Share This Article

The red carpet for great aircraft designers has been trod by names that may not be household fare but certainly are known in every hangar. Kelly Johnson, Ed Heinemann, Jack Northrop, Burt Rutan, Igor Sikorsky, the expat Alexanders de Seversky and Kartveli. Willi Messerschmitt, Claude Dornier, Ernst Heinkel and Kurt Tank. R.J. Mitchell of Spitfire fame, Geoffrey de Havilland and A.V. Roe. Mikoyan and Gurevich, Sukhoi and Yakovlev, Antonov and the father-and-son Tupolevs….It helps that famous airplanes bore most of their names. Virtually all these men also designed warplanes, which certainly fosters public recognition as well.

Yet there is another level of aeronautical engineers of great accomplishment whose exploits are known largely to the cognoscenti, the enthusiasts, the insiders. Many of these designers worked in general aviation—what the public broadly considers to be lightplanes—and many simply never sought publicity or broad public approval. Here are nine whose names deserve to be better known.


Arthur E. Raymond

 Never has so famous an airplane had so anonymous a lead engineer. Though he would have been the first to point out that it was a team effort, Arthur Raymond is credited with designing the Douglas DC-3, an airplane that is on everybody’s list of the 10 most important aircraft ever to fly. In fact Raymond, the company’s chief engineer, had a strong hand in every airliner Douglas built from the DC-1 through the DC-8; his contribution to the DC-4 was also particularly important.

Raymond graduated from Harvard in 1921—the only major league aircraft engineer to attend the college far more famous for producing presidents—and went on to get his aeronautical engineering degree at MIT. His first Douglas job was as a lowly metal fitter, and when Donald Douglas contacted MIT in search of a good engineer, he was told that exactly that person was already working in his fabrication shop. Raymond spent the next 35 years at Douglas, the only aircraft company for which he ever worked.

After his retirement in 1960, Raymond became a NASA consultant on the Gemini and Apollo projects. With a reputation for integrity and the ability to deal frankly with powerful people, he was charged with overseeing outside contractors. Nor did his reputation fail him when Boeing asked for a huge subsidy to develop a supersonic transport. Raymond, a lonely voice amid a babble of speed fans in the aviation industry, helped to convince the government that a supersonic airliner would never earn a dime, and the Boeing project died.

While he was still at Douglas, Raymond and Donald Douglas helped found the controversial RAND neoconservative think tank, which was initially a division of Douglas Aircraft formed to advise the USAAF.

Arthur Emmons Raymond died in 1999, two days shy of his 100th birthday.

Richard W. Palmer

 Dick Palmer designed one of the most beautiful airplanes ever to fly, and also one of the uglier ones. The first was the famous Hughes H-1 racer, the second the long-forgotten Vultee XP-54 “Swoose Goose.” Palmer, a quiet and studious CalTech grad, originally worked for Howard Hughes as a young Lockheed engineer in the early 1930s to extensively clean up and modify the Boeing 100A—a civilianized Army Air Corps P-12/Navy F4B—that the oil-patch multimillionaire was using as his first air racer. Hughes liked Palmer’s work, so he commissioned him to design and engineer the H-1. As usual, Hughes, neither a designer nor an engineer, took much of the credit for that work himself, as he later would with the Lockheed Constellation. In fact, his main contribution was laying out the parameters for his team: to design an airplane that would fly faster and higher than anything else in the world at the time. For awhile, the airplane was generally referred to as the “Palmer racer,” which couldn’t have made Howard happy.

When Hughes landed at Newark Airport in January 1937 after setting a transcontinental speed record in the H-1, he was greeted by Palmer, to whom he said, “I knew she was fast, but I didn’t know she was that fast.” Thanks to Palmer, the H-1 was at the time the world’s most aerodynamically refined aircraft. It would be the last non-military-derived airplane to set an ultimate world speed record.

Palmer went on to work for Vultee, where he designed the handsome but unsuccessful P-66 Vanguard fighter and the particularly successful BT-13 Valiant basic trainer—the “Vultee Vibrator” flown at some point by virtually every World War II Army Air Forces pilot. Palmer’s swan song—well, goose song—was the XP-54, a huge, gawky, twin-boom, gull-winged, pusher-prop single with a complex 24-cylinder, air-cooled Lycoming H-2470—basically two horizontally opposed flat 12s, one atop the other, driving a common crank between them. The engine was a failure and so was the Swoose Goose.

