Liebeck receives 2018 Alumni Achievement Award

5/21/2018 Debra Levey Larson

Written by Debra Levey Larson

Robert H. Liebeck
Robert H. Liebeck
Robert H. Liebeck is an aerodynamicist, professor, and aerospace engineer at the Boeing Company, where he is a Senior Technical Fellow.  Liebeck is a recipient of the 2018 University of Illinois Alumni Achievement Award, the highest honor conferred by the Alumni Alliance (formerly the Association) on behalf of the university. This award is presented to alumni who have attained outstanding success and national or international distinction in their chosen profession or life's work, selected for this honor by a committee of Illinois alumni. Liebeck is a stellar choice.

Originally from Wheaton, Illinois, Liebeck came to the University of Illinois in the late 1950s and earned three degrees in aerospace engineering: BS ’61, MS ’62, and PhD ’68. It was during research for his doctoral thesis, "Optimization of Airfoils for Maximum Lift," that he produced the first airfoil designs, which became known as the Liebeck airfoil.

“I didn’t start by taking an existing airfoil and modifying it,” Liebeck said. “I went back to first principles and asked, ‘where does lift come from in an airplane?’ In turn, I specified the velocity distribution around the airfoil surface that maximizes the lift. However, although every airfoil has a velocity distribution, an arbitrarily prescribed velocity does not necessarily correspond to an airfoil shape. I got as close as I could to this optimum velocity distribution and it resulted in a physically possible airfoil shape. Years later, my maximum lift velocity distribution was described as the equivalent to the Carnot for high lift.”

After receiving his bachelor’s degree, he recalled filling out a job application in the aerospace engineering office at Illinois. “Professor Al Ormsbee stopped me and said, ‘Don’t do that. I want you to go to grad school.’” Liebeck took his advice, continuing to work with Ormsbee.

While working on his graduate degrees, Liebeck worked summers at the Douglas Aircraft Company in Santa Monica, California until he joined the permanent staff in 1968. He remained with the company after its merger with McDonnell Douglas, which later merged with Boeing in 1997.  Liebeck has yet to actually interview for a job!  He has managed several of Boeing's airplane programs through which advanced-concept aircraft were designed. He has made contributions to a variety of related fields, including propeller design, windmill design, and the design of high-altitude unmanned aircraft.

Boeing's blended-wing-body airplane
Boeing's blended-wing-body airplane
Liebeck is co-developer of the blended-wing-body, which is considered to be a revolutionary design for subsonic transports.  He demonstrated his ease with the complex principles of aerodynamics when he described how the basic BWB design is achieved in simple, non-technical terms. “It’s like taking a sphere and plopping it on the mid-span of a swept wing. Then you squash it and you have a blended wing.”  

Obviously, the blended-wing-body is not simple. It is a 200 to 500 passenger, "flying wing" aircraft with significantly better economics and efficiency than traditional designs like the Boeing 747.  Run through Boeing's Research and Technology group, the BWB airplane program has been researching, designing, and prototyping a new aircraft design that would reduce energy consumption and noise production. Initially funded by a grant from NASA of $90,000, the aircraft design moves away from the usual tube-and-wing design and instead has the wings blended into the body. This design was developed by Liebeck, in conjunction with other members of the research team. Liebeck's team first released a remotely piloted model, the X-48, in 1997.

Liebeck has designed wings for Indianapolis 500 and Formula One racing cars and the keel for the America yacht, which won the 1992 America's Cup. He has also designed propellers and wings for race cars. He designed the wing for NASCAR's "Car of Tomorrow" in 2007.

About his career, Liebeck said he has always been torn between teaching and working in industry. Fortunately for him, he has had the opportunities to do both.

As a professor, Liebeck has lectured in aerodynamics and aircraft design courses at several universities. Since 1995, he has been a Professor of the Practice of Aerodnautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Since 2000, Liebeck has also been an adjunct professor at the University of California, Irvine. He was also an adjunct professor teaching aerodynamics, flight mechanics and airplane design at the University of Southern California from 1977 to 2000.

Liebeck was presented with the Brigadier General Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager International Aeronautical Achievement Award in 2012. In 2011, Liebeck was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the College of Engineering at Illinois, an honor which "recognizes Illinois engineering alumni, and others affiliated with the college, who have made significant achievements in leadership, entrepreneurship, and innovation of great impact to society.” That same year he was presented with the Engineering the Future award from the Henry Samueli School of Engineering for his work in aeronautics and contributions to the school.

In addition, Liebeck was named in 2010 as an AIAA Honorary Fellow, received the 2010 Daniel Guggenheim Medal, and is a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

While Liebeck, along with his wife Cindy, was on the University of Illinois campus in May to accept the Alumni Achievement Award, he spoke to aerospace graduates and their families at a commencement luncheon. After talking about some of the highlights of his career, Liebeck ended by saying, “I’m 80 years old. Now it’s your turn to go out and build airplanes.”

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This story was published May 21, 2018.