Outstanding Aerospace Engineer Class of 2020: Christopher Clark

"The education I received at Purdue was instrumental to my career and allowed me to participate in solving some of naval aviation's most challenging aircraft and aviation development problems," Chris Clark said.

The passion started with balsa wood.

Those were easy model planes to secure when Christopher Clark was a kid, and they served their purpose: Providing important father-son bonding time with the building and brother-brother bonding time with the playing. Truman Clark loved the first one he built with sons Tim and Chris, a little Taylorcraft with red paper coating, especially considering he thought it was an airplane he actually may be able to afford one day. A Red Baron Triplane was the next balsa wood build project, and it was beautiful.

But kids can be a bit tougher on a balsa wood airplane than the balsa wood can endure — even after dozens of repairs — so the planes, eventually, had to be relegated to a static display.

It was just fine, actually, with Chris Clark. It meant they could move on to even more challenging planes. Plastic models, planes with little motors that ran on a methanol-castor oil mixture, planes that were radio controlled.

Chris Clark

His bedroom in Louisiana as a kid was loaded with plastic models. They were hanging from a wire that spanned from corner-to-corner of the ceiling. They were on the walls. They lined bookshelves.

Simply, he was fascinated by all aircraft. The look of them, the lines, the curves. The idea of being in a cockpit with excessive G-force compressing him into the seat. The stark views aircraft allow, the color of the sky too delicate to properly articulate, the clouds providing science lessons to recall their form.

As an adolescent, the models helped Chris Clark recall special times, like when he and his brother attended local airshows with Dad, when they got to fly in a Ford Tri-Motor and a Bell helicopter.

Mother Donna and sister Karen, with reticence, accepted the wood dust, smell of glue, coatings and paints, as well as the odor and noise of engines emanating from the garage. Donna often would say, “If I can hear them, I know where they are, which is good.”

No matter where Truman’s job for the USDA took the family — California, Louisiana, back to California, then to Maryland for teaching and research jobs — Chris Clark built and displayed model airplanes.

He never has stopped collecting them.

The motivation for doing so just happened to change.

These days, Clark doesn’t snag model planes of the carved mahogany wooden variety — F-14s and F-18s — simply because he looks forward to playing with them. Or simply enjoys gazing at them, to get lost dreaming about what a real one would look like.

Now, Clark has an intimate familiarity with pretty much every fighter aircraft imaginable. 

He retired in February 2018 after 17 years as chief test engineer at Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 with the Naval Air Systems Command. For nearly 20 years before that, he served in numerous positions on a variety of Navy tactical aircraft projects. During his illustrious career, he was exposed the F-4, F-14, T-45, X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator (UCAS-D), F/A-18A through F and EA-18G — and even foreign aircraft, such as the Kfir C. 1 (designated as the Navy’s F-21A) and the Saab JAS 39 Gripen.

He led teams of engineers, technicians and support personnel to ideally test and generate maximum performance of every aircraft.

He became the ultimate test plan approval authority as chief test engineer, the final signatory on reports released for various projects, reports that fed into the acquisition pipeline for either buying a piece of gear, buying a modification for the airplane, changing the envelope the fleet was operating, changing emergency procedures in some cases for aircraft operating in the fleet. Many technical determinations about the airplanes and the equipment that touched them came from Clark’s office.

The man who so wholly loved aircraft as a kid built a career around understanding the requirements and design trade space, the manufacturing of and testing and tweaking them.

To incredible success.

And now he’s an Outstanding Aerospace Engineer, the highest honor bestowed upon alumni of the Purdue University School of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Clark (MSAAE ’87) will be honored alongside eight fellow AAE alumni at a virtual ceremony April 12.

“The education I received at Purdue was instrumental to my career and allowed me to participate in solving some of naval aviation’s most challenging aircraft and aviation development problems. Combining that education and work experience, I was able to make positive and consistent contributions throughout my career to the capabilities used in defense of our Nation,” Clark said.

“I’m really proud of my degree from Purdue and the work it took me personally to get through the program at Purdue. I’m really proud of work I did for the Navy. Not everybody has the right answers all the time, but I think I tried to give them my share of good answers.”

It’s too bad the OAE trophy will only have Clark’s name.

Though his steady rise certainly was earned based on his expertise and leadership, Clark always was part of a team of equally talented individuals, he said. He makes note the Apollo 11 mission patch didn’t have a single astronaut’s name on it, unlike other NASA mission missions then and since. Why? Because hundreds of thousands worked on that program.

“You never do anything by yourself,” he said. “You’re always part of a team.”

Clark has had plenty of assistance along the way.

Even with his love of aircraft through high school, Clark didn’t think aeronautical engineering was something he could pursue in college because he said he wasn’t a great student in math. But he did want to attend college. The University of Maryland, College Park campus was only about 25 minutes from his parents’ home in Bowie, Maryland, which meant he could commute. Otherwise, he probably wouldn’t have been able to afford it.

