John McMasters was an enthusiastic engineer with a passion for designing aircraft and inspiring the next generation of engineering designers. He was a tireless advocate for industry integration into project-based learning and in developing sustainable industry-academe partnerships. He was named a Technical Fellow at Boeing, a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and an Outstanding Aerospace Engineer by Purdue.
After graduating with a BS and MS in engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder, John went on active duty with the U.S. Air Force where he was awarded the Air Force Commendation Medal in 1965 for his conceptual design, deployment and testing of air-to-air guided missiles. He earned a Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering from Purdue University in 1975 and joined Boeing as an aerodynamics engineering soon after graduating, where he was instrumental in developing many innovative design concepts.
Inspired by the wonders of flight in nature, John was a strong advocate of biomimetic approaches to design. He was involved in the early development of human-powered aircraft design projects and worked with Paul MacCready in developing a flying pterodactyl he called the “Altostratus“. He was also instrumental in the design of a solar-powered sailplane that is on permanent display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum (see both left photos above). John may be best known to the younger generation, however, as the engineer that proved that bumble bees could fly, in spite of rumors to the contrary by scientists who claimed they could not.
At a talk given to NASA on biomechanics of flight he said: Aeronautics in its traditional form is usually presumed to have started as a engineering discipline somewhere in historical time between the mythological experiments of Daedalus and his ill-fated son, Icarus; and the dreams and schemes of Leonardo da Vinci during the Italian Renaissance, which eventually led to the Wright brothers’ success a century ago. . . . “aeronautics” has a far richer and longer (though less disciplined) history extending over a period of about 300 million year beginning with the evolution of the ability of insects to fly. With the advent of the success of the early 20th Century pioneers, technologists quickly turned their attention from the inspirations and lessons provided by natural models of flying machines to a more practical quest for increasingly dramatic improvements in speed, range and altitude performance, far beyond the limits of what muscles and flapping wings could provide. Thus a field of further productive inquiry was left to a few amateur aeronauts, eccentrics and biologists.
Throughout his career John was a strong advocate for engineering education reform and held a number of faculty and teaching appointments, including serving as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Washington. He worked with the engineering education community to develop Boeing’s list of “Desired Attributes of an Engineer”. He helped design and launch the Boeing A.D. Welliver Faculty Summer Fellowship internship program and served as program manager for the Ed Wells Initiative, a joint program between Boeing and the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace charged with enhancing the excellence of the SPEEA represented Boeing technical workforce. He was insistent that “we as an aeronautics community (industry, government and academe) have much to do to create a positive vision of our future as vivid as that which has driven our past, and assure the proper education and professional development of a future generation of technical talent in our always dynamic and evolving enterprise.”
In the month prior to his passing, John prepared a set of annotated slides and documents to preserve his legacy of innovations in biomimetics design and engineering education. These documents are being made accessible on the Engineering Pathway digital library and will be presented at a dinner tribute to John at the Mudd Design Workshop VII on May 29, 2009. Paul Dees from Boeing also provided this list of publications by John McMasters.
For more information, see the Engineering Pathway’s educational resources on aircraft design, aerodynamics, fluid dynamics and aeronautic engineering. For related curricula, visit the Aeronautical Engineering Education or the Mechanical Engineeirng Education communities.