Edward J. Swearingen

 Lifelong Texan Ed Swearingen didn’t come to design airplanes via an aeronautical engineering degree, a test pilot career or a tech school education. An eighth-grade dropout, Swearingen first became an A&P mechanic and then an innovative electronics technician as well. He worked with warbird modifier Dee Howard turning Lockheed PV-1 Venturas into Howard 500 hotrod business planes, and then joined Bill Lear’s new company to help create some of the earliest advanced bizjet autopilots.

Swearingen started his own performance-modifications company, and as a consultant to Piper Aircraft converted the Comanche single into the Twin Comanche, one of the handsomest and most successful light twins of the 1960s-70s general aviation boom years. But Ed’s most widely recognized design was the Swearingen Merlin turboprop, a Beech King Air competitor that ultimately was substantially stretched to become the Fairchild Metro commuterliner—a cramped, tube-fuselage speedster known to some as the Texas Tampon.

Swearingen also designed the SX-300 kitplane, a short-coupled little 300-hp homebuilt that was the first of a new generation of high-performance, high-horsepower, amateur-built superplanes. His final design, the SJ30, was a light and fast sweptwing bizjet intended to be owner-flown, which after bouncing between investors from Dubai to China, has finally found itself a U.S. owner and potential manufacturer in Utah. Until the day Swearingen died in May 2014, however, he remained fascinated by the possibility of a truly supersonic business jet, for which he had completed the plans.

Leroy P. LoPresti

 Nobody ever called him that. He was Roy to all who knew him. LoPresti spent six years as an Air Force pilot, including a stint during the Korean War followed by work as a fighter test pilot at Wright Field—not the norm for aeronautical engineers—and he was also unusual in being a spacecraft designer as well as an airplane guy. While working for Grumman in the 1960s, LoPresti became responsible for much of the engineering of NASA’s LEM—the Apollo Program lunar excursion module.

LoPresti’s specialty was imaginative aerodynamic cleanup and refinement—finessing the tiny details that can turn just another airplane into a speedy contender. His best-known reworks were the Mooney 201 and 231, which converted an aging 1955 design into a serious competitor among four-seat, single-engine retractables to this day. LoPresti also designed the pressurized, six-seat Mooney 301; though only one prototype was built, the project was taken over by a French consortium and eventually sired the Socata TBM700/850/900 line of multimillion-dollar turboprop singles.

As vice president and chief engineer of Beech Aircraft, LoPresti oversaw creation of the technologically advanced Beech Starship, a sweptwing, pusher turboprop canard of composite construction. The Starship was a commercial disaster—Beech built more than 50 of them but sold only 11—yet it remains an airplane legendary for its futuristic lines and the nothing-ventured-nothing-gained boldness of the concept.

During the dozen years before his death in 2002, Roy ran LoPresti Speed Merchants, a small family company—today called LoPresti Aviation—that specializes in the modification and aerodynamic cleanup of a variety of production lightplanes. His most unusual yet characteristic project: the LoPresti Fury, a thorough reworking of an elderly two-seat retractable taildragger, the Globe Swift, an airplane that first flew in 1946. LoPresti found another 60 mph in the old bird through airframe and power plant modifications. Speed merchant indeed.

Fred E. Weick

 Weick was a child of the 19th century whose aeronautical accomplishments date back to the early 1920s. He worked with Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, yet his later designs are flying even today. Some of his concepts, such as the original Piper Cherokee and the first purpose-built crop-duster, have helped shape 21stcentury aviation.

Weick led the development of the NACA cowling, a subtle but remarkably effective reshaping of radial engine covers that greatly reduced drag, enhanced cooling and added substantial speed to airplanes that had previously used cowls simply as sheetmetal rings to hide the greasy bits and catch leaking engine oil. From the early 1930s through WWII, however, virtually every airplane with radial engines wore Weick’s NACA cowlings, from the earliest DC-2s to the biggest Super Constellations.

In 1934 Weick and a cadre of off-the-clock NACA engineers came up with the Weick W-1A, a garage-built attempt to make a safe, unspinnable, easy-to-land lightplane. Weick didn’t invent tricycle landing gear—Glenn Curtiss had put a nose wheel on even his earliest crates—but the tri-gear W-1A would lead to the first modern airplane that eventually turned taildraggers into vintage curiosities. That revolutionary lightplane was the twin-tail ERCO Ercoupe. The Ercoupe had no rudder pedals and was steered like a car, by a wheel. Okay, call it a yoke, but the airplane was so easy to fly that it was initially sold in department stores such as Macy’s and J.C. Penney.

