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Cornell retired in 1942 and Pitts became Head of the newly formed Department of Aeronautical Engineering, as well as Director of the Auburn School of Aviation and manager of the Auburn - Opelika Airport, positions he would hold for 35 years. A Cal Tech diploma and a picture of Theodore von Karman on Pitts' office wall in Wilmore Laboratory impressed visitors knowledgeable enough in aeronautics to recognize the world famous engineer. During the 1940s, Pitts contributed significantly to aviation in the southeast and especially to military aviation flight training as he helped design, build and develop numerous airfields and train pilots.
From its beginning until 1942, API was on the semester system.8 "On June 8, 1942, the Alabama Polytechnic Institute began operation on a year-round Quarter System-four quarters of 12 weeks each-which permits students to graduate in three calendar years instead of four." Aeronautical engineering was a "critical occupation." The first quarter system AE curriculum consisted of 218 hours. Physical training was required, but students earned no credit for the course. The quarter system was retained until 2000. One of the initial reasons to retain the quarter system was that under it API could better handle the influx of students on the "GI Bill." The enrollment in the institute climbed to over 9,000 in the late 1940s. A coop program was initiated for several purposes. First, the co-op program helped students earn money one quarter to pay their fees and expenses the next. Second, it provided practical experience. Third, it reduced the number of students on campus at any one time. In the opinion of many, the co-op program worked better on the quarter system.
Early engineering graduates of the Department of Aeronautical Engineering included Robert Hails, who rose to the rank of Lt. General in the U. S. Air Force. Hails, was instrumental in the development of the Head-Up Display (HUD) for military aircraft. He entered API in 1941 but left in 1943 to serve as a pilot in the U. S. Army Air Corps. Hails returned in 1946 and graduated in 1947. He recalls that a "water tunnel, or trough" was used to demonstrate the flow over airfoils. A contemporary of Hails, Robert H. Harris, rose through the ranks at General Electric to become a vice president. A 1943 graduate, Leroy Spearman, went to work for the NACA. He has continued to work at NASA's Langley Research Center in the areas of aerodynamics and foreign missile technology for well over fifty years. The AE curriculum in Hails' and Spearman's era included surveying, probably because of its importance in airport construction.
In 1945, Pitts developed and published a Master Plan for the Auburn-Opelika Airport.8 He served on the State Aviation Commission, was active as a speaker to civic groups, and Junior Chamber of Commerce Man of the Year. In 1948, he had a hand in organizing the "Flying Farmers." The Alumnews for September 1951 contained an article entitled, "A Million Dollar Value - The Auburn Airport."8 The airport was Class III, in the range of I to VI based on size. Pitts was involved in extension activities that included the Flying Farmers, an organization of farmers and others who advocated the use of aircraft in agriculture. The National Flying Farmers Meeting was held in Auburn in 1952.
In 1955, Graham Newman, a sophomore in aeronautical engineering, wrote an article on the Department that appeared in The Auburn Engineer.12 The engineering faculty members at that time were Pitts, R. B. Miller, R. R. Sanders, and W. G. Sherling, Jr. Aviation subjects were taught by Pitts, Sanders, and M. O. Williams. All the faculty members had degrees in engineering, but only two had masters degrees, Pitts (Cal Tech) and Sherling (Georgia Tech). A wind tunnel was in operation and there was an integrated relationship between aeronautical engineering, aviation administration, and flight training using the airport as a hands-on laboratory. Pratt & Whitney flew thirty-five students and faculty members to East Hartford, Connecticut for a plant trip. The enrollment was approximately 300 with around 50 in aeronautical administration.
Although a program that helped start many careers in aeronautics and astronautics, until 1959, the aeronautical engineering program was not accredited by the Engineering Council on Professional Development (ECPD). The impetus for its accreditation was provided by a serious academic problem. The electrical and mechanical engineering (EE and ME) programs lost accreditation in 1957, the same year the API football team won the national championship. At the request of President Ralph Draughon, the Alumni Association launched the Engineering Emergency Fund Drive with the goal of raising $250,000 to improve the School of Engineering. Dr. Roy B. Sewell '22 was chairman of the drive and trustee Dr. Frank Samford '14 was co-chairman. Both Sewell and Samford were great supporters of academics as well as athletics. Mr. Joe Sarver, executive director of the alumni association worked with Sewell, Samford, other alumni, friends, and industry to raise twice the goal.
A board of consultants was hired to recommend actions that should be implemented to achieve reaccreditation and accreditation of additional engineering programs. They recommended five actions: (1) reorganize the curricula of the School of Engineering with more stringent requirements on credits in science, mathematics, and engineering sciences; (2) increase the amount of research done by engineering faculty members and students; (3) increase the teaching staff and decrease the teaching loads; (4) increase salaries and wages; and (5) provide additional space and equipment. Additionally, the ECPD required that the liberal arts component of the engineering curricula be substantially increased.
President Draughon hired one of the consultants, Dr. Fred H. Pumphrey, as the new dean of engineering. Pumphrey, a former API professor of electrical engineering, then at the University of Florida, lead the implementation of the recommendations. Under Pumphrey's leadership, the EE and ME programs were re-accredited and the AE program, which was expanding rapidly because of the increased emphasis on both aeronautics and astronautics, was accredited as an aerospace engineering program. The faculty of the School of Engineering increased by 40% and a new building, Dunstan Hall, primarily for EE, was constructed. Additional equipment was obtained for AE and ME operations in Wilmore Laboratories.
Although the aeronautical engineering program was not accredited prior to 1959, it produced many graduates who contributed significantly to aeronautics and astronautics. Some are noted above. One of Auburn University's astronauts, Thomas K. Mattingly, received a degree in aeronautical engineering in 1958. According to Ms. Polly Martin,7 her husband, Fred W. Martin, who joined the faculty in 1956, supervised Mattingly and other AE students in much of the construction of the low-speed wind tunnel. Mattingly flew missions in the Apollo program and was the "astronaut left behind" on the famous Apollo 13 mission and was instrumental in bringing the crew of the disabled craft back to earth safely. Later, Mattingly and Henry W. Hartsfield, a 1954 API graduate in physics, flew together on STS-4.
In a 1981 Auburn Plainsman interview,8 Mattingly recalled, "... In retrospect, to my experience, learning how to do with what you've got has been a far more potent lesson than all the far more theoretical esoteric subjects we could have covered."
Other examples of pre-accreditation successes are Ron Harris '58, who was a NASA engineer and administrator and later a Rocketdyne manager and Axel Roth '59, currently the Associate Director of George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, who has been a NASA engineer and administrator for over 30 years. Graduates of the aeronautical administration program during this period included John Stein, who became CEO of Golden Enterprises, makers of Golden Flake Potato Chips and other snack foods.
Although there was definitely something to be gained from practical engineering experiences like those of the late 1950s AE graduates, to achieve accreditation the aeronautical engineering program had to be improved. Part of this improvement appeared in the curriculum. Without question, much of the impetus for curriculum development was a very small object orbiting the Earth. In 1956, Martin had tried to get a course in ballistics and space flight included in the aeronautical engineering curriculum, but Pitts would not submit it to the curriculum committee because space flight was thought to be "...beyond the realm of achievement."14 Shortly after the launch of Sputnik I, Pitts did submit Martin's proposal for the course, "Rocket Mechanics," and it was approved the next day.
In Fig. 3, Sherling and students inspect the "hot shot" tunnel. Pitts and Martin are shown in Figure 4 standing in a section of what was to become the pressure tank of the high-speed wind tunnel in 1959.