John Harper, 78, turned love of model planes into a vocation
By Joel Groover
Enamored of model airplanes from childhood, John J. Harper found the perfect job at Georgia Tech.
The Atlanta resident was an aerodynamics professor who spent hours building radio-controlled biplanes and museum-quality wooden ships. He worked with models for more than 30 years as director of the wind tunnel for the Georgia Tech School of Aerospace Engineering.
Mr. Harper, 78, died of complications from a gall bladder infection Thursday at Piedmont Hospital. The memorial service will be at 2p.m. today at Holy Spirit Catholic Church. Sandy Springs Chapel Funeral Directors is in charge of arrangements.
Mr. Harper taught undergraduate aerodynamics classes at Georgia Tech for more than 40 years. Some of his students went on to become astronauts or leaders in the aerospace industry, said his wife, Naomi Harper of Atlanta.
She said Mr. Harper taught space shuttle pilot Scott Horowitz, former astronaut and NASA director Dick Truly and astronaut John Young, who flew six missions, including a lunar landing. "He was proud of that" she said. "He always managed to work that into the conversation."
Mr. Harper became director of Tech's 9-foot diameter wind tunnel - used
for academic and industrial research - in the early 1950s.
"When John was there, they did quite a bit of testing for the airplane companies", said Robin Gray of Atlanta, a retired Georgia Tech aeronautical engineering professor. "They tested complete models and parts of models like wings and tails". But Mr. Harper also ran tests on roofing shingles, helicopter rotors, submarine parts, even a telephone booth. "They did work on a great number of things", Mrs. Harper said. "They tested a model of Tower Place at Piedmont, that building, in the wind tunnel. Once, somebody who was racing at Daytona needed adjustments to his car and John created wings to provide downward thrust."
When Mr. Harper retired in 1986, Georgia Tech recognized his decades of work by naming the wind tunnel after him.
Mr. Harper was born and grew up in Seneca, S.C., and became fascinated with model airplanes as a child. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Clemson University in 1940. He earned a master's degree in aeronautical engineering from Georgia Tech in 1942.
Throughout his four decades as a professor, Mr. Harper taught undergraduate classes on the fundamentals of aoerodynamics. A private pilot, he built his own plane and was particularly interested in aircraft performance, stability and control, Dr. Gray said.
Mr. Harper also spent hours building meticulously detailed wooden ships
for museums, his wife said. "He didn't use kits," she said. He would
get a plan, then he would draw it up, adapt it, cut his own parts and build
plank by plank. He was presently working on the Bounty, Capt. Bligh's ship,
and he was especially interested in whalers. Every room in my house sports
two or three ship models".
In retirement, Mr. Harper also built three radio-controlled airplanes, but never flew them. "He put all that work into them and he was afraid they would crash", his wife said.
Mr. Harper belonged to the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the Experimental Aircraft Association and was a honorary member of the Subsonic Aerodynamic Testing Association. He has been a member of Holy Spirit Catholic Church since 1962.
Survivors other than his wife are two sons, Kent Michael Harper and Albert John Harper, both of Atlanta; a sister, Mary H. Rael of Seneca; and two grandchildren.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions to the Georgia
Tech Foundation Scholarship Fund, 177 North Avenue, Atlanta, GA 30332-0182.