It wasn’t until his sophomore year at Maryland that he decided to give aeronautical engineering a try, prompted in part by a conversation with a Marine Lt. pilot who was flying F-4 Phantoms out of Andrews Air Force Base. While giving Clark a tour of the base, the pilot mentioned, “You ought to go into engineering. What’s the worst that can happen? You could fail out?” Well, that’d be a pretty bad worst-case scenario, Clark thought, but he took the giant leap anyway.

He fell in with a group of older students who were intent at studying, and they helped Clark achieve the goal he’d set for himself: To graduate. When he received his bachelor’s from Maryland in 1981, the aerospace industry was booming and Clark had a multitude of options.

After an all-day interview with Naval Air Systems Command, senior engineer Tom Lawrence told Clark a job offer was imminent. But then Lawrence asked Clark if he’d considered Patuxent River. Clark wanted to work with tactical aircraft, and Lawrence thought Clark’s interest aligned better there.

So Clark set up an interview with the Strike Aircraft Test Directorate. The only instructions were to come to Hangar 201. As soon as Clark stepped foot inside the hangar door, he was “beak-to-beak with a F-4 Phantom.” The hangar was loaded with planes that used to be hanging from Clark’s bedroom ceiling: A-6s, A-4s, A-7s, F-4, Tomcat, EA-6s. By the time he heard the pitch and two things they dangled, sending engineers to Test Pilot School and paying for graduate school, Clark was sold.

After Test Pilot School and early in his time at Pax, Clark volunteered for a six-week assignment at NASA Dryden at Edwards Air Force Base. He was eager to go back to California, where his family lived for a time when he was a kid, and he also wanted to build relationships with his contractor mentors. Based on conversations with those mentors, many from Grumman Aerospace, Clark realized he needed to get a master’s degree, “otherwise I’m just going to stumble through a career.”

When Clark got to NASA Dryden, he kept hearing two things: David Schmidt and Purdue University.

“There were gobs of Purdue graduates out there. It was a majority bordering on being a mafia,” Clark said. “They said, ‘If you want a master’s in aeronautical engineering, you need to go to Purdue, and you need to go talk to Dave Schmidt. He is right in your wheelhouse. He does the exact stuff you want to do.’ So that’s what I did.

“Dave Schmidt and my education at Purdue changed the trajectory of my career for sure.”

Clark had been out of school for five years by that point, and his previous experience at the Test Pilot School, though valuable, did not offer particularly demanding academics. He certainly was challenged there in the amount of work he had to do with 20-30 written reports over the course of the year, but Purdue AAE? This was not the same kind of challenging.

“When I got in, I felt like the first semester that I wasn’t going to make it,” Clark said.

Part of that was because of a problem Schmidt presented.

Even though some people had “warned” Clark about it in advance, he still was confounded. Schmidt asked students to solve a V-22 tiltrotor problem that calculated the acceleration on the tip of a rotor blade. There was a vector to the cg of the airplane, a vector to the rotating nacell, a vector out to the rotating propeller hub and, finally, a vector out to a point on the blade tip.

“I saw that problem and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m definitely in the wrong place. This is not going to be good for Chris Clark,’” said Clark, who also had Schmidt as his grad advisor. “But it’s one of those things, you put the time and energy into it, and I got a bunch of things wrong in the first cut through, then I sat down with a couple of the grad students who had been through that problem and said, ‘How do you really solve this?’”

The task was exactly what Clark needed — something that stretched him, required him to work, pushed him way out of his comfort zone and helped him learn how to learn — and, ultimately, was a great example of his time at Purdue. Whether it was Schmidt’s stability control and guidance control class, Terrence Weisshaar’s aeroelasticity class, Dominick Andrisani’s digital flight control systems class, a vibrations course, a complex variables course, a linear algebra class or his final study project in the summer in stability control and guidance control, Clark was touching nearly every vital element of an airplane.

“Having that master’s from Purdue, it allowed you to see a little bit further into the problem,” Clark said. “Working as a team lead, I was not an expert, not even close, in flutter. But with the breadth of courses Purdue had, at least I had enough educational background to understand what they were looking for in their testing and why. They were solving problems that were much more sophisticated than the kind of problems you can assign as homework or you can assign in a one-semester course. The education allowed me to understand what they were doing and why they were doing it, the necessity.

“The education at Purdue is top notch. My time at Purdue gave me a deep-seated regard for the intersecting disciplines and systems integration issues that are inherent to air vehicle design and flight testing. The outstanding professors at Purdue, through their academic rigor, really encouraged students to seek a granular understanding of first principles across multiple disciplines.”

It was impossible to overstate that value as his career progressed.

