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David F. Salisbury, News Service (650) 725-1944; e-mail:

Aerodynamics pioneer R.T. Jones, former consulting professor, dies

Robert Thomas Jones, the man credited with making one of the most important discoveries in aerodynamics, died of natural causes at his Los Altos home on Aug. 11. He was 89. A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Oct. 7 in Memorial Church.

Jones, who discovered the theory of the simple swept-back wing, was a senior scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View until his retirement in 1981. After retiring from Ames, he allied himself with Stanford, serving as a consulting professor until 1997. According to Ilan Kroo, professor of aeronautics and astronautics, Jones taught a course in aerodynamic theory with a historical perspective that only he could bring. Jones also worked with a number of students on novel aircraft designs, including some of this own.

"Those of us privileged to call him a colleague at Stanford and NASA were continually surprised and inspired by this maverick scientist who contributed so much to our understanding of flight," Kroo said. "In addition to his well-known technical contributions in aeronautics, he captivated a generation of students with fresh insights and new ways of looking at problems ranging from hang-glider dynamics and optimal bird flapping to supersonic aircraft."

Jones, who was born in Macon, Ga., in 1910, was bitten by the aviation bug early in life. As a teenager, he designed a small motorcycle-engine--powered airplane and tried to build it in his upstairs bedroom. After attending the University of Missouri for a year, he quit to join a flying circus, where he carried gas cans, patched wing tips and did other jobs in return for flying lessons.

With a recommendation from the owner of the flying circus, Jones got a job at a small Missouri aircraft manufacturing company and worked his way into the engineering office. But in the 1930s the small company, like many others, was wiped out.

Through the political influence of his father, Jones' next job was as an elevator operator in the House Office Building in Washington, D.C. There he spent much of his time across the street at the Library of Congress, where he was befriended by the library's director, Albert Zahm, who had been a member of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), NASA's predecessor. At Zahm's recommendation, the young elevator operator ended up tutoring Congressman David J. Lewis in algebra and calculus.

In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt's administration created some emergency jobs at NACA's Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. Zahm and Lewis interceded on Jones' behalf to help him secure one of the positions. When his temporary job was about to expire, his bosses wanted Jones to take the standard civil service exam so he could get a permanent position, but Jones couldn't qualify for the exam because he didn't have a bachelor's degree. So they made up a special exam just for him.

By the time World War II began, Jones had published a number of important papers and had become well known in aeronautical circles, especially as an expert on stability and control. His most celebrated achievement was discovering the theory for the swept-back wing, which was an essential ingredient in achieving cost-effective supersonic flight. His book Wing Theory is considered a basic textbook in the field of aerodynamics.

Jones was the recipient of many professional awards, including an honorary doctorate from the University of Colorado and the Langley Medal -- an honor also bestowed on the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, Robert Byrd and James Webb, NASA's second administrator. Jones also received a Presidential Award for aeronautics. In 1988, NASA honored him as a "Superstar of Aviation."

Jones did not limit his talents to aerodynamics. He became interested in the biomechanics of blood flow and worked on an early heart assist pump design with colleagues at Avco Everett Research Laboratories in Massachusetts.

In the 1950s, after moving to the Bay Area, Jones and a former wife, Doris Cohen Jones, became interested in astronomy. He began to study optics and learned the art of grinding spherical mirrors. He discovered ways to improve traditional telescopes. In 1957, the couple formed a company, called the Vega Instrument Co., and began selling 6-inch telescopes. Although they made and sold about 40 instruments, the company didn't make much money. On the other hand, when NACA became NASA, Jones was one of the few aerodynamicists who knew anything about space.

When one of his daughters, Patricia, had progressed far enough in her musical studies that she needed a good violin, Jones decided to make one for her. He immersed himself in the study of the acoustics of violins. His first effort looked nice but didn't have adequate tonal quality. His second instrument was much better. In fact, his daughter has played it in recitals and in performances with the symphony orchestra in La Jolla.

Jones is survived by his wife, Megan More, of Los Altos Hills; daughters Patricia of San Diego and Harriet of Berkeley; and sons Edward of Murfreesboro, Tenn.; David of Corinth, Miss.; and Gregory and John of Los Altos Hills; as well as two nieces and three grandchildren.

Donations can be made to the R.T. Jones Memorial Scholarship Fund, c/o Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (attention Ilan Kroo), Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305.


By David F. Salisbury

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