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Gene Larrabee, 'Mr. Propeller' of human-powered flight, dies

M. Curt Young right, president of Atlantic City Airlines, greets MIT Professor Eugene Larrabee. Undated file photo, MIT Museum
M. Curt Young right, president of Atlantic City Airlines, greets MIT Professor Eugene Larrabee. Undated file photo, MIT Museum

Professor E. Eugene Larrabee of aeronautics and astronautics, known as "Mr. Propeller" in the human-powered aircraft community, died on Jan. 11 in Mt. Vernon, N.Y. He was 82.

Larrabee specialized in propeller and windmill design and made key original contributions to the science and technology of aircraft and road vehicles. His propeller designs achieved international recognition with the flights of the human-powered aircraft Chrysalis, built and flown at MIT in 1978-79; the Gossamer Albatross, which crossed the English Channel in 1979, and the Daedalus, which crossed the Aegean Sea in 1988.

Recalling the flight of the Albatross, David Gordon Wilson, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering, recalled, "The Albatross' pilot could stay aloft only 10 minutes at first. With the MIT propeller, he stayed up for over an hour on his first flight and had to be called down because his ground crew--bicycling beneath the plane--were tired out. Thus there was no way the Albatross could cross the Channel, which took almost three hours, without the MIT propeller."

Larrabee began teaching at MIT in 1946 while still a graduate student, and received the S.M. in aeronautics in 1948. He retired in 1982. A founding member of the Tech Model Aircrafters, he was a popular and accessible figure among students, colleagues and hobbyists who shared his enthusiasm for flight.

"His design methods could be easily performed with a hand calculator or a spreadsheet. They were even usable by lay engineers with no specialization in aerodynamics, which made them very popular with aircraft and boat homebuilders, hobbyists, and wind power manufacturers, in addition to their expected use by the light aircraft industry," said Mark Drela, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and a former student of Larrabee's.

As for Larrabee's personal style, Drela recalled his "tendency to interject an amusing and relevant historical aviation anecdote into almost any conversation."

Larrabee married the former Christine Rogan in 1950; they were introduced by an MIT student, she recalled.

Larrabee kept in contact with his former students, and "many of them called to request his course notes to use in their own work," Mrs. Larrabee said.

She remembered one design session, fueled by doughnuts and cider. "It was before the 55-mile-an-hour speed limit. Gene and his students sat around my dining room table and designed a car to go 100 miles an hour. It was a company car, for trips too short to take out an airplane. Later a major car maker used their ideas. He was always looking ahead," she said.

Larrabee was also known for his designs for research apparatus, having contributed to the designs of the Student Wind Tunnel used at MIT from 1947-61, an innovative wall balance for testing small automobile models, and a research windmill.

Born in Marlborough, Mass., in 1920, Larrabee received the B.S. in mechanical engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1942. During World War II he worked on aircraft stability and control problems at the Curtiss Wright Corp.

In addition to his wife, Larrabee is survived by a daughter, Rose, of Mt. Vernon, N.Y., and a son, Paul, of Brookline, Mass. Burial will be private.

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