AE at Illinois Emeritus Prof. Allen Ormsbee passes away
Having been a part of Aerospace Engineering at Illinois since the Department’s very beginnings, AE Emeritus Prof. Allen Ives Ormsbee, passed away July 13, 2012, from complications of pneumonia.
Ormsbee had graduated from AE in 1946, becoming the second person to have earned a bachelor’s degree from the Department. Upon graduating with high honors, he was appointed as an AE instructor and earned his master’s in 1948. He was promoted to Assistant Professor in Aeronautical Engineering in 1949. After that, Ormsbee became a part-time employee of Hughes Aircraft, and a member of the technical staff at Caltech. He was awarded a Howard Hughes Fellowship by the California Institute of Technology in 1952, and was awarded the degree cum laude Dr. of Philosophy in Aeronautics and Mathematics by Caltech.
Ormsbee then returned to the University of Illinois and achieved full professor status in 1957. He retired from AE in 1992, and served as Department Chair for Aerospace Engineering at Embrey-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach, Florida, from 1995 to 1999. He later made his home in New Bern, North Carolina.
“We all feel a profound loss with Al’s death,” said AE Emeritus Prof. Harry H. Hilton. “He was part of the Aerospace department for half a century and his many contributions will always be remembered. His devotion to teaching, to higher education through his tireless efforts in ABET, and to his beloved gliders will not be forgotten.”
Ormsbee is also remembered by his former advisee, Robert H. Liebeck, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, who said, “I believe I can say I have managed to become a successful aeronautical engineer. That success must be attributed to Prof. Allen Ormsbee.” (see full text of Liebeck’s essay, Thoughts on Al.)
Ormsbee was an American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Associate Fellow; and a member of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). He served as ABET
secretary for one year, treasurer for four years, and then chair and past chair of the Engineering Accreditation Commission (EAC). He was appointed as the AIAA representative on ABET and, in 2010, was awarded ABET’s highest honor, the Linton E. Grinter Distinguished Service Award.
Ormsbee was an avid handball player, and loved to fly fish, hike, backpack, travel, and especially fly gliders.
He achieved the Diamond Award in soaring for altitude in March 1973 after gliding outside of Colorado Springs. He had rented a Schweitzer 1-34 metal plane. Ormsbee suited up like a WWII bomber pilot and used an oxygen tank. He released from the tow plane at 15,500 ft., his flight ranging from 14,200 to 31,000 ft. in altitude, reflecting a gain of 16,800 ft. His airspeed was 75mph as was the wind speed, so as he was flying into the wind, causing him to gain altitude but stand still in relation to the Earth. “It was colder than you wouldn’t know what,” Ormsbee professed of that experience.
In July of 1974 in a Standard Libelle, Ormsbee did the Diamond Distance (500km or more) and a Closed Course Diamond combined, a unique and thrilling challenge. For him, the triangular route for the dual achievement consisted of flying from Champaign’s Willard University of Illinois Airport (CMI) to the Highland, Illinois, gliderport to the Lawrenceville, Illinois, Airport and back to CMI at an average speed of 42.9 mph and a distance of 521km. He was among the first hundred sailplane pilots to achieve all three diamonds.
When not gliding, Ormsbee loved hiking the backcountry trails and fly fishing the streams and lakes of the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountain Ranges of the U.S. and Canada with his family and friends. He hiked hundreds of miles, fished dozens of waterways, and swatted thousands of mosquitos in his backcountry explorations. He and his wife, Gerry (the former Geraldine Wilma Bartlett), climbed Mount Whitney when they were in their 20s.
His passion for flying infused his teaching at AE at Illinois. He thrived on teaching and inspiring his students to explore and hone their own gifts of knowledge to bring to the world of aerospace. He was equally inspired by their academic and professional accomplishments.
As his daughters were fond of saying “My dad really is a rocket scientist!”
Ormsbee and his wife enjoyed traveling for work and play to 15 countries including China, Turkey, and Peru. He would often say his greatest achievement was staying alive for over 80 years. Ormsbee’s greatest disappointment was that the sun comes up in the East. His unusual attributes and humor consisted of being left-handed and right-footed. He said he was “grateful for my charming and singular wife and my kids, and for all my friends and colleagues on whom I blame my success or lack thereof.” The three words that he used to sum up his life: “Pretty damn lucky.”
Ormsbee was born to Randall Holden Ormsbee and Nelle Carolyn Greene on Aug. 20, 1926, in Reno, Nevada. He graduated from Silver City Teacher’s High School in1942, and attended New Mexico State Teachers’ College. He met his wife at Silver City Teacher’s High School and they were married on Aug 24, 1946 in Urbana, Illinois.
Surviving are Ormsbee’s wife, Gerry; their three daughters, Pam Brodsky, Marilyn Strother, and Pat Ormsbee and four grandchildren, Jack Brodsky, Elizabeth Brodsky, Graham Strother, and Raeford Strother. He also leaves a legacy of students that have been brought closer to the stars through his teaching.
