Virginia Tech® home

John W. (Jack) Boyd

John W. (Jack) Boyd

Aerospace Engineering
Class of 1942, BS

John W. Boyd has had the type of career that makes most engineers – and journalists, Hollywood actors, and any number of people – wag their tongues. He has rubbed elbows and directly worked with John Glenn, Neil Armstrong and Wally Schirra. Without his efforts and those of his co-workers, the United States would not have made it into space or to the moon, or beyond. When the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, much of America panicked. Mr. Boyd and his fellow workers within the U.S. space industry set to work.

His awards are enviable: the Stanford Sloan Fellowship, the NASA Exceptional Service Award, the NASA Outstanding Leadership Award, the Presidential rank of Meritorious Executive, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, and the Army Command Medal. He is a member of the NASA Ames Hall of Fame and a Fellow of American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “Jack enjoys a widely known reputation as ‘Mr. Conical Camber’ for his contributions to the theories of efficient high -performance transonic wings. He also has a well-established reputation as a devoted mentor to young engineers throughout his career,” says Chris Hall, head of Virginia Tech’s aerospace and ocean engineering (AOE) department.

Mr. Boyd was raised in Danville, Virginia, and was not inclined to study engineering until, as a young teen, his older cousin invited Jack for a ride-along in a biplane. Up in the air, the wheels on the young Boyd’s mind were set to spinning. “Why does it stay in the air for Christ's sake,” he asked himself of the airplane.

Mr. Boyd’s interest in flight landed him, so to speak, at Virginia Tech as World War II was churning onward. At the time, students were pushed through college – quarter semesters and the like being placed aside. He graduated at age 21 with a degree in aeronautical engineering and, having never ventured far out of Virginia, sought a job at the federal Ames Aeronautical Laboratory in Mountain View, California. The job paid a bit less than $3,000 per year, and the other option was Langley in Hampton, Virginia. “I wanted to experience life beyond Virginia,” Mr. Boyd says of his choice.

He started at Ames in 1947, and still is there today, employed as a senior adviser, center historian, and ombudsman. It hasn’t been a ruler-straight career path, though. Where other men could (rightfully) gloat about their accomplishments, Mr. Boyd is humble and not hesitant to turn his sense of humor inward. “They threw me out a few times to do different things, but I keep coming back,” he says of Ames.

Starting as a first-level aeronautical engineer, Mr. Boyd worked on the first forays into wind tunnels and supersonic and subsonic aircraft, pioneering design efforts of conical camber wing shapes that were and are used on a wide variety of craft such as the F102, F106, B-58 planes, and testing the blunt “entry” shape of such craft as Apollo, Mercury and Gemini, and the original planetary probes for Mars and Venus.

All of this was groundwork research started before President Kennedy’s 1961 mantra to get a man to the moon by decade’s end. “We were working on this technology before we decided to go the moon,” Mr. Boyd says. “We could not have started (in 1961) from scratch all the work they were doing from 1957, and get to the moon by 1969. The early research was done before hand. It really paid off.”

The men training on the supersonic jets, in part dreamed up and designed by Mr. Boyd and his fellow engineers, would prove famous. “We were privileged to work with a lot of those guys (astronauts),” he says, “when they were young test pilots.” During this time, Mr. Boyd took part in a NASA-led effort to train engineers in business management via Stanford University. Mr. Boyd earned an MBA in 1966, after earning advanced degrees in aeronautics and physics 10 years prior, also from Stanford.

Mr. Boyd did indeed move up the management ladder. In 1961, he was named technical assistant to the aeronautics director at Ames. He oversaw a $20 million budget in research – huge money at the time – concerning wind tunnels, flight simulators, and needed computer support. He became Ames’ face to NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., and continued to move up management ranks. He helped and oversaw design of varying spacecraft, thermal projection systemsthat later would be used on the 1980s-era space shuttles.

In 1970, he was elevated to deputy director of aeronautics by then-Center Director Hans Mark. The move put Mr. Boyd in charge of Ames’ main research department, touching on civil and military craft and then far-reaching – and still challenging – technology such as VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) craft. Nine years later, he became Dryden Flight Research Center’s deputy director in Lancaster, California. This work tasked him with the vital work – approach and landing tests – on the then-future Space Shuttle Enterprise. In 1980, Mr. Boyd came back to Ames as acting deputy director and associate director. This placed him as a senior manager of not only Ames, but Dryden and Moffett fields as well. (Ames and Dryden eventually were combined in 1981, and separated again in 1994.)

Mr. Boyd headed east to Washington, D.C., in 1983 where he served as associate administrator for management. He oversaw staff, personnel, industrial relations, information management and security of NASA’s research centers. During President Ronald Reagan’s efforts to streamline government operations – removing redundancies, for instance – Mr. Boyd was NASA’s representative on the Grace committee. In 1984, he again returned to Ames as third head position, associate director. Here, he was singled out for opening NASA’s doors to minority employees.

In 1985, Mr. Boyd left NASA and government work to “retire.” But he didn’t sit still long, just longer than a weekend. He headed south to the Lone Star State, where he became chancellor for research for the University of Texas system. His boss was Hans Mark, a previous Ames director. He handled administrative duties, met with governors, the state legislature, and successfully ballooned the statewide UTS research funding to $600 million per year in 1992, well past double from $250 million in 1985. He also was an adjunct professor at the state universities of Austin, Pan American, and El Paso.

But space called again. In 1993, Mr. Boyd yet again returned to NASA’s Moffett Field to establish the Ames Aerospace Encounter, an education program for K-12 students and teachers. The program is renowned for its hands-on learning environment. There, students get to “play” what many adults still dream of being: mission control operators, builders of aircraft, and astronauts. All simulated, of course. And there Mr. Boyd remains, 62 years into his career.

“I have found everything I have done is fun,” he says. He still gets excited about space missions. With NASA’s October 2009 Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite foray to the moon, scientists found large caches of water on the lunar body. “That’s kind of exciting that that much water was kicked up,” Mr. Boyd says.

Having helped see other men and women into space, has Mr. Boyd ever wanted to make the journey himself? Again, he uses humor. “I did at times when I was younger, but I decided about when I was 80 I didn’t want to do it,” he jokes, skipping a beat, then adding, “It would be a one-way trip.” Despite that early interest in flying, Mr. Boyd didn’t push his piloting skills too far. He says he “made a better engineer than a pilot.” But he did one time fly as a passenger in a supersonic trainer jet, reaching mach 1.5. “The sound barrier was just a little thump,” he laughs.

Mr. Boyd’s career has rubbed off on at least one grandson. At 13, Zak has designed a quantum gravity machine that he says could get travelers to Mars in five minutes, not the now expected nine months. “It would be just like going down to the corner drugstore,” Mr. Boyd says, pride coming through clearly over a telephone. What engineering school Zak may attend still is up in the air.

Mr. Boyd has been married to Winifred Boyd for 60 years. The couple has five children and nine grandchildren.

Class of: 1942
Year Inducted into Academy: 2010