Professor Robert Liebeck Receives ASME's Spirit of St. Louis Medal

Recognized for his service in the advancement of aeronautics and astronautics

September 9, 2005 -- Robert Liebeck, Ph.D., a senior fellow at The Boeing Company and adjunct professor in mechanical and aerospace engineering at UC Irvine, has been bestowed with the Spirit of St. Louis Medal, one of  the highest honors given by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME).

Sharing this medal with past award winners such as Neil Armstrong, Liebeck was chosen for his “meritorious service in the advancement of aeronautics and astronautics,” making him the 50th recipient to receive this impressive honor.

“It’s intimidating to see all of the individuals who I share this award with.  I am truly honored to receive this prestigious medal," he said.

Liebeck, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, is a respected authority in aerodynamics and aircraft design, and gained international attention in the 1970s for his revolutionary designs in high-lift airfoils, now called "Liebeck airfoils” by peers and industry colleagues.  Currently, Liebeck is continuing his work at Boeing and directing the Blended-Wing-Body (BWB) Program, a new class of subsonic transport for both commercial and military use. 

Liebeck co-developed the BWB airplane configuration, and has been working on this project for about 15 years.  The plane will be about a 500-passenger, "flying wing" aircraft with a more efficient design than the Airbus A380.  New alterations include a considerable decrease in drag and lower structural weight, resulting in a 30 percent lower fuel burn per seat-mile compared to the A380.

Dividing his time between Boeing and teaching, Liebeck is an adjunct professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UC Irvine and is professor of the practice of aeronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, teaching mechanical and aerospace engineering to undergraduate and graduate students.   Liebeck was previously an adjunct professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Southern California from 1977 to 2000.

Liebeck describes teaching as his true passion, working with students in courses, and on class and related club research projects.  For example, Liebeck took an active interest in a student competition sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) last winter quarter, after several of his UC Irvine students asked him to review their model airplane they had built to enter in the competition.

Through well-received critiques, coupled with many hours of dedicated work, the UC Irvine students traveled to Maryland and placed 14out of 44 schools entered in the national AIAA student competition called “Design/Build/Fly.”

This year, Liebeck has agreed to advise the AIAA engineering group on campus, and they have decided to collaborate with engineering students from USC and MIT.  He explained that the students bonded last year at the contest in Maryland, and are excited to have this unique opportunity to exchange ideas for a national competition.

When asked to describe the most proud moment in his career, Liebeck said that although his induction into the National Academy of Engineers in 1992 was an exceptional honor, he had another teaching memory that was just as prominent.

Liebeck said that when he was a student at the University of Illinois, where he completed his undergraduate, graduate, and Ph.D. programs, he would always leave campus immediately after finishing his last final, in order to drive to California where he was interning at the Douglas Aircraft Company.  Thus, he never wore a cap and gown or attended one of his graduation ceremonies.

In 2004, Liebeck received a letter stating that two of his students elected him to stand with them at their honors convocation because of his influence on their education and how he inspired them for their future careers in engineering.   He was asked to attend the graduation, in cap and gown, and stand with his students.

“It was a big thrill to see these students beaming at me, including me on their special day, and joining them in my own cap and gown.  I felt as though I made an important difference, and this is one of life’s moments I will remember sincerely.”

Liebeck said he also received a UC Irvine award that same spring at the “Celebration of Teaching” event sponsored by the Instructional Resources Center (IRC), honoring his outstanding teaching contributions.

“I have been truly delighted with my experiences here at UC Irvine, and believe that the students and faculty I work with are exceptionally talented and dedicated.”

Liebeck will be recognized and awarded the Spirit of St. Louis Medal at the ASME national honors assembly in Orlando, Fla. in November.