Outstanding Aerospace Engineer Class of 2020: Doug Joyce

"For years I have seen the announcements of the selected honorees in the Purdue newsletters never anticipating that I would be so honored. I am so very grateful," Doug Joyce said.

Douglas Joyce, simply, cannot choose.

The favorite airplane he’s flown?

The list is just too long, considering his definition of “favorite” is an airplane that is “well-designed to the mission it does.”

There were many beautiful, fast, exhilarating airplanes on the many dangerous, challenging, rewarding missions and instruction over the course of Joyce’s 27-year career in the Air Force.

Douglas Joyce

The F-15 was “a real Cadillac,” he said. It was automated, so if something failed, it’d change over to the other system and tell the pilot it did it. It didn’t require as much cerebral understanding as, say, the F-16.

The F-16 was “a good little airplane” that performed well.

The De Havilland U-6 Beaver was the “fighter pilot humbler,” but Joyce loved it anyway, with its big radial engine and tail wheel.

The F-4 was unlike any other plane Joyce flew because he spent more time in it than any other, nearly 1,000 hours.

So, no, Joyce cannot choose just one from the 60-70 planes he’s flown. Some, he may have flown only four or five times, the life of a test pilot. But the compilation of each wonderful experience paints such an impressive, fulfilling career. Singling them out wouldn’t be right, considering the scope of all they allowed Joyce to accomplish.

The scope that permitted him to soar as a pilot and instructor in air defense and tactical fighter squadrons for the U.S. Air Force.

The scope that bred expertise that allowed him to blossom as a professor at Daniel Webster College, soon after he retired from the Air Force as a Colonel in 1994.

The scope that was propelled by a rigorous, trajectory-changing five-year education at Purdue University.

The scope that is being celebrated. Joyce (BSAAE ’67, MSAAE ’68) will be honored as an Outstanding Aerospace Engineer, the top alumni honor given by the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, during a virtual ceremony on April 12.

“Being selected as an Outstanding Aerospace Engineer is a great honor for a Purdue engineering graduate. I am truly humbled and very honored,” Joyce said. “For years I have seen the announcements of the selected honorees in the Purdue newsletters never anticipating that I would be so honored. I am so very grateful.

“I had a hell of a good career, and I owe a lot of that to the solid foundation I got from Purdue. That’s what got me started. I did a lot of different, interesting things.”

Maybe Purdue was the springboard from a career perspective, but Joyce’s love for airplanes has been deeply rooted since childhood.

His father, Al Joyce, was a military pilot, airline pilot and corporate pilot. He was, simply, was an “aviation buff.” And his son wanted to be just like him. Dad was happy to oblige, starting a sixth-grade Doug on a formal flying course in a Cub plane out of Barre-Montpelier Airport in Vermont. In junior high and into high school, Doug built model airplanes.

By the time Doug was in high school, Dad bought a “beat-up glider,” and they rebuilt it. Doug operated it for four years while he was in high school. Sometimes, he even designed his own model airplanes and built them. For a high school project, he even built a smoke wind tunnel, though he didn’t test any of his planes in it.

A plane brought Doug Joyce to Purdue in the mid-1960s, and the idea of airplanes on campus solidified his stay.

When he landed in West Lafayette, Indiana, Joyce was awed to taxi up to the ramp and see hangars emblazoned with “Purdue University.” In all the research he’d done on colleges, he’d missed the fact Purdue owned and operated its own airport.

“I was really, really impressed,” Joyce said.

Joyce didn’t schedule any advance appointments for the trip. After wandering around campus and asking where the aero school was, he popped over. All of the students he met were friendly, and he liked the atmosphere. Then he sat down with AAE Professor Larry Cargino.

“I think he was kind of impressed because here was this kid, a senior in high school, traveling around the country on airliners by himself,” Joyce said. “I just had opportunity to go, so I went. That happened quite often because Dad would have missions where he would be going to pick somebody up and he’d be going to wherever they’d be going empty, so he would take me and drop me off at places and I’d usually get an airline to get back.”

When Joyce came back to Purdue as a student, he was a bit overwhelmed as a freshman in engineering. His “average grades” threatened to derail his dreams.

And he distinctly remembers a conversation that changed the trajectory of his life.

Cargino, also the freshmen engineering counselor, called Joyce into his office — and didn’t offer him a seat. He pulled out Joyce’s grades and bluntly told the first-year engineer that his B-C range wasn’t going to cut it for aeronautical engineering. Unless Joyce wanted to change career goals, he needed to raise his grades to the A-B range.

