamlined wire model), validated Jones’ results. On the very day that his report was finally cleared for publication, word came from NACA Headquarters that the concept had been discovered in Germany, when Theodore Von Karman’s team of investigators determined that German experts had been working on the benefits of swept-wing designs for several years.

In August 1946, Jones and his first wife, Langley researcher Doris Cohen, both transferred to the NACA Ames Aeronautical Laboratory.

Jones did not limit his talents to aerodynamics. In the 1950s, the couple became interested in astronomy and methods to improve traditional telescopes. In 1957, they formed a company called the Vega Instrument Co., and began selling 6-inch telescopes. Although the company was not profitable, Jones was one of the few aerodynamicists who knew anything about space when NASA was formed.

When one of his daughters needed a violin, Jones decided to make one for her and, in the process, immersed himself in the study of the acoustics of violins. He enjoyed making violins for more than 40 years.

In 1963, he went to work for AVCO Everett Research Laboratory in Massachusetts, where he chaired the laboratory’s Medical Research Committee. He became interested in the biomechanics of blood flow, and worked on an early heart-assist pump design with colleagues.

He returned to Ames in 1970, and pursued work on a radical airplane configuration known as the oblique-wing design. First proposed by Richard Vogt of Germany in 1942, the concept pivoted an entire straight wing about a single point in the fuselage, forming a scissor-like appearance with a swept-back wing panel on one side and a swept-forward wing panel on the other side. Jones’ interest and advocacy for oblique-wing applications to high-speed military and civil designs led to numerous wind-tunnel tests, free-flight model evaluations, industry system studies, and flight tests of the NASA AD-1 research airplane.

After retiring from Ames in 1981, he became a consulting professor at Stanford University, teaching courses in aerodynamics until 1997.

R. T. Jones was the recipient of many professional awards, including an honorary doctorate from the University of Colorado in 1971, and the Langley Medal of the Smithsonian Institution in 1981 — an honor also bestowed on the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, Robert Byrd and James Webb, NASA’s second Administrator. Jones also received the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service in recognition of his numerous contributions during his 40-year government career. Other awards include:

  • 1946 Sylvanus Albert Reed Award, Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences
  • 1955 Fellow, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics
  • 1973 Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • 1973 Member, National Academy of Engineering
  • 1978 Prandtl Ring Award of the German Aeronautics Society 
  • 1979 Honorary Fellow, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics
  • 1986 Fluid Dynamics Prize, American Physical Society
  • 1990 NAS Award in Aeronautical Engineering, National Academy of Sciences

He was the author of numerous publications and technical papers, 69 of which are contained in the “Collected Works of Robert T. Jones,” NASA TMX-3334, published in 1976.

In October 1988, NASA honored him as a “Superstar of Modern Aeronautics” during ceremonies held at NASA Glenn Research Center. Jones was too ill to travel at the time, and was represented at the ceremony by his daughter, Harriet, and his son, David.

The former Megan More was Jones’ second wife. His children include two daughters, Patricia and Harriet, and three sons, Edward, David, Gregory, and John.

R. T. Jones, an expert in aerodynamics, optics, biomechanics, mathematics, and astronomy, an inventor, author, and violin maker, died on August 11, 1999, at his home in Los Altos Hills, California. He was 89 years old.