Weick joined the faculty of Texas A&M after WWII, and there he designed what would become the Piper Pawnee—an efficient, crashworthy alternative to decades of war-surplus Stearmans converted into crop-dusters. With few exceptions, every “aerial applicator” built since Weick’s original Pawnee has followed his singleseat, high-cockpit, low-wing, hopper-forward formula.

Yet Weick’s most ubiquitous contribution to aviation is what many would consider his most mundane: co-designership of the original Piper PA-28 Cherokee, which has gone through dozens of iterations—single- and multi-engine, stretched and other variants—some of which are still being produced today.

John W. Thorp

 Though John Thorp was responsible for the preliminary design of the post-WWII, super-long-range Lockheed P2V Neptune patrol bomber, his heart lay with lightplanes. He has been called the greatest lightplane designer in America, and the list of his 14-odd major designs spans five decades, from the 1930s to the ’70s. Best known among them is the ubiquitous Thorp T-18 homebuilt. More than 400 are flying, and in 1976 a T-18 made the first successful round-the-world jaunt by a homebuilt. The T-18 was the original simple, all-metal, amateur-built airplane designed to be easier to construct than the typical rag-and-tube experimental. Thorp began the project when he chanced upon a junkyard selling hundreds of surplus 125-hp Lycoming ground-power units for $100 apiece and decided to modify one of his late-1930s paper designs around that power plant.

But the most successful of his projects was the Piper Cherokee, which he and Fred Weick brought to fruition together. Thorp did the basic design, Weick then prototyped it for production, and both men cooperated to complete the Piper project. One unusual feature of the Cherokee is that rather than a separate elevator it has an all-flying horizontal tail, a concept that Thorp had used in many of his designs from the early 1940s on—before Bell put one on the X-1 to enable it to go supersonic, and before North American added one to the F-86 Sabre to make it more maneuverable. There are several stabilator patents of differing design, but one, held by Lockheed, bears Thorp’s name.

During WWII Thorp designed the tiny, single-place Lockheed Little Dipper, intended to be a STOL “flying motorcycle,” so simple to operate that an untrained infantryman could fly it. The idea went nowhere, but it did briefly produce the Big Dipper, an attractive two-seater with a pusher prop on the tail that Lockheed briefly considered for postwar civil production. Thorp’s two-place 1945 Sky Skooter is still around, recently FAA-certified under Light Sport Aircraft regulations, and in 1958 the basic design morphed into the mini-twin Wing Derringer two-seater.

Like his friend Fred Weick, Thorp also designed an aerial applicator: His Fletcher FU-24 looks like a relatively conventional low wing monoplane with a huge slab of a cranked, high-lift wing, and a large chemical hopper behind the single-seat cockpit. Boasting a better cargo-per-horsepower ratio than the standard competition, the FU-24 was manufactured in New Zealand until 1992, some with turboprop engines. And they all have stabilators.

Stelio Frati A gnomelike Italian hidden behind thick, heavily tinted Godfather glasses, Stelio Frati was nonetheless a clear-eyed giant among light-airplane designers. Frati is revered by many European aviation enthusiasts, though few Americans outside the ranks of home builders have ever heard of him, Italy being well down the aviation food chain.

Frati’s most successful airplane, the SIAI-Marchetti SF.260, was essentially an aluminum version of his all-wood F.8L Falco, with fighter-style tip tanks and a swept tail. The SF.260, also fully aerobatic, was used as a trainer and counterinsurgency attack plane by a number of European, South American and African air forces; some even had Allison turboprop engines. If the Falco was Frati’s most iconic design, the SF.260 was his most popular, with nearly 900 sold.

More than 30 Frati designs have been built, flown and certificated—a stunning accomplishment for an engineer who worked entirely as a freelancer, never for an aircraft company, and rarely had a staff of more than six. His Falco and SF.260 are invariably called Ferraris of the air, but in fact his methodology was closer to that of Englishman Colin Chapman, the Lotus race car designer who worshipped lightness and simplicity.

