Aerospace Engineering History: The Beginning

By Vee Glessner, Chief Copy Editor

Photo: Tracy and Nancy Doryland, center, at the rededication of the Nancy and Tracy Doryland Wind Tunnel in 2018. Image courtesy of Embry-Riddle.

In the beginning, there was Aerospace Engineering. Well, almost: Embry-Riddle’s Prescott campus had been in existence for just over a year when the initiative to start Aeronautical Engineering came from Daytona Beach in the spring of 1980. “Things were pretty primitive,” says Tracy Doryland, the first Department Chair and half of the namesake for the Nancy & Tracy Doryland Wind Tunnel.

In the earliest days, the plan was to accept a group of freshmen, and grow the curriculum every year as those students progressed through the flowchart. The first class had just 45 students, 8 of whom would go on to graduate as the first Aeronautical Engineering class in 1984. 

That first semester, only two courses were offered under the program: Introduction to Aeronautical Engineering, which no longer exists, and Engineering Graphics, a traditional drafting course. Students filled out the rest of their course load with humanities and general education requirements supported by other programs. “The time we had to start worrying about more equipment and laboratories was their junior and senior years,” said Doryland.

Students took nearly all of their classes in the DLC, just like their predecessors from Prescott College, in the early years of the university. The first groups of students lived in the dorms that remained from Prescott College, which are now classroom buildings 52, 54, and 55. Affectionately known as the slump block buildings, these original brick structures inherited from Prescott College were 11- and 12-person dorm rooms.

In terms of facilities, most of the engineering facilities we now recognize as cornerstones of the signature project-based Embry-Riddle engineering education wouldn’t exist for quite some time: AXFAB, the wind tunnel and propulsion labs, and even King Engineering had yet to be built. “The program didn’t really progress for quite a few years,” says Doryland. One of the key reasons was that the centralized leadership at Daytona Beach was reluctant to spend big money on the new campus, seeing it as a risk. 

Engineering wasn’t the only program struggling to establish itself at that time: Aeronautical Science, the one other major on campus, faced near-extinction, and general education facilities were lacking. “We were building a physics lab at that time, but we didn’t have any money,” said John Jenkins, the only current faculty member who has been with Embry-Riddle Prescott since the very beginning in 1978. He says Dr. McGhee, one of the 8 original faculty members, was known to “crawl around the dumpsters to find material for physics equipment.”

Despite continued low investment from the main campus, Prescott’s AE students had passed the engineering core courses Statics, Dynamics, and Solids, and the pressure was on for faculty to provide a wind tunnel to facilitate Aerodynamics I and Aerodynamics II. In 1981, “We bought the first wind tunnel, which they still have. I think I paid $18,000 for it,” says Doryland. Paul Daly, Chancellor at the time, had secured enough money from Daytona to build the wind tunnel lab building we still use today. 

Originally, the Aeronautical Engineering faculty resided in Building 62, which has since been torn down to build AXFAB. Building 62 was constructed from slump-block, a residual building from Prescott College, just like the other buildings residing in “the maze.” Former Dean of Students Larry Stephan, who was with the school from 1979 to 2019 when he retired, says, “All the old slump-block buildings were all we had.”

The number of students continuing their AE degree dwindled, but the first graduating class pushed on. “I had to hire a machinist at that time,” says Doryland, “because as the seniors got into design [capstone], I realized we had to have somebody to teach them to make their projects.” Back then, the final project in Aeronautical Engineering was to create a model for testing in the wind tunnel. Preliminary and Detail Design, the current engineering capstone system, were implemented in 1983, with 7 students as the inaugural group.

Of course, the early years of the program were different culturally and socially, too. All of the work was done by hand, on paper: computers as we know them had yet to hit the market, and wouldn’t be adopted by universities for educational purposes for years. The library students had was inherited from Prescott College and contained about 15,000 paper liberal arts titles, of little use to the engineering and flight students. Even the now-dated Mingus Mountain dorms wouldn’t be built until 1983.

The drinking age in Arizona was only 19 at the time, and with very little else to do in an undeveloped Prescott, students spent a lot of time having parties. To the shock of students now, most of these functions took place on campus and many were staff-chaperoned. “There were lots of drinking parties on campus. I can remember mopping up beer off the cafeteria floor,” said Jenkins.

Since those early days, things have changed, not least with the suspension of sponsored on-campus drinking parties. Over the next few installments of this series, we’ll look at the progress of curriculum, facilities, and how the Astro program was introduced in the first place. 

Special thanks to Dr. Ron Madler, Dr. Mark Sensmeier, Eileen Klein, Tracy Doryland, Dr. Richard Felton, Professor John Jenkins, Dr. Frank Ayers, and Dr. Larry Stephan for their contributions to this series. Data is sourced from the College of Engineering unless otherwise noted. 

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