David O. Swain

For his record of outstanding engineering, leadership, and management skills demonstrated in leading the transition from research and development to production of one of the nation's most complex new aircraft programs, the Schools of Engineering are proud to present the Distinguished Engineering Alumnus Award to David O. Swain.

Senior Vice President
McDonnell Douglas Aerospace
BSAE '64

Swain bust

On being a student

I decided to study aeronautics and astronautics at Purdue because of two things. First was the Soviets' launching of Sputnik in 1957, which prompted people to come around to my high school to encourage us to consider careers in science and technology. Second, somebody in my hometown had gone to Purdue to study aeronautics and astronautics.

At Purdue I was initially terrified and overwhelmed by the magnitude of the university. After the first year, though, I was willing to ask for help from professors and fellow students and to take advantage of resources that would help me succeed.

One highlight from my Purdue years was an experience I had with Professor Winthrop Gustafson. I had a very difficult course with him on hypersonic aerodynamics, and I was worried about whether I was going to pass it. I had to miss the midterm exam, but he allowed me to take an oral exam in its place. I spent four hours on a Saturday morning with him, and I learned more from that oral than from the whole course. I was thankful for him-he was focused on learning.

On his professional career

Ten years ago, when I was in the missile business at McDonnell Douglas, I had the pleasure of taking a chance that others had refused to take to demonstrate the capability of the Harpoon (Navy) missile. We were able to conduct successful tests that demonstrated some of the unique capabilities of the missile, and we were able to convince the Navy and Congress to modify the missile by putting a different guidance system on it.

In 1985 I joined the electronics division of the company. I found that I was able to make the transition because of a combination of wanting to do well, of being able to listen, and-what I finally learned to do at Purdue-of being willing to ask for help. Being able to listen to experts and ask for help enables you to achieve almost anything.

The highlight of my career is where I am today. The C-17 is important to our defense and to our ability to provide humanitarian aid around the world. We're dealing with a complex product in a complex political environment.


Being able to manage a cross-cultural workforce is very, very important. Technical skills I learned at Purdue, but my parents and wife have probably had the greatest influence on my career and personal development. My parents ran a small business-they were farmers-and taught me good values and a spirit of competitiveness. From my wife I learned a lot about people. It took all those things to allow me to become a manager.

Young Swain in a suit

On the future

What worries me most is that our country won't be able to provide enough technically challenging jobs to motivate people to get the education they need. You can't go out and create jobs by more and better education. If the jobs are there, the education will be thorough enough.


April 1991:
Appointed senior vice president of transport aircraft for McDonnell Douglas. Responsible for business, technical, and production operations of all McDonnell Douglas business dealing with airlift and tanker aircraft.
January 1991:
Named vice president-general manager of C-17 program. The C-17 military transport aircraft, a $36 billion program, is the biggest part of the Defense Department's current five-year procurement plan.
Appointed vice president of strategic business and technology development, Douglas Aircraft. 1987-1989:
Vice president of strategic business development of McDonnell Douglas Astronautics.
Became general manager of McDonnell Douglas Electronics, effectively serving as president for 2,000-person organization.
Named vice president-deputy manager of McDonnell Douglas Electronics.
Joined McDonnell Douglas Astronautics as engineer on manned Gemini space project. Played significant leadership roles in three successful missile programs: the Harpoon missile; an extended-range version of the Harpoon; and the Stand-off Land Attack Missile (SLAM).

BSAE '64, Purdue.