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Book Review - From the Ground Up

From the Ground Up Book Cover
From the Ground Up

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I just finished reading From the Ground Up: The Autobiography of an Aeronautical Engineer. It was written by Fred Weick (1899-1993), and co-authored by James R. Hansen. I found it to be extremely interesting (but perhaps there were a few unique reasons that made the book so appealing to me).

Fred Weick is probably not a familiar name to most people, even those involved in aviation, despite the significant contributions he's made. He's probably most well known to Ercoupe pilots - Weick designed the plane back in the '40s, and is spoken of almost reverentially on Ercoupe forums (such as the fly-in and tech groups on Yahoo). My great uncle and I share an Ercoupe (and by share - I mean he keeps it in Pittsburgh and flies it, while I get to dream about it while I'm down here in Texas). It was when I first started following along on those Ercoupe discussion groups that Weick became a name that I would remember.

Later on, after I'd started working as an aeronautical engineer, and was just getting started doing design work on propellers, while doing some research on the subject, I came across an interesting paper, Propeller design I: practical application of the blade element theory, by none other than Fred Weick. That lead me to pay even more attention to his name, and it began popping up all over the place.

Fred Weick grew up during the golden age of aviation, and fell in love with airplanes from an early age. He spent a lot of time at his local airport, watched airshows, joined a club building model airplanes, and just generally immersed himself in the nascent field of flight.

After a few odd jobs, such as working for a small aircraft manufacturer and mapping out routes for the air mail service, he took a job with the NACA in the Washington D.C. area (I used to work in D.C., too). He got his start doing theoretical and experimental work on propellers (like I said above, I've had some experience designing propellers myself). He even wrote a text book on the subject.

After a brief stint as the chief engineer at Hamilton, Weick went back to the NACA to help run the NACA's new full scale wind tunnel at Langley. He started during the construction of the tunnel. One of the research projects conducted there by Weick was the NACA cowling. According to John D. Anderson in his textbook, Introduction to Flight, "The development of this cowling was one of the most important aerodynamic advancements of the 1920s; it led the way to a major increase in aircraft speed and efficiency." (Anderson 452) This work earned Weick the Collier Trophy in 1929.

While still with the NACA, Weick began working on the side on a research aircraft to try to address the most common causes of accidents at the time. The aircraft was named the W-1, and Weick had the volunteer assistance of a few of the other engineers who worked under him. He designed the aircraft to be stall proof and spin proof. He developed a 2-control system, experimenting with rudder only and aileron only control. Perhaps the greatest legacy of the W-1 was its tricycle landing gear which made takeoffs, landing, and ground handling much easier and safer. This was the first aircraft developed with a steerable nosewheel, which has since become the standard on just about all airplanes.

Engineering Research Company, or ERCO, which was being run by one of Weick's old friends, Henry Berliner (who had also done some pioneering work on helicopters), and which was already providing parts to aircraft companies, wanted to get into the business of making planes for themselves. They hired Weick as their chief engineer, and he moved to College Park (which, incidentally, is the home of the University of Maryland, where I earned my degree). The project allowed Weick to put into practice many of the innovations he'd developed for the W-1, in a plane that became known as the Ercoupe. One difference between the two planes was in the 2-control system. The W-1 was able to get away with aileron only control, because the ailerons produced so little adverse yaw. However, the design was also draggy overall, so it wasn't suitable for high speed cruise. The Ercoupe instead used interconnected rudders and ailerons (this was offered as an option - customers could still buy the airplane with a more conventional 3-control setup). The Ercoupe really is a unique airplane, and when you consider that it was designed around the same time as airplanes like the Piper Cub, you can see just how revolutionary it was.

When the civil aircraft market crashed after WWII, ERCO got out of the aircraft manufacturing business, and Weick took a job down at Texas A&M (College Station's a few hours away from me, but I also moved down to Texas). One of the areas Weick got involved with was agricultural spraying, better known as crop dusting, and one of his major projects was to develop an airplane ideally suited for the purpose (both in terms of utility and increased pilot safety). He came up with the Ag-1, a low wing monoplane with the pilot set up high for good visibility. It was a bit unconventional at the time, but the configuration has become the standard for agricultural planes (such as the Air Tractor, which, by the way, is manufactured in Olney, where we test fly the CarterCopter).

Weick had earlier developed a friendship with Howard "Pug" Piper, son of William T. Piper (of Piper Cub fame). Pug recognized that the company's old fashioned Cubs and Tri-Pacers wouldn't be able to compete with the more modern designs being put out by other manufacturers, and he asked Weick to join Piper Aircraft as the director and chief engineer of their development center. Weick took the job, moved to Vero Beach, FL, and was to stay with Piper until his retirement.

One of Weick's projects at Piper was the PA-25 Pawnee. Reminiscient of what he did with the Ercoupe from the W-1, the PA-25 was an agricultural plane that incorporated many of the design features he'd come up with for the Ag-1. Weick also lead the design of the Cherokee series of aircraft. This included not just the 4-seat PA-28, but also several variants, including the PA-32 Cherokee 6, and the twin engined PA-34 Seneca.

Weick continued to stay active in aviation even after his retirement, as a consultant, and also doing research on his own. He'd even mount models to his car to test while running down the highway (I've got some experience with that, too).

Weick details all his experiences in these various companies in this autobiography, tells of a few adventures he had flying and watching air races, and describes his experiences working with and meeting such figures as Orville Wright, Charles Lindbergh, and Amelia Earhart. His may not be a house hold name, but Fred Weick truly was very influentional in aviation, and his innovations have no doubt improved the field. It was extremely interesting to read about his life in his own words.

Comments

I worked at Piper from 1965 till the bankruptcy in 1991.The Development Center had a wives club for the Development Center. At one of the Christmas parties one of the wives came up to Fred and asked 'And Mr. Weick what do you do at Piper?'. The room went quiet, I don't remember his response, but it was quite low key as was Fred's demeanor. I find it unreal he was Director of Engineering and today with fewer people Piper has too many Vice President's. He deserved more. Working in GA when I did and at Piper was truly fun. The company still makes its living off the designs certified under Fred and Karl Bergey.

Thanks for the comment and the story.

I wish I'd had a chance to meet Mr. Weick, and from some of the stories I read on the Ercoupe forums it sounds like he was approachable at fly-ins and other get togethers, but I'm just a few years too young.

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