Choosing to soar: Mark D. Maughmer honored with Distinguished Alumnus Award

5/31/2019 Debra Levey Larson

Written by Debra Levey Larson

AE Professor and Interim Department Head Gregory S. Elliott (left) with Mark D. Maughmer at the 2019 awards banquet
AE Professor and Interim Department Head Gregory S. Elliott (left) with Mark D. Maughmer at the 2019 awards banquet
As a senior in 1972 at the University of Illinois in the Department of Aerospace Engineering, Mark Maughmer was forced to make a choice: take a class toward getting a powered pilot’s license or take glider training. He chose the latter and today says, “Everything good that has happened in my career has been a consequence of that decision and my involvement with soaring.” He was honored this spring with an AE Distinguished Alumnus Award.

After graduating from U of I in what was then known as the Dept. of Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, Maughmer earned a master’s degree in Aerospace and Mechanical Sciences from Princeton University in 1975.

“My master’s thesis was on wind energy, way back when before it was cool,” Maughmer said. “I stayed on the research staff there for about four years During those years, I came to like the academic setting but realized that I really needed to get a Ph.D. to be successful  in academia.” He came back to Illinois to study with Professor Allen Ormsbee, getting his doctorate in 1983. He joined the aerospace faculty at Penn State in 1984. He has been there ever since.

Maughmer recalled a very early experience that left a big impression on him and sparked his life-long passion for flight.

“When I was four or five years old, my dad took me to an air show at Don Scott Field, which is the Willard of Ohio State University. I remember there was caution tape so we couldn’t get close to the airplanes. But some guys with a glider invited me past the tape and let me sit in it. That memory is still so vivid to me.”

Maughmer said he’s been building model airplanes since he was five or six years old and participated in two U.S. nationals before turning 16. With this consistent passion for airplanes, going into aeronautical engineering wasn’t a big stretch. Although he had wanted to go to the air force academy, while in high school he contracted an illness that affected his eyesight, making him ineligible to be a military pilot. He decided that being an aero engineer as a civilian would be a good route to go.

For more than 40 years, Maughmer’s research at Penn State has centered on the aerodynamic design and performance of flight vehicles, both fixed wing and rotorcraft. While the focus of his research is applied, it covers the spectrum of being analytical, computational and experimental. His work has ranged from fundamental research, such as developing improved models of laminar separation bubbles and transition prediction, to the development of design tools, including his work on induced drag prediction and inverse design methods, to the practical design of aircraft components that are in widespread production.

Maughmer developed airfoil design tools and airfoil designs, which have been employed on a number of low-speed aircraft and sailplanes. His winglet designs are on hundreds of production sailplanes, conferring significant improvements in cross-country speed, handling qualities and stall behavior. In the rotorcraft area, he was the first to introduce small, deployable tabs (Gurney flaps) near the trailing edge of rotor blades to improve overall rotorcraft performance.

In addition to his achievements in research, Maughmer points to an addition to a program he developed at Penn State of which he is very proud. In 1989, he co-created and pioneered the first long-term, proj
Flight test of human-powered aircraft designed and built by Maughmer's students at Penn State
Flight test of human-powered aircraft designed and built by Maughmer's students at Penn State
ect-based experience for engineering students, the Flight Vehicle Design and Fabrication course, dubbed by students as the “sailplane class.” Maughmer said he modeled it after a program in German universities called Akafliegs (Academic Flying Groups) .

“It has a social component like the Akafliegs, which function much like a fraternity,” he said. “I didn’t anticipate that. Unlike the Akafliegs, which are extracurricular, this is a part of Penn State’s curriculum. Undergraduate students take 20 hours over their four years. Right now, the students are building a human-powered airplane—not the sort that gets dropped from an airplane or winch launched., but pedal powered. “When I started this the course program, everyone said you won’t get tenure. You’ll destroy your career. But I felt that it would be good for the students, so we did it,” Maughmer said. “The naysayers were right. It didn’t help much with tenure, but a lot of the accolades I get now are because of this program.”

While at Penn State, Maughmer has received AIAA’s Sustained Service Award, the J. Leland Atwood Award, and the Piper General Aviation Award. He has also been awarded the Penn State Engineering Alumni Society (PSEAS) Outstanding Teaching Award, the PSEAS Premier Teaching Award, and the Penn State Alumni Association’s Teaching Fellow Award. In addition, he has received the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) Fred Merryfield Design Award, and a National Aeronautics and Space Administration Group Achievement Award. He is also vice president of OSTIV--the International Organization for the Science and Technology of Soaring.

Last year, he was named an American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Fellow.

Maughmer with his 1946 Piper J-3 Cub
Maughmer with his 1946 Piper J-3 Cub
About his career in gliding, Maughmer said because it is his passion, he doesn’t think of it as work.

“That passion puts me at an advantage because I’m doing this 19 hours a day, including reading technical books about aviation and soaring,” he said. “If you’re doing it for a paycheck, you go to work for eight hours, but maybe actually put in about four. So, my success isn’t because I’m smarter or better than others, it’s because of my passion for the subject.  I tell my students to be passionate about something. It makes life more interesting.”

Maughmer has had many opportunities to alter his career path, moving to industry or other aviation organizations.

“I’ve gotten phone calls over the years, that if I come and do such and such, they’ll add a zero to my salary,” he said. “I wouldn’t even continue the conversation because if they added enough zeros, I might have to say yes and that would be a bad move for me. I’m so happy doing what I’m doing.”

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This story was published May 31, 2019.