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BY SHERMAN N. MULLIN
SUBMITTED BY THE NAE HOME SECRETARY
ALAN CHARLTON BROWN, inspirational Lockheed Skunk Works aircraft design engineering leader, inventor, and unique technology developer, died of natural causes May 25, 2022, at his ...
ALAN CHARLTON BROWN, inspirational Lockheed Skunk Works aircraft design engineering leader, inventor, and unique technology developer, died of natural causes May 25, 2022, at his home in Watsonville, California. He was 92 years old.
Alan was born December 5, 1929, in Whitley Bay, England. Looking back he said, “By the time I was eight years old, rather surprisingly, I knew I wanted to be an aircraft designer.”1 He began his engineering career with an apprenticeship at Blackburn Aircraft (1945–50), and he received his diploma in aeronautical engineering from Hull Technical College in 1950. After receiving a diploma (MS equivalent) from the College of Aeronautics, Cranfield, in 1952 he joined Bristol Airplane Company as an aerodynamicist.
In 1956, not satisfied with career opportunities in England, Alan emigrated to the United States, initially working as a research associate at the University of Southern California. In 1960 he joined Lockheed, starting in the physics laboratory of Lockheed Missiles and Space Company in Palo Alto, CA, where his research was primarily on hypersonic aerodynamics. He also matriculated at Stanford University, from which he received an MS degree in aeronautical engineering (1955). His objective was still to design aircraft, and in 1966 he transferred to the Lockheed Aircraft plant in Burbank, CA, where he worked on the propulsion system design of the Supersonic Transport and several military aircraft. He was then assigned to the L-1011 TriStar commercial airliner program, managing a group working with jet engine supplier Rolls-Royce. His notable capabilities became well known to company management.
Alan’s career path changed abruptly and permanently in June 1975 when, in Lockheed parlance, he moved from the White World to the Black World: the company’s Advanced Develop-ment Projects, also known as the Skunk Works. He thrived in this welcoming environment for the next 14 years. After rapidly gaining knowledge of low observable physics and classified stealth technology, he gained lasting recognition and personal support from Skunk Works leader Ben Rich (NAE 1981).
In 1976 he became deputy program manager for the design of the first ever low observable (stealth) experimental military aircraft, code named HAVE BLUE. Looking like a flying triangle, HAVE BLUE aircraft 1 flew in complete secrecy on December 1, 1977, followed by aircraft 2 in 1978. By mid-1978 it was clear that a major technological breakthrough had been achieved: very low observable military aircraft could be designed and produced.
In November 1978, based on the success of HAVE BLUE, the Air Force awarded the Skunk Works a major highly classified contract to design and produce the F-117 stealth fighter in complete secrecy. This was a high-priority US Cold War program with strong bipartisan Congressional support. Alan became program manager and chief engineer. The F-117 was the most difficult and rewarding assignment of his career. It was to be a night-attack aircraft capable of precision laser-guided bombing of strategic ground targets. In addition to meeting unprecedented stealth requirements, it included the development of a new fire control system using infrared sensors. With two jet engines buried inside the aircraft, it required unique stealthy inlets and custom-designed engine exhaust nozzles.
The entire airplane was constructed of flat facets, all covered with unique radar-absorbing material. Alan led a talented multidisciplinary team that rapidly designed and manufactured the first aircraft, achieving F-117 first flight on June 18, 1981. In the evolution of stealth aircraft this event was analogous to the Wright Brothers’ first flight on December 17, 1903.
By early 1982 five aircraft were rapidly progressing in flight test, all meeting the demanding detailed stealth requirements. The first (of 59) production aircraft was nearing completion. The most demanding assignment (1978–82) of Alan’s career had been completed, still completely hidden in the Black World.
In 1982 Alan was appointed director of low observable technology in the Lockheed Skunk Works. He expanded the organization by recruiting and mentoring young engineers—men and women—to develop new technology and apply it to new aircraft designs. Innovations ranged from analytical software to component development, full-scale aircraft and missile model design, construction, and testing.
His organization operated a large-scale, very-wide-bandwidth radar measurement range in the Mojave Desert and, with Alan’s guidance, became a recognized national leader in the development and application of classified low observable technology. In 1986 these accomplishments were a major factor in Lockheed’s selection as one of the two first-round winners in the US Air Force Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) competition. In 1991 the Lockheed-led F-22 ATF team won the final round of the competition.
In 1989 Alan became director of engineering at Lockheed’s corporate headquarters. His primary focus was promulgating both an engineering culture and stealth technology exploitation throughout the corporation. He retired in 1992.
In 1997 many of his accomplishments were finally made public. The US Air Force declassified extensive information and allowed the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) to publish an excellent book: Have Blue and the F-117A: Evolution of the “Stealth Fighter.
In service to the National Academies, he served on the Naval Studies Board’s Advanced Radar Technology Panel (1990–91) and Air Technology Group (1990–91). And for the NAE he was a member of the Bernard M. Gordon Prize selection committee (2010–12).
Alan was a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and AIAA and received three of the AIAA’s most important awards: the Aircraft Design Award (1990), the Reed Aeronautics Award (2020), and the Daniel Guggenheim Medal (2021). He was elected to the NAE in 1992 and received its J.C. Hunsaker Award in Aeronautical Engineering in 2020. His alma mater, Cranfield University, awarded him an honorary doctor of science degree in 2001.
Alan Brown evolved into one of the most innovative, versatile, and accomplished aerospace engineers of the 20th century. He was prominent among a small number of pioneers of stealth in industry and government who permanently changed the criteria for the design of US military combat aircraft to ensure their survivability. In the long, legendary history of the Lockheed Skunk Works, founded in 1943, he was recognized by that rare complement, a Great Skunk.
Alan, a devoted family man, is survived by Gwen Brown, his wife of seven decades, daughters Yvonne Long (Robert), Christine Kopecky, Dianne Tipton (Trace), and Maureen Brown, and three grandchildren.
1Quoted from a 2010 oral history interview available online through the Huntington Library (https://hdl.huntington.org/digital/collection/p15150coll7/id/7963/).