Allen E. Puckett (PhD ’49)


Allen E. Puckett (PhD '49), the engineer who helped father the delta-winged airplane, the guided missile, and the communications satellite, and who turned Hughes Aircraft into the nation's top provider of radar systems and other defense-related electronics, passed away at his home in Pacific Palisades, California, on March 31, 2014, at age 94.

Puckett was born on July 25, 1919, in Springfield, Ohio. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in engineering at Harvard (in 1939 and 1941, respectively) before coming to Caltech to pursue his doctorate in aeronautics under Theodore von Kármán, the leading aerodynamicist of the era. Puckett's PhD thesis, "Supersonic Wave Drag on Thin Airfoils," laid the foundation for designing the triangular-shaped delta wings found on such diverse aircraft as supersonic fighter jets, the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, and the Space Shuttle orbiter.

Puckett launched his Caltech career in 1942 by helping build the first supersonic wind tunnel in the United States that could operate continuously at Mach 4, or four times the speed of sound. He used this expertise the following year to design a similar but much larger tunnel for testing supersonic artillery shells at the Army Ordnance Corps' Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. This wind tunnel, built at the height of World War II, remained in use well into the Cold War. While a graduate student, Puckett also served as the wind tunnel section chief at Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, then an Army research facility, and as the chair of the Subcommittee on High-Speed Aerodynamics for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, the forerunner of NASA).

Upon graduating in 1949, Puckett joined Hughes Aircraft as the head of the aerodynamics department of the Guided Missile Laboratory, and cowrote the seminal Introduction to Aerodynamics of a Compressible Fluid with Caltech aeronautics professor Hans W. Liepmann. (A decade later, Puckett and Simon Ramo [PhD '36] would coedit the equally seminal Guided Missile Engineering.) Puckett remained at Hughes for his entire professional career, becoming chairman and CEO in 1978 and retiring in 1987.

Puckett served on the boards of directors of corporations including General Dynamics, the Fluor Corporation, and the Delco Electronics Corporation as well as numerous government, private, and charitable organizations. He was a fellow and past president of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the International Academy of Aeronautics, the National Academy of Engineering, and the National Academy of Sciences.

Among other honors, Puckett won the Lawrence Sperry Award of the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences (now the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics) in 1948. He was named a Caltech Distinguished Alumnus in 1970, the California Manufacturer of the Year in 1980, a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor in 1984, and was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President Reagan in 1985.

"Dr. Puckett's research and innovations contributed greatly to the security of our nation," says Guruswami Ravichandran, the John E. Goode, Jr., Professor of Aerospace and Professor of Mechanical Engineering and the director of the Graduate Aerospace Laboratories at Caltech. "He was a visionary in the field of space engineering, and the impact of his work will be felt long into the future."

At Caltech, Puckett endowed a chair in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science. Robert McEliece, who developed new systems for storing and transmitting large volumes of information (such as images from far-flung spacecraft), is the Allen E. Puckett Professor and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus; Pietro Perona, who works on building machines that can see the way humans can, is the Allen E. Puckett Professor of Electrical Engineering. Even in his 90s, Puckett retained "his vivacious intellect and curiosity," says Perona.

Caltech's Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory, the building where Puckett spent his time on campus as a grad student, was extensively renovated in 2008. The west end of the third floor now houses the Allen Puckett Laboratory of Computational Fluid Mechanics, which includes a seminar room, a computer lab, and open-plan workspaces for graduate students.

Puckett is survived by Marilyn Puckett, his wife of 50 years, five children, six grandchildren, and 14 great-grandchildren.

Written by Douglas Smith