Outstanding Aerospace Engineer Class of 2020: David Schmidt

“I have always been proud to be a Boilermaker alumnus, and it is truly an honor to be recognized by my AAE faculty colleagues as having contributed something to our field and our profession,” David Schmidt said.

None of the students had seen anything like it.

When they sat in David Schmidt’s Aircraft Flight Dynamics class and he presented the problem, they almost all were stunned.

That was part of the point.

David Schmidt

Schmidt wanted to challenge his students. He wanted to make them work. He wanted to broaden their knowledge. He wanted them to learn how to learn. He wanted to equip them with applicable fundamentals.

So in his first year as a professor in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 1974, and the subsequent 13 years after, he asked students to solve a V-22 tiltrotor problem that calculated the inertial acceleration of the tip of a rotor blade using vector calculus.

It was a problem that had at least one student — Christopher Clark, one of Schmidt’s graduate students — thinking he wasn’t worthy.

But Clark wasn’t alone, and Schmidt knows it.

“Every student I’ve had that I run into at a conference or wherever says, ‘Oh, I still remember that problem,’” Schmidt said with a laugh. “It was a difficult problem because it’s more complex than the typical problem they would have seen in their textbooks. But the underlying purpose for giving them that problem, it drives home some fundamental tools and fundamental facts involved with kinematics, the mathematical study of motion. It drives home some facts and vectors and differentiation of vectors. It drives home fundamentals they could use on a whole host of things.”

The problem is part of Schmidt’s legacy in AAE. And beyond, after he included it in “Modern Flight Dynamics,” a textbook he published in 2011.

“It’s out there for all kinds of other students to beat their heads against the wall,” he said with a laugh.

The problem is a single example that so perfectly encapsulates Schmidt — someone intent on nurturing problem-solving engineers, someone eager to share applicable knowledge, someone who finds joy in the process, someone who desires to create and build and develop.

During his 14 years on AAE faculty, Schmidt fostered students by using industry experience to showcase real-world problems in his courses and built relationships with the graduate students he mentored. He did the same after leaving Purdue during six years as a professor at Arizona State University, six at the University of Maryland and six at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs (UCCS) before retiring.

All the while building a reputation as an internationally recognized leader in the dynamic modeling and control of atmospheric, exo-atmospheric, subsonic and hypersonic aerospace vehicles.

At every step along the way, even now in his “retired” life as a consultant, Schmidt still is solving problems by helping others see them and discover innovative ways to approach them.

That philosophy and the significant success it has produced have Schmidt (BSAAE ’65, PhD AAE ’72) in line for unique recognition. He will be honored as an Outstanding Aerospace Engineer, the highest honor bestowed on alumni by AAE, during a virtual ceremony April 12. Among the other eight alumni in the 2020 class is a former student who struggled mightily with that landmark homework problem, Chris Clark.

“I have always been proud to be a Boilermaker alumnus, and it is truly an honor to be recognized by my AAE faculty colleagues as having contributed something to our field and our profession,” Schmidt said. “I have been so blessed to be able to work in a profession I love and has interested me since the beginning. It’s not work. It’s getting paid for a hobby. It’s great.”

Schmidt’s “beginning” started in Lafayette, Indiana. He grew up loving airplanes and Purdue University athletics, especially football and basketball.

Athletics was about the extent of his knowledge of the University. Until he had to get glasses as a junior in high school and needed to alter his plan: Aspirations of attending the Air Force Academy and being a pilot were dashed with one bad eye exam. Schmidt’s parents didn’t have money to send him out of state for college, so he looked for the best in-state school, which happened to be in his backyard.

He had no idea what was in store.

Schmidt was the first in his family to attend college, and every moment was a wide-eyed experience. From figuring out what to study — he had an aptitude for math and science in high school, so a guidance counselor suggested engineering, even though he had no idea what that was — to adjusting to life on a campus that included more than he ever imagined.

