Aero Throwback: From an unlikely beginning

From An Unlikely Beginning: A Centennial Celebration

Beginning today through this weekend, Aerospace Engineering is hosting a celebration of its 100th year, with first courses in aeronautical sciences offered in 1914.

The teacher of those courses – Felix W. Pawlowski (pictured here with Orville Wright) – was obsessed with flight since his boyhood, which led to taunts from his Polish schoolmates about his “empty dome” of a head. Later, his numerous requests of American universities to teach courses in the then virtually non-existent field of aeronautical engineering were ignored as a joke – until visionary Michigan Engineering Dean Mortimer Cooley finally said yes.

Once on campus, “Pavvi” (as he became affectionately known) cut an exotic profile, quick-stepping across the Diag in a bear-like fur coat, a long cigarette holder hanging from his lips, a ubiquitous cane – and occasional weapon – at his side. On hot summer days, Pavvi could be glimpsed chugging down East University in his high-mounted Model T, bound for a swim at Barton Dam – his unusual continental-style mustache and goatee seeming even more out of place with Pavvi attired in his bright-red one-piece bathing trunks.

Much more than a merely colorful character, however, Pawlowski gained national recognition as an aeronautical engineer, and enjoyed high esteem, not only as a teacher but through his research, with numerous articles to his credit in both American and European professional publications. And his single-minded passion for flight helped to launch Michigan Aero to prominence.

First courses
The first courses taught by Pawlowski proved so popular that they immediately became regular electives – though instruction was for members of the Aero Club only, and offered without credit. The regular courses in aeronautical engineering were later organized as a group in the Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering. In 1915, additional courses in aeronautics were added, and in 1916, a complete four-year program of study leading to a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering was created. In May 1917, the degree of bachelor of science in engineering (aeronautical engineering) was established, with William Frederick Gerhardt the first student to receive it.

World War I and the early years
During World War I, Pawlowski was granted leave to accept the position of aeronautical engineer for the U.S. Army, and when he returned to the University in 1917 he taught a special course, Principles of Aviation, which permitted students drafted into the Army to qualify or claim preference for Air Corps service. While the course kept them out of the trenches, Air Corps pilots faced planes without climate or pressure control as well as risk of mechanical failures – in addition to the dangers of combat.

Pawlowski took another leave of absence in 1919 to organize aeronautical research for the Polish Army. When he returned in 1920 he was teaching nearly all of Michigan Engineering’s courses in aeronautical engineering.

The wind tunnel and the Guggenheim Fund
As pressure for research capabilities grew, Pawlowski traveled to Germany in 1924 on a wind tunnel fact-finding mission, and he returned with a design even more advanced than those he had found on his journey. Included in the plans for the East Engineering building, the tunnel was built into the foundation of the new structure and completed with the aid of a gift of $28,000 from the Guggenheim Fund. The Guggenheim fund also provided $50,000 for a 10-year professorship of applied aeronautics, and in 1929 Pawlowski was appointed to the Guggenheim professorship.

The final years
Late in Pawlowski’s career, Michigan Technic published a profile, which included this sentiment:

Every graduate engineer in Aeronautics from the University of Michigan will long remember Professor F. W. Pawlowski, for he is not only a distinguished educator and a true friend of his students but a real gentleman as well. Perhaps the summer term will mark the end of the career of Professor Pawlowski as an educator for he is nearing the retiring age; nevertheless, his reign will be long remembered in the hearts of his students as part of the tradition that has made Michigan a great University.

In 1946 – more than 30 years after he first kindled interest in aviation at Michigan – Professor Pawlowski retired to live in France, where he settled in Pau – a small town at the foot of the Pyrenees, where in 1909 the Wright brothers established the world’s first flying school. Just five years after Pavvi retired, on February 17, 1951, members of the engineering department and others who knew him felt a great loss when they received the news that Pavvi had died.

Aerospace Engineering is celebrating 100 years, with first courses in aeronautical sciences offered in the fall of 1914. Join us for the celebration today – September 18 – through Saturday, September 20.


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Michigan Aerospace Engineering

Communications Team