A. Warner Robins

Aeronautical Engineering
Class of 1949, BS

When Warner Robins was growing up on a dairy farm near the Langley Field in the Tidewater area of Virginia, he would see everything from balloonists to biplanes to dirigibles soaring over his head. He recalls that when the young pilots were training, they would perform “ridiculous” maneuvers, buzzing low over the fields, scaring both farmers and livestock. It was the late 1920s and early 1930s.

“At first, I was frightened. But then I thought, ‘This has to be fun,’” he says today. “Sometimes, when Langley was fogged in, they would land in our pastures or on our roads. My level of interest increased every day,” Mr. Robins – who is now 86 – remembers vividly.

From the wide-eyed boy mesmerized by the acrobatic “Top Gun” stunts of the Langley aviators, Mr. Robins grew up to become one of the key contributors to the field of supersonic aircraft design and analysis.

The road to his aeronautical success was not easy. When he graduated from Hampton Public Schools in 1942, World War II was in full battle, and the 18 year old raced to the Post Office to take a test to become an aviation cadet. Technicalities got in his way, but a few months later he went to Camp Lee, and “made a nuisance of myself every day until I got into the Army Air Corps,” he recalls. Eventually, after graduating and receiving his wings, he trained as a bomber co-pilot at the Kingman Air Force Base in Arizona and at Biggs Field in Texas. From the winter of 1945 until May 1945, he flew as a pilot or a co-pilot on six self-described “easy” missions over wartime Europe.

In November of 1945, he safely completed his military tour before his 21st birthday, and followed in his father’s footsteps, enrolling at Virginia Tech. “Dad was in the Class of 1911, but was called home to assist with his father’s farm and grist mill, and then was called off to World War I. His assignment was to assist an onboard veterinarian with shipping horses from Newport News, Virginia, to England,” Mr. Robins says. His father was never able to return to Blacksburg.

The younger Robins started Virginia Tech during the winter quarter of January 1946. By taking 21 credit hours numerous times, he was able to graduate in the spring of 1949. He had been a member of Tau Beta Pi and Gamma Alpha Rho, serving as president of the latter honorary society. He led a long line of Robins family members to graduate from the University, including three of his sons, two grandchildren, and some of the folks who married into his family.

When Mr. Robins left Virginia Tech with degree in hand, he immediately returned to the Commonwealth’s lower Peninsula, joining NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) as an aeronautical engineer.

One of the first projects Mr. Robins recalls working on was classified, and stemmed from a “terribly unnerving test-pilot experience.” When dropping a dummy bomb at supersonic speeds in flight tests of a new fighter-bomber candidate, the bomb flew back up and struck the aircraft. The alarmed aircraft contractor sought NACA’s help. Subsequent wind-tunnel tests provided two aerodynamic solutions to the specific problem, and “drop-path” mapping for a variety of other bomb shapes and aircraft configurations. “Ironically, although that fighter bomber dropped a lot of stuff in the Vietnam War, I doubt that it ever dropped anything at supersonic speeds,” Mr. Robins noted.

The lack of any adequate computers in the 1950s at NACA posed a real challenge to the researchers attempting to implement the analytical processes of the supersonic flows. “Our fiscal folks had computers, but they were reluctant to share them with us,” Mr. Robins relates. His group approached the bosses, ostensibly seeking computers for themselves and other research groups. The decision “in the interest of economy,” was to share those computers, much to the chagrin of the fiscal folks.

By 1961, Mr. Robins was leading a group of some 20 research professionals as the supervising Aeronautical Research Scientist. NACA had morphed into NASA, and in the two decades that he led this group, Mr. Robins held a leadership role in the understanding of the nature of supersonic flows and the engineering of supersonic aircraft.

“Much of what we consider to be standard knowledge regarding supersonic aircraft configurations was developed during the 20 years Warner Robins led that group,” says Christopher Hall, professor and head of the aerospace and ocean engineering department at Virginia Tech. In fact, Mr. Robins was the lead author on a NASA paper on supersonic mechanics that Dr. Hall credits as “the Bible on supersonics.”

Modestly, Mr. Robins says he “was just in the right place at the right time to move the technology along. We had to do a lot of number crunching. My life changed in 1960 when we got a real supercomputer. I considered that a miracle.”

In the 1970s, Mr. Robins was involved in the technical analysis that led to the now-famous “747-Orbiter Piggyback Concept,” used to transport the space shuttle orbiter. He laughs when he describes his first suggestion to NASA for moving the shuttle. “I suggested that they take all those extra shuttle sub-assemblies at North American Aviation, assemble a fourth shuttle, and cycle them back by barge through the Panama Canal. They were horrified with the idea that such a high-tech vehicle should be placed on such a low-tech barge where everyone could see it.”

Faced with their initial response, Mr. Robins and one of his colleagues estimated the aerodynamics and vehicle performance of a 747/Orbiter Piggyback configuration, which indicated the “pitch maneuver” (for early flight testing) and the cross-country ferry missions could be accomplished, using the new, high-thrust, GE Cf-6 engines. He was subsequently presented with a flag that flew on the oft-piggybacked shuttle Columbia for his “personal contributions towards making space available.” He still proudly displays the piece of history on a wall in his den.

When Mr. Robins retired in 1980, he was NASA Langley’s Assistant Head of the Supersonics Aerodynamics Branch. It ran the Unitary-Plan Wind Tunnel, a supersonic tunnel also used by the military and their contractors since few, if any companies, had an equivalent facility at that time. Its speeds ranged from Mach 1.87 to 4.63.

“Warner Robins was responsible for maintaining U.S. technology capability for several generations of airplane aerodynamicists and airplane designers,” says William Mason, an expert in the field of aircraft design and professor emeritus of the AOE department.

After retirement, Mr. Robins remained a consultant to NASA through his employee/subcontractor relationship to Kentron Aerospace Technologies Division’s Planning Research Corporation until 1986. “It gave me another chance to come up with some real concepts in aviation, including off-the-wall, out-of-the-box type designs. I told them they did not have to pay me much, but I wanted to have fun,” Mr. Robins grins.

The octogenarian is completely retired now and reflects on one of his favorite hobbies throughout the last few decades of his working life, and some years since – sailing. “I crewed for a great skipper and friend who won lots of races. A high point was a first-to-finish in our class in the 1976 race from Annapolis to Newport, Rhode Island. I sailed my own cruising tub all over the Chesapeake – surely one of the best sailing bays there is.”

Mr. Robins and his wife, Carolyn, will celebrate their 60-year anniversary on June 16, 2011. They have four sons and one daughter. He is the third of four children, all of whom are still alive today, ranging in age from 94 to his baby sister at 84. He says longevity runs in his family, as his mom died a few weeks before her 101st birthday. At that time, he recalls that the blue-eyed feisty, one-time redhead told him, “I am proud of you. I think you are going to be all right.”

Class of: 1949
Year Inducted into Academy: 2011

A. Warner Robins