Obituary: Fred Weick
Thursday 15 July 1993
FRED WEICK was one of the world's foremost aeronautical engineers, whose accomplishments spanned half a century of progress in aviation.
As a child in Berwyn, Illinois, Weick developed an interest in aviation after seeing aeroplanes flying from Grant Park, Chicago. After graduating from the University of Illinois with a degree in mechanical engineering, he worked as a draughtsman for the US Air Mail Service, which was converting surplus De Havilland DH-4 bombers into mailplanes. The lure of free flying lessons took him to the fledgling Yackey Aircraft Company, with whom Weick made his first solo flight in 1923, a 100-mile journey in bad weather. It was not for another 16 years that he bothered with the formality of a pilot's licence.
In 1923 Weick joined the Bureau of Aeronautics, at the Navy Department, in Washington DC, where a quickly won reputation as an expert in propeller technology brought an invitation from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the forerunner of NASA, to run its propeller research wind-tunnel. There he made the first of many technological advances whose influences are still felt today: a fully enclosed low-drag cowling to cool and streamline the cumbersome radial aero engines of the day. The 'NACA cowl' won the prestigious Collier Trophy in 1929 and was a speed-
increasing feature of virtually every radial-engined aircraft thereafter.
After a spell with Hamilton Aero (later Hamilton Standard) in California, where he continued his pioneering work on propeller design, Weick rejoined NACA at Langley Field, Virginia, to run a new atmospheric wind- tunnel and study problems of aircraft stability and control. In his spare time he pursued a personal goal, the creation of a safe, easy-to-fly aeroplane for private owners. Working in his one-car garage with his wife Dorothy and a group of colleagues from Langley, he built the Weick W-1, an experimental prototype which first flew in 1934 and was subsequently modified and loaned to the US Department of Commerce for exhaustive testing by NACA pilots. It incorporated many innovations in aerodynamics and control systems, and also employed the then novel form of undercarriage which Weick called 'tricycle landing gear' that has since become the standard configuration.
In 1936 Weick was invited by the Engineering and Research Corporation (Erco) of Washington, DC, to design a commercial model of the W-1, and thus was born the Erco Ercoupe, first flown on 1 October 1937. The two-seat Ercoupe capitalised on Weick's safety plane ideas. It had tricycle landing gear, limited elevator travel to prevent stalling and a two-control system linking ailerons to rudders which prevented it from entering a potentially fatal spin. Because of its inherent stability and simple controls the US Civil Aeronautics Authority reduced the time required for a trainee pilot to solo from eight to five hours when flying an Ercoupe. 'Looking back with today's perspicacity,' Weick observed a few years ago, 'I believe the CAA's recognition of the Ercoupe as an extraordinarily safe airplane did more harm than good. Many pilots approached it with the very idea of trying to spin it . . . showing less concern and respect than for the general run of airplanes. Although one can design and build an airplane that is very easy to fly safely, safe operation always depends in the end on the pilot's understanding the capabilities of both the airplane and himself.' Erco built more than 5,000 Ercoupes before production ceased in 1951, but Weick's classic design was rejuvenated several times by other manufacturers in the Sixties and Seventies when several hundred more were built, and many are still flying.
From Erco, Weick moved to Texas A & M where he designed the first aircraft created specifically for crop spraying and dusting, incorporating pilot protection and other safety features which have since become agricultural aviation industry standards. In the mid-1950s Weick was invited by Piper Aircraft Corporation to put to the test his then-radical notion that all-metal light aeroplanes were as cheap to build as fabric-covered ones. He designed the Piper Cherokee, an enduring, ubiquitous classic of which more than 30,000 have been built, in dozens of different versions.
Weick retired from Piper at the age of 70, and finally gave up flying when he was 84. A modest, unassuming man, a precise but pragmatic engineer, he continued to attend reunions of Ercoupe owners and to conduct avidly attended technical forums on aircraft design into his nineties. In 1990 he received the Daniel Guggenheim Award for his NACA cowl and tricycle landing gear work.
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