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MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics

Aero-Astro Magazine Highlight

The following article appears in the 2006–2007 issue of Aero-Astro, the annual report/magazine of the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Department. © 2007 Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Faculty profile

Head of Boeing’s Blended Wing Project blends passions for planes and teaching

By Bob Sales

Bob Liebeck (right) at NASA’s Dryden Research Center for tests of the blended-wing X-48B aircraft. With Liebeck are Boeing Chief Engineer Norm Princen (left) and Cranfield Aerospace Chief Engineer Dave Dyer. (Photo courtesy Bob Liebeck)

Liebeck w X-48B

Robert H. Liebeck, professor of the practice of aeronautics at MIT and a senior fellow at the Boeing Company, has two passions : teaching and airplanes. He likes motorcycles, too, but more on that later.

Liebeck started teaching as a graduate student a the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the 1960s. He has been an adjunct professor at the University of California-Irvine since 2000 and was an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California from 1977 to 2000.

He treasures his moments in the classroom. “It is the one job where I feel I have done some good — even after a bad lecture,” said Liebeck. “ I have decided that I am finally beginning to understand aeronautical engineering and I want to share that understanding with our youth.”

Liebeck believes the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics annual Design-Build-Fly competition provides an important practical element in the education of future aeronautical engineers. He is the faculty advisor for participants at UCal-Irvine and has encouraged MIT students to compete. He helped introduce the program at the University of Southern California. “I was proud of the performance of all three schools (in 2006),” said Liebeck, who left USC for UCal-Irvine for logistical reasons. “”USC is 50 miles from where I live in Irvine,” he said, “and I can see my office at UCI from the hill I live on.”

The germ of Liebeck’s affiliation with MIT was planted 10 years ago by several Aero-Astrofaculty including Professors Ed Crawley, Earll Murman, and Eugene Covert who wanted to recruit Liebeck as a Professor of the Practice. Murman notes that Liebeck’s credentials were a perfect fit with the requirements for an MIT professor of practices and the match was inevitable. These credentials include managing an airplane program in private industry during his 45 years at the Boeing Company; earning a Ph.D ( University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign 1968) and publishing extensively; membership in the National Academy of Engineering (since 1992).

Liebeck was appointed the MIT faculty in 2000. As a professor of practice, he makes four or five trips a year to Cambridge. “There exist few schools that compare to MIT,” he said. “Both MIT and UCI have good students. However, MIT has some unique and special students.”

Murman notes, “Bob brings incredible aircraft design experience and wisdom to the classroom, and is always eager to work one-on-one with our students,” Murman says. “He is a wonderful mentor to young people and young faculty. We are really fortunate to have Bob as part of our faculty.”

Liebeck with motorcycle

An avid motorcyclist for many years, Bob Liebeck, shown here near Yosemite National Park, enjoys touring aboard his Honda VFR Nighthawk. (Photo courtesy Bob Liebeck)

Liebeck never completed his job application for a position at Douglas Aircraft Company in 1961 when he was a senior at the University of Illinois. “Don’t do that,” said Professor Allen Omsbee, who later became Liebeck’s thesis advisor. “I want you to go to graduate school. I will get you a summer job at Douglas where I am a consultant.”

Ormsbee delivered, and Liebeck skipped the graduation ceremonies to drive 2,025 miles in his 1960 Austin Healy 3000 sports car from Urbana to the Douglas Aircraft Company in Santa Monica, Calif., to begin his career. He continued his studies at Illinois for the next seven years, leaving for a summer job at Douglas as soon as classes ended in the spring, skipping commencement in 1962 and 1968, when he received a master’s and a Ph.D, respectively. He joined the company fulltime in 1968 and remained on the payroll as Douglas became McDonnell Douglas and then Boeing. It’s been 46 years and counting. “I have never interviewed for a job or filled out a job application,” said Liebeck, who celebrated his 69th birthday in February.

For the record, Liebeck wore University of Illinois colors at three UCal-Irvine honors graduation ceremonies where honors students are accompanied by professors they believe played a key role in their success. “This experience I believe was more rewarding than my own graduation,” he said.

Liebeck’s thesis was titled “Optimization of Airfoils for Maximum Lift,” a topic suggested by Ormsbee and the late A.M.O. Smith of Douglas, who encouraged him to continue the research. The revolutionary devices are now called “Liebeck airfoils” in the industry. Originally designed in the ‘70s for high altitude airplanes, a Liebeck airfoil will be used in the NASCAR Car of Tomorrow scheduled to be unveiled this year.

In his spare time, Liebeck has designed wings for Indianapolis 500 and Formula One racing cars, the keel for the yacht that won the America’s Cup in 1991 and the wing for a World Championship acrobatic airplane, an unmatched triple crown. “This could be summarized as victory on land, sea and air,” he said.

Liebeck is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a world-renowned authority in the fields of aerodynamics, hydrodynamics, and aircraft design. He attained world recognition starting in the 1970s with his novel designs for high-lift “Liebeck airfoils.” He has made substantial contributions to a variety of related fields, including propeller design, windmill analysis, wing design for supersonic transports, and the design of high-altitude unmanned aircraft.

For the past 15 years, Liebeck has been program manager of Boeing’s Blended Wing Body project, developing a 500-passenger “flying wing” aircraft. “The BWB project continues to both progress and remains a challenge,” Liebeck said. The BWB X-48B, a subscale prototype with a 21-foot wingspan and three 50-pound turbojet engines, is undergoing tests.

At the 50th reunion of Wheaton High School’s class of 1956 last September, Liebeck and his classmates were asked to list their interests and hobbies. Golf, travel, grandchildren were the most popular answers among his peers, most of whom are retired. Liebeck’s were motorcycles, running and writing a book on airplane design. He runs two to three miles every other day and competes in the occasional 10K race.

His fascination with motorcycles began as a teenager in Wheaton, IL. Liebeck acquired his first motorcycle at age 14, a Whizzer — basically a motorized bicycle —  with an ear-splitting exhaust. At the University of Illinois he said he had guilt pangs when he upgraded to a BSA 500 single with a louder exhaust. He now owns four cycles, two of which are quiet. “I no longer feel guilty,” he said.

Bob Sales, a former executive editor of the Boston Herald and editor of the Boston Phoenix, teaches journalism at Boston University and Northeastern University. He may be reached at

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