History

Marking its 96th year in 2010, 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 :


Felix Wladyslaw Pawlowski

The Michigan Technic 22

Felix PawlowskiEvery graduate engineer in Aeronautics from the University of Michigan 
will long remember Professor F. W. 
 Pawlowski, for he is not only a distinguished educator and a true friend of his
 students but a real gentleman as well.

Professor Pawlowski’s interest in
 Aeronautics was kindled long before the
 epic flight of the Wright brothers in
 1903. In the 1880′s, while still attend
ing secondary school, Professor Pawlowski happened to see a drawing of Alphonse Penaud’s model airplane in a popular scientific French book; and he 
spent the next eighteen months con
structing similar models until he finally
 succeeded in producing one capable of 
a stable flight of ten seconds duration. 
 His greatest discouragement was not 
due to his lack of knowledge, but to the
 fact that his fellow classmates ridiculed 
him and accused him of possessing an 
empty dome for a head with little birds 
flying around in it.

Professor Pawlowski studied engineer
ing in Germany where he received a
 combined degree in Mechanical and 
Electrical Engineering; after which he
 worked as draftsman, designer, production engineer and finally chief en
gineer in Poland. At this last position
 he publicly suppressed his interest in 
aeronautics at the request of the general manager of the company, for it was
 usually considered a poor policy to employ a “lunatic” in such a responsible 
position as chief engineer. Nevertheless, 
 when, due to some troubles with Rus
sian authorities, he was obliged to leave 
his native country, Poland, he went to 
France, where at LeMans he witnessed 
the historical flights made by Wilbur
 Wright, whom he met at that occasion. 
 He also met Orville in the spring of
 1909 in Pau where the Wright brothers 
established the first school for airplane
 fliers. Having found it beyond his
 means to join the school full of wealthy 
sportsmen and aristocrats, he returned 
to Paris, where the first chair in aeronautics had been established at the University of Paris, Sorbonne, in 1909, and
 was among the first to enroll.

After completing this course, in 1910, 
 he set out to build an airplane. His 
endeavors finally resulted in a monoplane with a twenty-seven horsepower, 
 three cylinder Anzani engine.

To build the plane was one proposi
tion, to fly it another. To familiarize 
himself with the plane, he spent a great
 deal of time taxiing along an airfield
, which was one square kilometer in area, 
 at Issyles-Moulineaux near Paris. 
 When he reached the boundary of the 
field, it was necessary for him to throttle 
down the engine, jump from the plane, 
 grab the tail of the ship, swing it
 through an arc of 180 degrees, jump 
back to the cockpit and then taxi to 
the opposite end of the field. This 
procedure eliminated stopping the engine and throwing the prop at each end
 of the field, which might have been ac
companied by the loss of an arm, or two.

After many flights of ten to fifteen
 minutes duration, his plane was finally
 destroyed in its second crash. Professor
. Pawlowski considers himself very fortunate in that the only injury to him
self was a few broken bones.

After these experimental flights Pro
fessor Pawlowski came to this country 
and having been refused employment
 by Glenn Curtiss and Orville Wright, 
 he worked for two years in the auto
motive industry as a designer. At the 
same time, he wrote to the major engineering schools in the country, pro
posing to offer courses in what is now 
known as Aeronautical Engineering. 
His initiative was rewarded by replies 
from the deans of the schools—most of 
them asking what kind of a joke he was 
trying to play on them or stating blunt
ly that aeronautics would never amount 
to anything worthwhile. Only two 
schools believed to the contrary: M.I.T. 
and Michigan.

Through the foresight of the late 
Dean Mortimer E. Cooley, Professor 
Pawlowski was offered a position here 
in 1912 as an instructor in the Depart
ment of Mechanical Engineering with
 the prospect of teaching aero courses at 
the most opportune moment. Professor
 Pawlowski started teaching regular 
courses leading to the degree of Bach
elor of Science in Aeronautical Engineering in February 1915. This was 
the first such course in the U. S. The 
regents established the degree in Aero
nautical Engineering in 1916 and the 
holder of the first degree, a member of 
the class of 1916, is Flavius E. Laudy, now a Lieutenant Colonel in the A.A.F.

Professor Pawlowski’s ability in the 
field of aeronautics has been widely re
cognized. In 1916 he and Donald Doug
las were engaged as the first aeronautical engineers for the U. S. Army. Dur
ing his summer vacations he has done 
research work for NACA at Langley 
Field, Va., and for the Army at McCook 
and Wright Fields.

Professor Pawlowski is one of the
 Founder Members and a Fellow of the
 Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences, 
 Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society of London and member of Sigma Xi
 and many other professional and sci
entific organizations. He is also a mem
ber of the Early Birds, a very exclusive 
organization because its membership is 
composed of those who have piloted 
balloons or airplanes within the first 
thirteen years following the first flights 
made by the Wright brothers, i.e. Dec.
17, 1916.

Perhaps the summer term will mark 
the end of the career of Professor Pawlowski as an educator for he is nearing 
the retiring age; nevertheless, his reign 
will be long remembered in the hearts 
of his students as part of the tradition 
that has made Michigan a great Univer
sity.