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Former AeroAstro head and Air Force chief scientist Eugene Covert dies at 88

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Eugene Covert
Eugene Covert
Photo: William Litant
Professor Eugene Covert discusses graduate student advisee U.S. Air Force Lt. John Keesee’s wind tunnel research in 1974.
Professor Eugene Covert discusses graduate student advisee U.S. Air Force Lt. John Keesee’s wind tunnel research in 1974.
Photo courtesy of the MIT Museum.

Professor Emeritus Eugene Covert, a renowned aerodynamicist, aerospace engineer, and engineering educator, passed away Jan. 15 at age 88.

Covert is credited with devising the world’s first practical wind-tunnel magnetic-suspension system. He also served on the commission that investigated the destruction of the Space Shuttle Challenger, and received the Daniel Guggenheim Medal, one of the most prestigious awards in aviation.

Covert’s career spanned research to teaching to public service.

Born on Feb. 6, 1926, in Rapid City, S.D., Covert received his BS at age 20 from the University of Minnesota. He immediately went to work for the Naval Air Modification Unit’s Pilotless Aircraft Division on projects that would result in the Sparrow, the West’s famed primary air-to-air missile from the 1950s through the 1990s.

In 1948, he received an SM, also from the University of Minnesota, and in 1958 he earned an ScD from MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Throughout the 1950s, Covert conducted tests on numerous aircraft, including the famed F-4 Phantom, at the MIT Naval Supersonic Laboratory. His interest in the problems of supporting models during supersonic wind-tunnel tests led him to develop the world’s first practical wind-tunnel magnetic-suspension system.

Covert joined the AeroAstro faculty in 1963 as an associate professor. He became a full professor in 1968 and served as head of AeroAstro from 1985 until 1990. He became a professor emeritus in June 1996.

Between 1972 and 1973, Covert served as chief scientist of the U.S. Air Force, a three-star equivalent civilian position, advising the Air Force Chief of Staff and the Secretary of the Air Force on science and technology issues.

From 1978 to 1979, Covert was technical director of the European Office of Aerospace Research and Development.

On Jan. 28, 1986, Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds into its flight, killing its seven crew members. Shortly thereafter, President Ronald Regan created a commission to investigate the disaster. Covert was one of 14 individuals appointed to the commission, which was chaired by former Secretary of State William P. Rogers and included Neil Armstrong, Sally Ride, Richard Feynman, and Chuck Yeager. The commission’s work resulted in a substantial redesign of the shuttle’s boosters and the creation of a new NASA safety office.

Covert was a fellow and an honorary fellow of several learned societies, and a member of the National Academy of Engineering. His awards include the AGARD Von Karman Medal, the AIAA Ground Testing Award, the AIAA Durand Lectureship, and the U.S. Air Force Exceptional Civilian Service Medal.

Covert identified the high point of his career as his 2006 nomination for one of the most prestigious awards in aviation: the Daniel Guggenheim Medal. Jointly sponsored by the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics, the American Society of Mechanical Engineering, the American Helicopter Society, and the Society of Automotive Engineers, the medal recognizes those who have made profound contributions to advancing aeronautics. Targeting Covert for the award — a large gold disk that bears the image of the Spirit of St. Louis — the Guggenheim committee cited his “exemplary leadership in aeronautics teaching and research, development of significant state-of-the-art aerodynamic testing techniques, and outstanding contributions to public service.” Other Guggenheim recipients have included Orville Wright, Igor Sikorsky, James “Jimmy” Doolittle, and Charles Lindbergh.

Reflecting on his life following the announcement of the Guggenheim honor, Covert mused, “It was like being in a batting cage. I missed a fair fraction, but I took a swing at everything.” Known as much for his dry wit as his technical abilities, he added, “In the course of my career, I have had the opportunity to visit many places in the United States and throughout the world, including the South Pole, where I have met many very friendly, intelligent, and interesting people. The exception was the North Pole, where we had to bring our own people."

“Gene was a true giant in our field," says AeroAstro department head Jaime Peraire, the H. N. Slater Professor in Aeronautics and Astronautics. "His career in research, education, and service and his mentoring of students and faculty was a model for many of us.”

Peraire adds, “Until recently, Gene was a regular at our weekly faculty lunch seminars, always ready with an insightful question or observation for the speaker. His passing has saddened the AeroAstro community, but the universal sentiment is that it was a privilege to know him.”

Covert’s wife of 67 years, Mary (Rutford) Covert, predeceased him by a year. He leaves a son, David H. Covert, and daughter-in-law, Rhoda, of Arlington, Mass.; a daughter, Christine J. Covert, and son-in-law, Gray Parrot, of Hancock, Maine; a daughter, Pamela C. Spicer, and son-in-law, Richard Spicer, of Franklin, Mass; and a son, Steven P. Covert, and daughter-in-law, Diane, of Belmont, Mass. He is also survived by four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Donations in Covert’s name may be made to the Arthritis Foundation or to Rosie’s Place in Boston.

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