Jerome C. Hunsaker and the Development of Aviation in America


Jerome C. Hunsaker

Jerome C. Hunsaker

I gained a new appreciation for Jerome Clarke Hunsaker (1886-1984) at the recent NACA Centenary Symposium held in Washington on March 3 and 4, 2015. His fingerprints are all over the history of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and the larger aviation efforts in the United States for much of the first century of flight. He was an internationally known teacher and researcher in aerodynamics especially during the first half of the twentieth century. He made enormous contributions to the development of flight systems, fired the enthusiasm of more than a generation of later engineers involved in aviation research, and virtually created the aeronautical engineering program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His career spanned more than six decades of aircraft research and development, where his efforts helped to establish the scientific and mathematical basis for flight.

Hunsaker was born on August 26, 1886, in Creston, Iowa, the son of Walter J. and Alma Clarke Hunsaker, who worked with the local newspaper. He moved with his family to Detroit and Saginaw, Michigan, where his father published newspapers, and was educated in the public schools. A fine student and a good athlete, Hunsaker was admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1904, and graduated at the head of his class in 1908. As a boy he had become enthralled with the exploits of the Wright Brothers, Samuel Langley, and other aviators, and while at the academy he pursued questions related to the problems of flight.

When Hunsaker completed his schooling as a Midshipman and was commissioned, he obtained an appointment to MIT where he was to pursue graduate training and set up a technical program to study the development of aircraft as a naval weapon. MIT awarded him an M.S. in 1912 and a doctorate in 1916 in aeronautical engineer­ing. During the latter four years Hunsaker organized and taught the first American course on aeronautical engineering, on the success of which he founded the internationally famous Department of Aeronautical Engineering which he headed between 1939 and 1952. Hunsaker commented:

In the beginning it was not possible to teach the principles of aeronautical engineering because none of us knew them. The principles had to be discovered, which meant that we had to investigate the difficulties of the past, collect a lot of facts, and then, after finding the meaning of the facts, determine the engineering principles of flight.

Among those Hunsaker taught during this period was Donald W. Douglas, another Annapolis Midshipman who had been sent to MIT to study aeronautical engineering and the founder in 1920 of the Douglas Aircraft Corp. Hunsaker and Douglas developed at MIT during these years the first effective U.S. wind tunnel to study aerodynamics.

While Hunsaker was involved in this work at MIT, he was ostensibly a U.S. naval officer.  He was far removed from the workaday Navy, however, until World War I when he was called to serve in Washington to head the Aircraft Division of the Navy Bureau of Construction and Repair. During the war, therefore, he had responsibility for the design, development, and manufacturing of all naval aircraft, whether airplanes, seaplanes, or airships. By the end of the war, Hunsaker had overseen the construction of more than 1,000 flying boats. Hunsaker also encouraged the efforts of Donald Douglas in the 1920s, who had formed his own aircraft manufacturing company in southern California, and while still heading the Navy’s aircraft production program purchased 96 DT-1 torpedo bombers. This began a long partnership for Douglas Aircraft Company with the Navy.

Jerome Hunsaker at MIT.

Jerome Hunsaker at MIT.

In this capacity Hunsaker also had responsibility for the development of lighter-than-air craft and he sponsored the construction of numerous non-rigid airships for submarine patrol.  He was largely responsible for the development of the U.S.S. Shenandoah, the Navy’s first lighter-than-air vessel, a rigid airship that was intended for aerial observation and strategic bombardment.  He was interested in airships because of the experience of World War I. Germany had built a fearsome bombing force around Zeppelin airships by 1914, and used them effectively early in the war. Although Zeppelins made huge targets and the hydrogen that kept them aloft was highly flammable and could be ignited with machine gun fire, until the closing months of the war their high cruising altitude ensured safety from fighter attack.

The Shenandoah, contracted for in 1919 and delivered in the summer of 1923, would provide a similar capability for the U.S. Navy. Also, since it was inflated with helium, it would not ignite the way hydrogen did. Hunsaker was thrilled when the Shenandoah made its maiden flight on September 4, 1923, flying round trip between the Navy’s lighter-than-air facility at Lakehurst, New Jersey, and St. Louis, Missouri, in less than two days. He was upset when the airship was lost in a tragic accident in Ohio on September 3, 1925, in which 13 men died.

Hunsaker resigned his naval commission in 1926, after attaining the rank of commander, to pursue business interests. Until 1933 he worked with several corporations on a variety of projects. For example, he worked with Bell Telephone Laboratories to develop a radio communication system for aircraft. He then joined the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company as vice president for the newly formed Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation.

Navy NC-4, designed by Jerome Hunsaker, George C. Westervelt, and Holden C. Richardson.

Navy NC-4, designed by Jerome Hunsaker, George C. Westervelt, and Holden C. Richardson.

In the depth of the Depression in 1933, Hunsaker returned to MIT to head the Department of Mechanical Engineering and take charge of the aeronautical engineering program. When the Department of Aeronautical Engineering was formed in 1939 he became its chair. In this capacity he helped to train and certainly served as a role model of more than two generations of aeronautical engineers. He finally retired in 1952, but stayed at MIT as a lecturer until 1957 when he entered emeritus status.

Jerome Hunsaker lived a long time. He died at the age of 98 on September 10, 1984, at his home in Beacon Hill, Massachusetts. His wife, Alice P. Avery, had already died in 1966, but his son, Jerome C. Hunsaker, Jr., and two daughters, Sarah P. Swope and Alice M. Bird, survived him.

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