“That got young Douglas’ attention,” Joyce said with a laugh. “He re-doubled my efforts.”

After his freshman year, Joyce settled in and did well academically, perhaps because it was more than basic math and science courses at that point. He finally got to take courses in what he was really interested in, like aerodynamics and structures. His undergraduate years were filled with academic challenges but also teaching excellence.

Joyce especially was drawn to Professor George Palmer, whose infectious enthusiasm rubbed off on his students. One design course over two semesters in Joyce’s senior year especially stands out. The group was tasked with designing for two competitions: One a fighter airplane and one a transport. Joyce’s group designed an airplane they named the Pterodactyl. Palmer’s involvement made the class fun.

Joyce so connected with Palmer that he stayed for his master’s with Palmer as his advisor.

“He was a wonderful, wonderful instructor. He was so interested in everything aviation,” Joyce said. “He would spend the time to explain things to you two or three different ways if he didn’t think you were quite getting it.”

Joyce intended to pay for his master’s himself, but the ROTC directed him to the Air Force Institute of Technology for another option. Being accepted into AFIT meant it would pay for his school — but it also required three years of service as an engineer, not a pilot. Joyce didn’t like that caveat because at the end of the three years as an engineer he would be too old to enter pilot training. AAE Professor Robert Swain, who’d just joined the faculty from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, was able to work out a deal. Because AFIT was struggling to fill its quota, it waived the directed duty assignment and offered to send Joyce to pilot training directly after his master’s, “the best of all worlds,” Joyce said. He was allowed to stay at Purdue to complete his degree, too.

And that was special, to finish his education at a place he’d grown to love.

“I view my time at Purdue very favorably. It has served me well in my career,” Joyce said. “Just the mention of the name Purdue University, especially associated with aeronautics and astronautics, and in the military, it clicked. People get it.”

After obtaining his master’s in 1968 and earning his pilot’s wings in 1969, Joyce’s first flight assignment was to a support squadron in a North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) region.

But it wasn’t exactly a dream come true.

Joyce wanted to be a tactical fighter pilot. Instead, he was sent to the NORAD region to fly a T-33, which were used as target airplanes for the inceptors. But Joyce dutifully went to T-33 training. After about three weeks, his boss asked if Joyce would like to check out in the base VC-47, a transport aircraft.

“I thought, ‘Oh my god, they’re going to take my jet away from me,’” Joyce said.

Instead, they allowed him to have two airplanes. Joyce was OK with that, especially considering the VC-47 is what Al Joyce flew during World War II. Not long afterward, a general brought a T-39 to the base and was looking for someone who had gone to all-jet pilot training, which Joyce had. So Joyce got sent to Andrews Air Force base to check out in a T-39.

And, all of a sudden, Joyce was a first lieutenant flying three planes in one assignment, simultaneously.

But it wasn’t what he wanted. He desperately wanted to go to Vietnam in a fighter. A look at his background and the number of flying hours he’d built up — he was getting 80-100 hours a month — got him called an “experienced aviator.” So he got fast-tracked to an F-4 training in the front seat — not having to start in the back seat and move up.

And, then, finally, Joyce was exactly where he wanted to be, flying the F-4 Phantom.

In 1971, Joyce reported to Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base. One only had to look at the airplanes to know Joyce wasn’t handling typical missions. An F-4 paint job in that era usually was camouflaged on top and had a white, creamy color on the bottom. Joyce’s squadron planes had black bottoms because the white would show up at night — and he was part of a squadron that flew nothing but night operations.

It was dangerous work. He flew specialized night missions to escort the AC-130 gunships to provide flak suppression and high altitude chaff corridor emplacement in North Vietnam, designed to shield B-52’s from enemy radar. Specially selected crews, including Joyce’s, flew single-ship armed reconnaissance missions in which they controlled the airspace and attack efforts in a particular area of the battlefield. They were called Owl Forward Air Controllers.

That tour of duty included 216 combat missions, and Joyce was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross three times and received 18 awards of the Air Medal.

“In young captain fighter pilots, there’s a sense of invincibility. A little bit of an ego thing, probably,” Joyce said.

“Sometimes things momentarily give you a scare, but you just don’t walk out to your airplane thinking you are bulletproof.”