“Lo and behold you get to this University, and there’s people from all over the world who come to school here. I said, ‘Holy cow, this place is a bigger deal than I thought it was,’” Schmidt said with a laugh. “A lot of this stuff was just luck. You just do stuff based on information you have. It worked out wonderfully.”

Schmidt admittedly had moments as a freshman in the early 1960s when he wasn’t sure he could make it at Purdue. Central Catholic High School didn’t offer any AP or advanced courses at the time, and he hadn’t taken calculus yet. He found himself behind the curve immediately, in classes with better-prepared students from bigger schools. Simply, they could do the homework and he couldn’t.

When a professor in an early Physics course told a group of 300 students in a large lecture hall that most of them wouldn’t make it, that got Schmidt’s attention.

So he did the only thing he could, buckled down and studied hard. And got results.

“Fortunately, I scrambled hard enough to make it out of the swamp, so to speak,” he said. “I learned how to learn, how to organize my thoughts, to think logically, to appreciate prior research, to question,” he said, “and be able to recognize what’s important when you’re studying something and know, ‘This is key.’ You learn that. You’re not born with that skill.”

By the time he was ready to graduate in 1965, it was the zenith of aeronautics and space. The X-15 rocketplane was setting speed and altitude records, and Gemini and Apollo programs offered exciting visions about human spaceflight. Schmidt couldn’t wait to get started in the world, and there were plenty of options: He interviewed with as many as eight companies.

One in particular was especially intriguing.

Douglas Aircraft Company’s Missiles and Space Systems Division in Huntington Beach, California, had a contract to design, test and build the upper stage of the Saturn V rocket booster as part of the Apollo program. Sunny California plus Apollo? Not that Schmidt had a frontrunner, but … 

“One of the happiest moments of my life was getting an offer of a job, by telegram,” Schmidt said. “I remember sitting in a lawn chair outside, it was around commencement time in May, I just read that telegram from Douglas Missiles and Space over and over and over. ‘Holy cow, this is really going to work.’ ”

Not a bad first gig, knowing the work being done could produce a historic moment.

The Saturn V was expected to be the three-stage launch vehicle, fueled by liquid propellants, to take humans beyond Earth’s orbit and, eventually, to the Moon.

“It was just a wonderful time for aeronautics and space at that period in history. We all knew very well going into that job that we were working on an important program and we were going to help get somebody to the Moon. That’s an exciting motivation,” said Schmidt, who watched the Moon landing years later from the Student Union on Purdue’s campus.

Schmidt spent a year designing structural components before transferring to a different division within Douglas and switching disciplines. That’s when his career trajectory came into focus. In several ways.

The new role was in flight mechanics, and it ideally aligned with Schmidt’s interests. He was able to work with the whole vehicle, not pieces of it like in his previous role with the company. Though he was dealing with atmospheric vehicles, not spacecraft, he liked delving in to the motion of the whole vehicle, the flight dynamics and attitude control. Flight mechanics required a good deal of math and computer simulation, too, which Schmidt enjoyed as well.

He also started night courses at the University of Southern California for a master’s degree. Toward the end of those five semesters, he was asked by a professor what was next. Schmidt said he liked where he was at the then McDonnell Douglas but he’d started to consider teaching. The advice was succinct: Don’t waste time, get a Ph.D.

“Up until that moment he said that, I had never thought about a Ph.D. In my mind, brilliant geniuses had Ph.D.s, and I was not one of those people,” Schmidt said. “When he said, ‘Get a Ph.D.,’ I said, ‘What? Me?’ That was the first seed planted in my brain with regard to continuing graduate education. I took his advice. I ended up coming back to Purdue.”

After obtaining his doctorate from AAE, Schmidt interviewed for several faculty positions. He was drawn to teaching, for one, because he felt like he had something to offer: His industry experience could be valuable to students.

At least, it was valuable for him as a Purdue student.

While an undergraduate in AAE, Schmidt loved Professor Elmer Bruhn’s classes because of all the interesting stories Bruhn could tell about his time in industry.

