Aerospace engineer recognized with lifetime achievement award

Maughmer was the first to have some success putting a winglet on a sailplane, now all have winglets


By Ashley WennersHerron

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For Mark Maughmer, professor of aerospace engineering in Penn State’s College of Engineering, it was love at first sight.

“I was 5,” Maughmer said. “My father took me to an air show at Ohio State University’s Don Scott Airfield, and I got to sit in a glider, probably that of a local glider club. The memory is so vivid, I can now identify that aircraft as a Schweizer SGU 1-19 glider.”

Maughmer’s wonder persisted, resulting in a passionate career as a researcher and educator. With more than three decades as a faculty member in the Penn State College of Engineering, Maughmer’s lifetime of contributions to the field of aerospace is being recognized for the third time by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) with the 2020 AIAA Aerodynamics Award.

“I’m grateful that doing what I love has contributed to the field,” Maughmer said. “Often, for example, when I’m at the gliderport, I don’t know if I’m playing or working. It’s hard to separate my research and teaching from what I do on the weekend.”

The award recognizes one person a year for their contributions to the development, application and evaluation of aerodynamics concepts and methods. Maughmer was specifically chosen for his “foundational developments in airfoil and wing design, advancement of novel airfoil configurations and contributions to rotorcraft aeromechanics,” according the AIAA website.

Airfoils, the cross-section of an aircraft wing, can change how the aircraft flies. The goal for the designer of most airfoils is to reduce the lift that is needed for flight with as little drag as possible. Maughmer has also contributed significantly to the design and employment of winglets, the small vertical wings that are now common at the wing tips of many aircraft. By reducing the inefficient flow around wingtips, winglets are a relatively new innovation that are able to increase the aerodynamic efficiency of wings resulting in increased aircraft performance.

After graduating with his doctorate from the University of Illinois, Maughmer designed a winglet that improved the performance of a sailplane resulting in higher cross-country speeds. In 1991, the design helped a sailplane win the World Gliding Championships.

“I was the first to have some success putting a winglet on a sailplane, and now they all have winglets,” Maughmer said. “Sailplanes are kind of like the canary in the coal mine. If some aerodynamic innovation benefits sailplane performance, it is quite likely to be employed later on other types of aircraft.”

Sailplanes are highly efficient aircraft that can cover great distances with altitude gained by climbing via thermals — naturally occurring columns of rising air formed by sunlight warming the planet’s surface. Since sailplanes are so streamlined, any modification can drastically change the aircraft’s performance. The person who knows this best is Maughmer, according to Amy Pritchett, head of the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Penn State.

“Mark is the international expert on the aerodynamics of sailplanes,” Pritchett said. “He is greatly deserving of this recognition.”

Maughmer, while grateful for the recognition, said he does not do his work to get awards. He considers his greatest achievement to be his students.

“Careers in academia are made through students,” Maughmer said. “That’s the pleasure of it: teaching the next generation and learning from them, too. That’s how I was mentored, and that’s how some of those I mentored are now mentoring their own students.”

One of Maughmer’s previous AIAA awards, the John Leland Atwood Award, recognized his dedication to teaching. As a professor, he said it is particularly gratifying to be recognized by the national organization for both teaching and research.

“I can point to any glider and say, ‘I did that!’” Maughmer said. “Now, through my students, I can look at aircraft I never touched and see my influence. That’s very satisfying.”


Share this story:

facebook linked in twitter email


Megan Lakatos

mark maughmer headshot

Mark Maughmer. IMAGE: PENN STATE

“I’m grateful that doing what I love has contributed to the field. Often, I don’t know if I’m playing or working. It’s hard to separate what I research, teach and do on the weekend.”
—Mark Maughmer, professor of aerospace engineering