Thoughts on Al
By R. H. Liebeck, July 20, 2012
My first encounter with Professor Allen Ormsbee occurred in the fall of 1959 when I entered his classroom at the University of Illinois to learn about compressible fluid dynamics; the course was Aero 216. The text was “Elements of Gasdynamics”, by Liepmann and Roshko, and it contained the most terrifying set of homework problems – probably to this day. Al walked in bare-handed (no lecture notes or a copy of the text) and proceeded to fill the blackboards with a derivation of equations, all legible and neatly presented. This process was repeated three times a week (MWF) through the semester. Occasionally, Al would near the end of the lecture and discover that the result did not appear correct. An error! In turn he would carefully review his derivation, identify the error, and correct the result. Clearly, Al was deriving the solution real time, a capability I have not witnessed in my career to date. As U of I undergraduates, I recall that even we appreciated this special expertise.
Moving ahead to 1961, I was about to graduate and in the process of signing up for an interview with the Douglas Aircraft Company in Santa Monica, California. Al observed and said “Don’t sign up Bob, I want you to go to graduate school. As a consultant at Douglas, I will get you a summer job.” He did, and at the end of the summer I was offered a leave of absence so I could return the following spring. This process prevailed through my completion of a PhD, at which time I became a full-time Douglas engineer. This is my 51st year at Douglas, now called Boeing. And to date, I have never interviewed for a job.
Back to the graduate school days, where Al’s guidance, encouragement, and mentorship remain invaluable to this day. At a time when missiles and space were the predominant focus in aerospace, Al suggested a thesis topic in subsonic aerodynamics: airfoil design. This ultimately evolved into the problem of “Optimization of Airfoils for Maximum Lift”. We were able to solve the problem and this yielded airfoils whose lift to drag ratios were unmatched. More later.
Applications of this technology include the NASA Helios high altitude airplane, the Boeing Condor and more recently the Boeing Phantom Eye, the Ratsrepus World Championship aerobatic airplane, the keel for the America3 sailboat that won the America’s Cup in 1990, race car wings that won the Indianapolis 500 and several Formula 1 races. A glib reference to this could be: “victory on land, sea and in the air.” In addition, the airfoil technology has been successfully applied to several airplanes that remain classified.
What may be the most significant contribution of the airfoil work was recently identified by my colleague at MIT, Prof. Earll Murman. In defining the problem for maximum lift from an airfoil, we developed the equivalent of the Carnot cycle for internal combustion engines. This accomplishment was fundamental to my being awarded the 2011 Daniel Guggenheim Medal.
The airfoil problem was borne out of Al’s love for aerodynamics, and what could be more aerodynamically pure than a sailplane? Thus he acquired his first high-performance glider in the mid 60’s, a Libelle. This launched a hobby that lasted for most of his life. His bride Gerry was the captain of the recovery team when Al landed off-base.
Over the years since my graduation, our regular contact became the annual AIAA Aerospace Sciences Meeting in Reno each January. The meeting was held in a large casino hotel, originally called the MGM Grand. I could always locate Al and Gerry, along with their close friend Penn State Prof. Barnes McCormick, at the craps table. Each year, our mutual Christmas cards included the note “See you at Reno”.
In 1994, Al led a successful campaign for me to receive the University of Illinois College of Engineering Alumni Award for Distinguished Service. And, in 2011 I was inducted into the Engineering at Illinois Hall of Fame. Al and Gerry were unable to travel to Champaign Urbana for the induction ceremony. Instead, Al recorded a DVD titled “Tribute to Robert H. Liebeck from Allen Ormsbee”. My eyes water when I watch it. It is now a treasure.
My existence and success as an engineer must be attributed to Prof. Allen Ormsbee. As an undergraduate, it began with his motivation via his impeccable lectures on compressible flow theory. When he asked me to stay on as a graduate student and arranged a summer job at the Douglas Aircraft Company in Santa Monica, CA, I was overwhelmed by the honor. Early graduate school was a struggle, challenged by a request from my first wife for divorce circa two weeks prior to my oral examination. Somehow Al gave me the confidence to proceed, and after a short delay – I passed! In those days, you had one shot at the orals with no opportunity for a makeup. Sincere thanks, Al.
On to the thesis. During the summer of 1966, Al introduced me to the late A.M.O Smith, head of the Aerodynamics Research Group at the Douglas Aircraft Company in Long Beach. We had laid out the theory of airfoil design and analysis, but defining a canonical design problem was elusive. The following summer I was in Long Beach working for AMO. One day he called me into his office and said quite simply, “Why don’t you see how much lift you can get from an airfoil?” A proper design problem. The remainder is well-known history to those in the business. Al advised me through the successful completion of the thesis titled “Optimization of Airfoils for Maximum Lift”. The work is referenced in aerodynamics textbooks today.
I believe it was Sir Isaac Newton who said, "We stand on the shoulders of giants." I was blessed to have the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of two giants: Allen Ormsbee and A.M.O. Smith. Now I must show that I am worthy of the opportunity.