Frati’s designs include a WWII radio-controlled winged bomb; sailplanes; a motor glider; a number of small jets; two-, three- and four-seat singles; several piston twins; a big utility twin; and a turboprop commuter liner. Some sold well, some not at all, but Stelio Frati was at his drafting table drawing yet more of them until the day he died at the age of 91 in 2010.

Ted R. Smith

The deservedly famous Ed Heinemann is credited with the design of the Douglas A-20 Havoc and A-26 Invader (later to be redesignated as the not-a-Martin-Marauder B-26), but Ted Smith sat at his right hand and did much of the engineering, learning how to design a high-performance shoulder-wing twin. It would stand him in good stead, for Smith went on to design some of the strongest, best performing, high- and mid-wing twins of the 1960s and ’70s, many of which are still flying.

Smith went from Douglas to Aero Commander, where he engineered the eponymous line of twin-engine business planes that have been called the first all-new twins intended for corporate rather than personal use. His high-wing Commander line ultimately grew to include a mid-wing jet that eventually was manufactured by Israel Aircraft Industries as the Westwind, thus known to many of its pilots as the Yom Kippur Clipper. The piston twins ended up being built by North American Rockwell, where Bob Hoover’s airshow aerobatics with a Shrike Commander made the plane famous enough that it is now on display in the National Air and Space Museum.

Smith went on to form his own company to build an unusually fast mid-wing twin, the Ted Smith Aerostar, which was acquired in 1978 by Piper Aircraft. More than 1,000 had been manufactured by the time production ended in 1984. At the time of his sudden death from a heart attack in 1976, Smith was working on the plans for a turbofan version of his Aerostar design. He was ahead of his time as always; since no suitable small engine as yet existed, the Aerostar Jet didn’t fly until 2010.

Richard Vogt

 Burt Rutan and Richard Vogt would have had lots to talk about, for several of Vogt’s creations for the Luftwaffe, particularly the asymmetric Bv-141, were just as inventive and unconventional as Rutan’s rules-stretching oddities. During 1944 Vogt also designed a swivelwing jet fighter, the Bv-202, much like what Rutan developed as an oblique-wing test plane for NASA in 1979. And Vogt’s P.170 three engine bomber proposal had three fuselages, one at each wingtip and one in the middle with a cockpit at the extreme rear.

Vogt had briefly served as a World War I pilot, though he never saw combat. As a teenager, he was taken under the wing of Ernst Heinkel, and after WWI he became close to Claudius Dornier, who sent him to Japan for a decade to represent his company at Kawasaki, a licensed builder of Dornier types. Vogt designed several successful Kawasaki single-engine aircraft for the Japanese Army Air Service. He also trained a young engineer, Takeo Doi, a university classmate of Zero designer Jiro Horikoshi who became one of Japan’s most famous aeronautical engineers and designed the Ki-61 Tony.

But Vogt’s most memorable work was for the German company Blohm & Voss, for whom he limned the Bv-141 recon aircraft, the unique configuration chosen to give its observer and gunner nearly unobstructed fields of view. Vogt’s three-engine Bv-138 flying boat, the navy’s main long-range patrol and reconnaissance airplane, was the German PBY, and his six-engine seaplanes, the Bv-222 and -238, were true Teutonic giants, vastly heavier than the better-known Messerschmitt Me-323 Gigant.

Vogt came to the U.S. as part of Operation Paperclip—the wholesale importation of talented German engineers after WWII—and joined the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson AFB, where he proposed such possibilities as escort fighters attached to a bomber’s wingtips for a free ride to the combat area. He went to work for Boeing in 1960 and investigated “twisted wingtip fins,” a concept that he had patented in 1951. Further refined, they became the now-familiar Whitcomb winglets seen on many airliners and corporate jets.


Contributing editor Stephan Wilkinson cites several personal connections to the designers he pays homage to here. The first airplane he bought was a brand-new 1968 Alon Aircoupe, a slightly modernized version of Fred Weick’s ERCO Ercoupe. Wilkinson built and owned for five years one of Stelio Frati’s best-known designs—a Sequoia F.8L Falco—and he even journeyed to Italy to spend time with him. And in his first stint as a company pilot, he flew a Ted Smith–designed Aero Commander Shrike. “Its separate carlike door to a closed-off cockpit plus the massive, up-from-the-floor, bomber-type yoke made me feel like the ace of the base,” he reports.

Originally published in the May 2015 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.