After graduate school, Clark started working the A-12, at the time a “very classified” program, before shifting to the T-45, a training plane, and the F-18 Super Hornet.

His Purdue education and Schmidt’s problem with rotor blades proved directly applicable on the T-45. During testing, the team found when the pilot would hit the stick with his fist to try and excite flutter in the horizontal tail, it coupled with the short period motion of the airplane. In that situation, the aircraft motion fed back through the stick bob-weight and started an uncommanded diverging oscillation. The plane came back up, and the pilot had to wrestle the airplane back into control. Fortunately, the pilot caught it within a cycle and a half or so.

“Part of understanding of that problem actually required the application of that very first principle that was in, like, the first week of Dave Schmidt’s class. So I said, ‘I’ve seen this before.’ I grabbed my notes and started working our way through it,” Clark said.

Another project tied to NASA Langley sent flight test teams to look at an F-16 with multi-axis nozzles, the F-18 HARV and the X-31. As Flying Qualities Technical Specialist in the Flight Systems Department, Clark looked over test plans, helped with coordination and decided what they wanted to test and what was important to find out about the airplanes.

“It was being in that job that really allowed me to put my Purdue education to good use,” he said. “It laid the groundwork for working those kind of projects.”

Because of his in-depth knowledge, Clark could communicate well and connect with the rest of the team when he was in a leadership role. So when a program would get behind schedule and others would ask, “Why are we doing that?” Clark knew who to talk to and knew how to understand what they were saying when it came down to objectives.

As a member the Navy/Boeing Integrated Test Team for the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, he had the opportunity to fill the Navy Team Lead position for the Air Vehicle Technology Team. His team was responsible for a number of specialty disciplines under the umbrella of aeromechanics flight test. The disciplines included flying qualities and aerodynamic testing (subsonic and supersonic), air vehicle performance testing, flight load structural testing, flutter/noise and vibration testing, flight control hardware testing and aircraft carrier shipboard integration testing. He was not an expert in all of the diverse disciplines, but Clark credits his education for teaching him to communicate effectively with the experts staffed to his teams, as well as a clear understanding their test methods, goals and objectives.

“I felt that my education allowed me to make positive contributions to some of the most difficult problems encountered by our flight test teams,” he said.

After work on the F-18, Clark became the chief engineer at Strike. No one can remember anyone holding the position for as long as Clark, who started in May 2001 and retired in 2018.

It was an important period in Clark’s career and life — wife Barbara and daughter Allie always understanding the ops-tempo nature of the work, always accepting the long hours and unusual schedules, always offering support and encouragement.

His personality always had spurred him to spots in which he felt like he could make a positive contribution. The work appealed to his people-person nature and allowed him to blossom as a leader. And not only in the practical problem-solving sense. Clark’s willingness to guide and mentor — important components to being a chief engineer, he said — as a kind, compassionate supervisor who did his best to practice patience were on full-on display. He’d always make time for someone who needed help, whether it be taking calls in the evening or staying on a conference call until 1 a.m.

He tried to do it all flying under the radar, so to speak.

But people noticed Clark’s contributions.

He was part of two teams that won the Collier Trophy, awarded annually for “the greatest achievement in aeronautics or astronautics in America” by the National Aeronautics Association, for the combined Navy/Industry F/A-18E/F Development Team in 1999 and the UCAS-D team in 2013.

Clark’s technical expertise was so pronounced, he was named an “esteemed fellow” for Naval Air Systems Command, an honor bestowed to the top 0.25 percent of the NAVAIR science and engineering workforce.

After he retired, he earned the Department of the Navy Test and Evaluation Lifetime Achievement Award for his professional service to naval tactical aircraft flight test engineering. The nomination said his “expertise in flying qualities and stability and control is highly recognized throughout NAVAIR, NASA, (the DOD), industry, and international partners. His contributions to safe and efficient evaluation of naval aviation capabilities are immeasurable.”

Clark, honestly, would prefer not to go down that road of individual achievement or reflecting on individual awards. There’s little doubt his acceptance speech for his Outstanding Aerospace Engineer award will include a heavy portion of “thank yous.”

It doesn’t feel right any other way.

“So much of what we do, we do on a team. I always feel a little bit bad because …”

Clark paused as the emotion gripped him, thinking about how many great professionals he worked alongside throughout his career.

“… there are a lot of people out there who I worked with who I know who worked really hard,” he said. “There were some that were more talented than me, and I suppose I was doing my job if I was facilitating them and mentoring them and giving them direction.”

More on 2020 class of OAEs:

March 29: Doug Adams

March 31: Darin DiTommaso

April 1: Doug Joyce

April 2: Yen Matsutomi

April 5: Loral O'Hara

April 6: David Schmidt

April 7: Stevan Slijepcevic

April 8: Rhonda Walthall