New historical marker honors pioneering aerospace faculty member, work

A new historical marker erected by the Penn State Alumni Association commemorates a pioneering aeronautical research project in the College of Engineering.

The marker, located in Foundry Park (behind Hammond Building), is dedicated to Barnes McCormick, Boeing professor emeritus of aerospace engineering, and his research team, who made the first measurements of the details of wake turbulence behind a full-scale airplane. These measurements were later used in setting separation distances between aircraft operating in and out of airport, distances codified today in the regulations of the Federal Aviation Administration and international agencies.

However, long before McCormick and his colleagues were celebrating in Foundry Park, he was making his mark on the field of aeronautics and the University.

The Georgia native received his bachelor's degree in 1948, his master's degree in 1949 and his doctorate in 1954, all in aeronautical engineering from Penn State.

After working at Vertol Aircraft Corp. and Wichita State University, McCormick returned to Penn State.

In 1965, with the help of five master's students and one doctoral student, McCormick began his groundbreaking research on wake turbulence at the University Park Airport. The goal of the research was to determine the size of a vortex coming off a wing, in order to ensure a safe flying distance between aircraft.

By placing instrumentation on a runway, the team was able to take the first measurements of vortices coming off the wings of a low-flying single-engine airplane.

"The most important part was retrieving the measurements of how quickly the vortices decayed," he said.

McCormick and his team soon realized that their measurements of the vortices contradicted the research available at the time.

The team's results quickly sparked the interest of the FAA. They recruited McCormick to reproduce the work, but on a much larger scale. His previous results stood true and were later used in setting separation distances of aircrafts at airports around the world.

McCormick's research on wake turbulence in the mid 1960s led to a long and fulfilling career in the aeronautics field.

After presenting at a Washington, D.C. symposium on wake turbulence to a room full of attorneys eager to sue the FAA for flight safety negligence McCormick accomplished another first. He was the first to offer expert testimony in a wake turbulence accident case and has since testified in more than 60 aircraft accident cases.

The aeronautical engineer has even co-authored a book about his experiences on these cases, along with two other books on aerodynamics.

In 1990, McCormick officially retired from the University and was named Boeing Professor Emeritus. He is still an active consultant to many legal firms, government and industrial organizations.

Involved in a number of professional societies, McCormick is a fellow and board member of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He was also a former technical director and journal editor for the American Helicopter Society.

A grandfather of five and great grandfather of two, McCormick said he is thankful and honored to have an everlasting acknowledgment of his achievements at the University.

"The sight of my colleagues and family surrounding the historical marker to celebrate my work brought a tear to my eye," McCormick said.

New historical marker is dedicated to Boeing Professor Emeritus of Aerospace Engineering Barnes McCormick and his research team, who made the first measurements of the details of wake turbulence behind a full-scale airplane. Credit: Curtis Chan / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated November 18, 2010