“I was just fascinated by what he had to say,” Schmidt said of Bruhn, who was head of the School from 1945-50. “I thought, well, I could share some of my experiences, too, and maybe somebody would get some good out of that.”

But after the Ph.D., Schmidt accepted a position at the Stanford Research Institute, a research organization in Northern California, performing research on advanced air traffic management systems. About a year later, he heard from a colleague that Purdue was conducting a faculty search and the position description was closely aligned to Schmidt’s background in dynamics and control.

Schmidt joined the AAE faculty as an assistant professor in 1974. He stayed 14 years.

“I was very, very honored to be able to teach at my alma mater,” he said. “I could relate to the students because I had been in their seats. And to be able to work with them on the other side of the desk, so to speak, was a great honor.

“Purdue has terrific students. I have worked at several universities over the years, so I know firsthand, and Purdue has terrific students. That was a great time. I enjoyed it a lot.”

After Purdue, Schmidt held a variety of roles at Arizona State University, the University of Maryland and UCCS, as director of research centers and labs, founding a new department and associate vice chancellor for research and dean of a graduate school. Each administrative role came with typical management challenges, learning how to deal with people-related and economic issues.

“The things I liked about it, though, was I found I like to build things, develop new programs or open up a research center, get something started,” he said. “So I ended up spending a good deal of time and energy doing that kind of stuff. There’s a great deal of payoff in accomplishing those types of things.”

Perhaps his most rewarding work was accomplished at that final stop in Colorado.

Schmidt ran into the Dean of the UCCS College of Engineering and Applied Science at a conference, and they got to talking about the College’s goal to fill out the engineering disciplines. At that time, its only academic departments were electrical engineering, computer science and mathematics, and no one on campus had any mechanical or aerospace engineering background. It wanted to add a Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

Schmidt was intrigued.

“It was a new opportunity. It was something I hadn’t done before,” Schmidt said. “I had never started a department. It was an opportunity to grow something, and we did.”

The list was extensive: Faculty needed to be hired, undergraduate curriculum needed to be designed, and ABET accreditation needed to be obtained, among other things. Students transferred in from other majors and graduated two years after the department was formed. In a few more years, the department had the largest enrollment in the College of Engineering, Schmidt said.

As the faculty grew, the department was able to develop laboratories and a graduate program. The department now offers master’s and doctorate degrees. A new building was built to house the department.

After the department was established, Schmidt was asked to take on the position of Associate Vice Chancellor and Dean of the campus graduate school.

“That was interesting,” he said. “It allowed me to interact with not only engineering faculty but also the faculties from the other colleges — liberal arts and sciences, education, business and nursing. But I still continued to teach and work with my graduate students.”

Schmidt retired in 2006. But not surprisingly — considering Schmidt’s unquenchable nature to discover, build and solve — being “retired” hasn’t meant being bored.

D. K. Schmidt and Associates, LLC, the aerospace engineering consulting firm he founded in 1999 while still teaching, has him as busy as he’s ever been. He has conducted research for NASA, ARINC Research, Boeing, McDonnell-Douglas and Systems Technology, Inc.  S&A also has offered onsite short courses on the modeling of flexible aircraft at NASA’s Langley, Ames, and Armstrong Research Centers, the Naval Air Development Center, Boeing Commercial Aircraft, Northrop Grumman Aerospace, the German Aerospace Laboratory, the Hamburg University of Technology and Embraer in Brazil.

“I haven’t had any problems finding things to do,” he said. “All of this stuff is fun stuff. I’m very fortunate. It’s a different situation — you can say, ‘yes, I’d like to do that’ or ‘no, I don’t think that’s a good idea to do right now.’ It’s nice to have that choice.”

More on 2020 class of OAEs:

March 29: Doug Adams

March 30Chris Clark

March 31Darin DiTommaso

April 1Doug Joyce

April 2Yen Matsutomi

April 5: Loral O'Hara

April 7: Stevan Slijepcevic

April 8: Rhonda Walthall