In memoriam: William H. Mason, professor emeritus of aerospace and ocean engineering
April 4, 2019
William H. Mason, professor emeritus of aerospace and ocean engineering in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech, died unexpectedly on March 27. He was 72.
“We are extremely saddened by the news of Bill’s passing,” said Eric Paterson, department head for the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering. “A life-long Hokie, he dedicated his career to conceptual aircraft design and to his students. Countless generations of aerospace engineers, here at Virginia Tech and throughout the world, have been influenced by his insightful principles of aerodynamics. Our thoughts go out to his family and friends during this difficult time.”
Born on Jan. 19, 1947, Mason was an expert in aerodynamic and hydrodynamic design and a steadfast member of the Virginia Tech community. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1971, a master’s degree in 1972, and a doctoral degree in 1975, all in aerospace engineering at Virginia Tech.
As an undergraduate student, he gained experience during summers working at McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis, Missouri, on various F-4 aircraft projects, including the ‘swing wing’ F-4, and for the U.S. Army at Edwards Air Force Base, California, working on the Huey Cobra helicopter.
After graduating from Virginia Tech, Mason went on to work at Grumman Aerospace in Bethpage, New York, from 1974 to 1989. At Grumman, he served in the structural mechanics section and later in aerodynamics and worked on a number of high-profile projects, including the Grumman X-29, an experimental aircraft that tested a forward-swept wing and canard control surfaces; the NASA/Grumman Research Fighter Configuration, a program to study a super cruiser with low-speed, hi-alpha transonic maneuver, supersonic cruise and supersonic maneuver; and the NASA/Grumman SC3 Wing Concept, which featured an attached flow maneuver wing with controlled supercritical crossflow and set a record at NASA Langley Research Center for low drag at high lift supersonic performance.
He returned to Virginia Tech in 1989, where he educated and advised numerous undergraduate and graduate students in the aerospace engineering degree program over the course of 21 years. He served as graduate advisor for 23 master's thesis students and nine doctoral students.
His love of aircraft design led him to serve as faculty advisor for many of the department’s undergraduate design teams, most notably the Design Build Fly team. In addition, Mason served as the student chapter advisor for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) for many years.
Mason also acted as assistant director of the Stability Wind Tunnel in the 1990s and 2000s, alongside colleague William Devenport, current director of the Stability Wind Tunnel.
“Bill’s graduate experiments in the Stability Tunnel, and the wind-tunnel model he used, laid the foundation for my first work as an assistant professor back in the early 90s,” Devenport said. “Bill was a constant in the department, always generous with his time for students and colleagues. He combined humility with deep knowledge and experience of aeronautical design and practical aerodynamics. For a long period, he was aircraft design in aerospace and ocean engineering.”
During the 2007-08 academic year, Mason served as a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. During this time, he taught, wrote, and collaborated with Russell M. Cummings, Scott A. Morton, and David R. McDaniel on what would become their published book, “Applied Computational Aerodynamics: A Modern Engineering Approach.”
He was named professor emeritus by the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors in 2010. Upon retirement, he continued to teach classes — including his "famous" Configuration Aerodynamics course — and continued to assist with design review and critique for the aircraft design teams.
His contributions to the field and pioneering numerical methods reached applied aero/hydrodynamics researchers worldwide. Stefano Brizzolara, associate professor in the aerospace and ocean engineering department, discovered and followed Mason’s work from across the world when he was a student in Genoa, Italy.
“Professor Mason’s remarkable designer intuitions and expert interpretation of aerodynamic principles in engineering has inspired many generations, including mine," Brizzolara said. "I remember as a student I was excited by his work, and I used to eagerly check the updates of his website to enrich my understanding of aerodynamics and its practical use in engineering.
“You can imagine the pleasure and pride that I felt when I joined the department and found him as a colleague," Brizzolara continued. "It was a pleasure to stop by his office and chat with him about my hydrodynamic studies. He always had precious hints, original ideas, and useful references to cite.”
Throughout his career, Mason authored more than 100 publications and was contributing editor to various book chapters. He was an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and served on a number of technical committees, such as the Applied Aerodynamics Committee and the Aircraft Design Committee.
Mason is survived by his daughters, Carrie Mason Volkman and Lauren Anne Mason; brother Robert E. Mason; sister Carol Mason Bland; granddaughter Felicity I. Volkman; and niece Leslie P. Dillow.
His family will receive friends at an informal celebration of his life on Saturday, April 6, 2019, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Blacksburg Fire Station #3 near the Virginia Tech Montgomery Executive Airport.
The family requests that in lieu of flowers, memorial contributions can be made to the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Virginia Tech. Donations are tax deductible and checks are made payable to The Virginia Tech Foundation, Inc. They can be mailed to:
Virginia Tech Advancement (0336)
Office of Gift Accounting
902 Prices Fork Road
Blacksburg, VA 24061
Please note on your check or correspondence that this gift is “In memory of Bill Mason” when mailing tributes.