William R. Sears

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William R. Sears
Born (1913-03-01)March 1, 1913
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Died October 12, 2002(2002-10-12) (aged 89)
Tucson, Arizona
Citizenship United States
Alma mater University of Minnesota (B.S., 1934)
Caltech (PhD, 1938)
Occupation Aeronautical engineer
Known for Aeronautical Engineering
Spouse(s) Mabel Rhodes
Children Susan and David
Awards ASME Medal (1989)
Fluid Dynamics Prize (APS) (1992)
Daniel Guggenheim Medal (1996)

William Rees Sears (March 1, 1913 – October 12, 2002) was a notable aeronautical engineer and educator.


William R. Sears was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the son of William and Gertrude Sears.[1] He earned his BS degree from the University of Minnesota in 1934. Following this, he enrolled at Caltech to study under Theodore von Kármán, director of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory (GALCIT). There he met von Kármán's secretary, Mabel Rhodes and they were soon married. Sears was awarded his PhD in 1938, writing a thesis concerning airfoils in non-steady motion, a work that laid the foundations for future developments in that field.[2]

In 1937, Sears was appointed instructor in aeronautics at Caltech, and in 1940, he was promoted to assistant professor. Several of his colleagues in these years included Qian Xuesen and Frank Malina.[2] Through von Kármán's friendship with Jack Northrop, Sears became involved in consulting on aerodynamic problems at Northrop Aircraft In 1941, Sears accepted Jack Northrop's offer to be chief of aerodynamics and flight testing.[2]

When Sears was a junior faculty member at Caltech, he was asked to direct the Civilian Pilot Training Program, a federal program that offered young people the possibility of earning a private pilot's license and receiving preparation for possible military flying in the event that the United States entered the war. Sears not only administered the program but took the opportunity to get his own pilot's license.[2]

At Northrop, Sears headed the team that designed the Northrop N-1M, which later led to the Northrop N9M, Northrop XB-35 and Northrop YB-49 flying wing aircraft.[3] He also led the team that developed the Northrop P-61 Black Widow. At the end of World War II, he accompanied group of aeronautical experts led by Von Kármán to Germany to investigate the German progress in aerodynamics research.[2]

Sears chose to return to academic life in 1946. He joined the faculty of Cornell University as the founder and first director of its Graduate School of Aeronautical Engineering. Within a few years, the Cornell Graduate School of Aeronautical Engineering was ranked among the world's best. He and his many students pioneered research in wing theory, unsteady flow, magnetohydrodynamics, and designed a sophisticated wind tunnel design to study transonic flight. He remained very close to von Kármán, who was a frequent visitor to the Cornell aero school. In 1962, Sears was named the J. L. Given Professor of Engineering, and in 1963, he stepped down as director of the aero school after 17 years. A year earlier he had founded and became director of Cornell's Center of Applied Mathematics.[1]

Although his work at Northrop offered him little opportunity to fly, his move to Cornell provided more opportunity. In more than 50 years as a private pilot, he logged 8,000 hours before retiring from flying in 1990. He owned several aircraft over the years, including a Mooney M-18 Mite, a Beech A35 Bonanza, a Piper Comanche and finally a Piper Twin Comanche.[2]

In 1974, after 28 years at Cornell, Sears joined the faculty of the department of aerospace and mechanical engineering at the University of Arizona. Four years later, he was named emeritus professor but remained an active faculty member and completed much of his important analytical and experimental work on adaptive-wall wind tunnels during these years.[1]

Honors and awards[edit]

Sears was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Mexico's Academia Nacional de Ingeniería. He was an honorary fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and was editor of the Journal of the Aeronautical Sciences from 1955 to 1963. During his lifetime, he received many honors and awards, including the Guggenheim Medal and in 1974 the Ludwig-Prandtl-Ring from the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Luft- und Raumfahrt (German Society for Aeronautics and Astronautics) for "outstanding contribution in the field of aerospace engineering." In 1988, Caltech gave him its Distinguished Alumni Award. He was also named an outstanding alumnus of the University of Minnesota and was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Arizona.[1]

Sears was also an accomplished musician, first as a percussionist. He worked his way through college as a drummer in dance bands and, after moving to California, was tympanist with the Pasadena Symphony for several seasons. Later, at Cornell, he became an expert recorder player with a university group interested in medieval music. He played with the Collegium Musicum at the University of Arizona for 20 years.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e Obituaries William R. Sears Retrieved 6 September 2011.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Sears, William Rees, Stories From a 20th-Century Life, Parabolic Press, Stanford California, 1994.
  3. ^ Sears, William R., "Flying-Wing Airplanes: The XB-35/YB-49 Program", AIAA paper 80-3036, presented at the AIAA Evolution of Aircraft Wing Design Symposium, Dayton Ohio, March 1980.