At least a couple decisions he made during that time seemed to indicate he understood the inherent risks: He wouldn’t marry his sweetheart Debi until after he returned from the F-4 tour, and when he got back, he married her and bought a Corvette as “a present to myself for staying alive.”

The perilous assignments weren’t done, though. They couldn’t be, for him to keep pushing toward achieving career goals.

“I loved the F-4 and I would have loved to stay in it,” he said, “but I was trying to get to Test Pilot School and one of the things they valued was combat experience in a variety of airplanes. So I volunteered to return to Southeast Asia in any other fighter. I didn’t know they were getting ready to deploy the F-111 because that hadn’t leaked out. I thought I’d get F-5 or A-7. But I got the 111.

“Man, I loved that airplane. It was a good airplane and a good airplane for the mission.”

After that tour, in which Joyce flew 67 missions, he graduated from the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in 1975, staying on his ideal career trajectory path. He knew that was an important step: He wanted to apply to be an astronaut, like “everybody” in his class, and he also was excited about the life of a fighter test pilot.

Test flying was the perfect combination of engineering and flying, only he replaced a lab for experimentation in the air.

He spent three years as a test pilot at Eglin, and during that time, he landed his crowning achievement assignment as project pilot for the new EF-111A aircraft. He participated in early planning and design stages, and several of his recommendations were implemented and made it to production on the aircraft. He also was the first Air Force test pilot to fly the airplane.

“That was an interesting project,” he said. “It was fraught with difficulties, but they all are. Some technical and some managerial. It was just hard to make it all come together and there were a lot of parts of it that were classified, which requires special handling. It was a good learning thing for me.

“I learned about taking care of all the classified stuff, how to handle special access programs. The airplane flew like a 111 except the way it was laid out. It was a pretty busy cockpit.”

The breadth and variety of his assignments and responsibilities continued to grow while Joyce was in the Air Force, from leading development and operational testing, to being chief of academics at the USAF Test Pilot School, to being Deputy Director of F-16 flight test, to being the program manager of the range expansion program in the Philippines, to assuming the position as vice commander of a wing-size test organization in Nevada responsible for the security, operation and maintenance of a national test support facility.

Each assignment offered challenges. Each had plusses at times.

He liked them all.

The Philippines assignment was unique in a variety of ways and also provided a rare, odd opportunity to join a local polo club. Joyce hadn’t even known how to ride a horse. After his three-year tour, he not only was riding a horse but competing for the varsity club team.

“That was a hell of a lot of fun,” Joyce said. “There’s no way I could ever afford to do that in the United States. I looked into it when I got back. It just was way too expensive. But that polo experience was cool.”

The vice commander role in Nevada was the most interesting and challenging assignment he had, largely because of security reasons. Every person assigned was hand-picked, and the numbers were about half of what a normal Air Force wing would be. So everyone had two or three jobs, even senior people. Joyce spent five years there, a long time for a colonel, “but I enjoyed it a lot.”

After retiring from the Air Force, Joyce moved to back to his home state, New Hampshire, and began a career in academia with Daniel Webster College.

He was hired initially as the interim chief instructor and director of flight operations in 1994. As the engineering program expanded, he was asked to participate on a broader scale. But he didn’t want to give up the aviation aspect. They compromised: Joyce taught four courses, two engineering and two aviation. And he told them he wouldn’t accept an appointment as an assistant professor, only an associate, because he’d been with the college as director of flight operations for seven years. The college acquiesced — after telling Joyce he wouldn’t be able to complete the requirements in time to make full professor.

“I said, ‘Let me worry about that.’ I did some projects and became well known around the world, like instrumenting an airplane and using it as a laboratory device for a dynamics and control course. I gave a lot of papers. So I made full professor. It worked out,” said Joyce, who was promoted to full professor in 2010, six years after accepting the associate professor appointment.

Joyce loved to fly and loved to teach, drawing inspiration from his “role model” George Palmer. Much like Palmer, Joyce developed a tight mentor relationship with his students and, just as much as the awards and honors during his time in the Air Force, he values that portion of his career.

“The payback is when you see these students of yours out there doing a fantastic job,” he said.

More on 2020 class of OAEs:

March 29: Doug Adams

March 30: Chris Clark

March 31: Darin DiTommaso

April 2: Yen Matsutomi

April 5: Loral O'Hara

April 6: David Schmidt

April 7: Stevan Slijepcevic

April 8: Rhonda Walthall