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MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics

AeroAstro Magazine Highlight

The following article appears in the 2005–2006 issue of AeroAstro, the annual report/magazine of the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Department. © 2006 Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

An appreciation: Gene Covert and the Guggenheim Medal

By William T.G. Litant

For 60 years, he’s swung at every career pitch, and hit most out of the park

Gene Covert accepts congratulations from MIT President Susan Hockfield for his receipt of the Guggenheim medal. (William Litant photograph)

Covert and Hockfield

It was in 1946 that the Bell 47 was awarded the first commercial helicopter license, the WAC became the first American rocket to leave the atmosphere, TWA inaugurated international flights, and the Douglas B-43 flew as the first American jet bomber. It was that same year that 20-year-old Eugene Covert started work at the Naval Air Modification Unit’s Pilotless Aircraft Division on projects that would result in the Sparrow, the West’s famed primary air-to-air missile from the 1950s through the 1990s.

Six decades later, MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Professor Emeritus Covert’s accomplishments and honors are legendary. He’s a Fellow and an Honorary Fellow of several learned societies, and is member of the National Academy of Engineering. He’s the recipient of numerous awards, including the AGARD Von Karman Medal, the AIAA Ground Testing Award, AIAA Durand Lectureship, U.S. Air Force Exceptional Civilian Service Medal, and University Educator of the Year.

And now, his career has been capped with one of the most prestigious awards in aviation: the Daniel Guggenheim Medal. Jointly sponsored by the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics, American Society of Mechanical Engineering, the American Helicopter Society, and the Society of Automotive Engineers, the medal recognizes those who have made profound contributions to advancing aeronautics. Targeting Covert for the big gold disk that bears the image of the Spirit of St. Louis, the Guggenheim committee cited his “exemplary leadership in aeronautics teaching and research, development of significant state-of-the-art aerodynamic testing techniques, and outstanding contributions to public service.”

In the spring of 2006, a business-suited Covert tips slightly back in his office chair, hands folded in his lap, staring over a visitor’s shoulder, pondering his years in aerospace. “My career was a set of building blocks,” he says. “I learned something every step along the way.” He says many of the steps “broadened,” and some were “broken” — but he gained in knowledge from every one.

Covert’s career spanned research and teaching, to public service. In the 1950s, he conducted tests on numerous aircraft, including the famed F-4 Phantom, at the MIT Naval Supersonic Wind Tunnel. His interest in the problems of supporting models led him to develop the world’s first practical wind tunnel magnetic suspension system.

From 1972-73, Covert was chief scientist of the U.S. Air Force. The following year, he was back at MIT where one of his graduate advisees was 23-year-old Air Force Lt. John Keesee. Retired last year as a full colonel, Keesee is now an AeroAstro lecturer who fondly recalls his advisor. “He was extremely highly regarded by the Air Force and DOD,” Keesee says. “If they had an issue with aerodynamics, he was the person they’d call. He’d come back from a trip and say to me, ‘I was in Washington working for your Air Force.’” Keesee chuckles when he recalls Covert’s role as his advisor. “He was always O.K. letting you do whatever project interested you, even if it was kind of dumb. He’d let you do it — and then he’d let you redo it.” Trying things, whether they are destined to work or not, is an important Covert philosophy he’s applied to his own life. “It was like being in a batting cage,” Covert muses. “I missed a fair fraction, but I took a swing at everything.”

Gene Covert and John Keesee

Professor Eugene Covert discusses graduate student advisee USAF Lt. John Keesee’s research in 1974. (MIT Museum photograph)

From 1978-79, Covert was technical director of the European Office of Aerospace Research and Development. Later, he was a NASA consultant on the Space Shuttle main engine, and was a member of the commission that examined the Challenger accident. He was appointed to the MIT faculty in 1963, and was AeroAstro department head from 1985 until 1990.

“Gene’s contributions to aerospace research, education, and public service are equally profound and we’re thrilled he’s been honored with the Guggenheim — this highest form of recognition,” says AeroAstro head Wesley Harris. “The entire AeroAstro department celebrates with him.”

When Covert learned AeroAstro was preparing a tribute to him in these pages, he insisted it include a salute to his wife, Mary Rutford Covert, and family. “I could have only accomplished what I did by having a supportive wife and family. Their contribution (to my success) was as great as any. It’s important that that gets in.”

He also specified another comment. "In the course of my career I have had the opportunity to visit many places in the United States and throughout the world, including the South Pole, where I have met many very friendly, intelligent, and interesting people. The exception was the North Pole where we had to bring our own people." Gene is also known for his sense of humor.

No one is a more appropriate recipient of the great Guggenheim Medal. For 60 years, students, faculty, academic leaders, engineers, policymakers, government agencies, professional associations — indeed, the entire breadth and range of the aerospace community — have been the fortunate benefactors of Gene Covert’s expertise, professionalism, insight, and wit. He is a treasure, and we at MIT are fortunate that we’ve had a good share of him — and expect to do so for the foreseeable future. Gene: congratulations on this magnificent, well-deserved honor.

William T.G. Litant is the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Department communications director. He may be reached at

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