Alexander Klemin Biography

Created in 1951 by industry pioneer Frank Piasecki, the Klemin Award is the highest honor the VFS bestows on an individual for notable achievement in advancing the field of vertical flight aeronautics. The award honors the memory of an eminent aeronautical engineer, educator, author, and outstanding pioneer in rotary wing aeronautics. Past winners are some of the greatest luminaries of vertical flight. 

KleminAlexander Klemin was born on May 15, 1888 in London, England. He received a Bachelor of Science degree with Honors from London University in 1909. After graduation in 1909, he had experience in teaching in London, and in preparing candidates for degrees who went up for the examinations of the University of London. He also had an Associate Diploma of the City and Guilds College from London’s Imperial College.

Klemin immigrated to the United States in 1914, taking the first American course in aeronautical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and receiving a Master of Science in aeronautical engineering in June 1915; he then began to teach, while also serving as a contributor and technical editor of Aviation and Aeronautical Engineering magazine. Based on his lectures at MIT, assisted by Thomas H. Huff, he published a series of articles in the magazine, which were collectively published in October 1918, as the Textbook of Aeronautical Engineering, with contributions by his assistant Thomas H. Huff.

By 1917 he had become the head of the MIT Aeronautics Department, a US citizen, and a First Lieutenant and the Officer-in-Charge of the Army Air Service Research Department at McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio (now part of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base). While at McCook, Klemin would fly and shout to others above the drone of the engine to compare theory with field observation. He was considered a heavy-handed pilot and as a result his landings were a source of amusement to the McCook Field personnel.

In 1919, Alexander Klemin joined New York University (NYU), teaching their first aeronautics course. In addition, Klemin and Charles Cox founded the Cox-Klemin Aircraft Corporation in Long Island, New York in 1921. The company produced more than a dozen prototype or limited series aircraft including the water-cooled Cox-Klemin TW-2 Trainer, the Night Hawk mail plane, the XA-1 Air Ambulance and the XS-1 Portable Reconnaissance Biplane. One XS prototype was modified into the XS-2, becoming the first aircraft launched and recovered from a submarine. Despite designing the first amphibian landing gear used in the United States on a flying boat, and winning Army and Navy airplane design competitions in 1921, Klemin left Cox-Klemin in Jan. 1922 to teach full time at NYU. (The company folded in 1925.)

In 1925 ground was broken on the NYU Guggenheim School of Aeronautics. In addition to lecture space, the school included a wind tunnel (being the largest non-governmental wind tunnel in the US at that time), drafting room, a model radio, dispatching room and an instrument and vibration laboratory. The school opened one year later with Klemin as its Dean. It continued to grow and in 1937 the school offered the world’s first course in rotary-wing aircraft. Klemin remain head of the school until 1945. Upon his retirement, NYU created a post for him as a Research Professor in Aeronautics.In 1923, Klemin and another member of the NYU mechanical engineering faculty, Professor Collins Bliss, conducted an experimental elementary aerodynamics class. This was deemed a success and it was decided to make it permanent if funding could be made available. Harry Guggenheim was shown a draft letter to inquire about funding. Harry shared the letter with his father Daniel, who in turn announced his gift of $500,000 to NYU for a laboratory building with a wind tunnel and labs, and for hiring laboratory assistants. Orville Wright was selected to head the new school’s oversight committee. Guggenheim subsequently founded 11 more aeronautics schools named for him.

In addition to his role as Dean of NYU Guggenheim School of Aeronautics, Klemin is probably best known for as the author of the Textbook Of Aeronautical Engineering (1918) and several other early aeronautics books, as a founding member of the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences (1932), teaching the first course on the theory of rotary wings (1937), and his contributions to the early days of the AHS. He also received an Honorary Doctor of Laws (LL.D.) from Kenyon College in Ohio, in 1934.

After his retirement, Klemin split his time between consulting and compiling a cyclopedia of aeronautical engineering. He was also the Technical Editor of Aero Digest. He became the President of the American Helicopter Society and was key to a two-year trial period of the IAS (now AIAA) and AHS combining management functions, when AHS grew from an ad hoc group of volunteers to its first professional management under IAS. Klemin was the AHS President at the time of his passing.

Klemin and colleagues

Many of his students were numbered as top-ranking engineers in both aeronautics research and in the aviation industry. Klemin was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Engineering by NYU for "his inspiration and untiring efforts, he brought the reputation of the institution to top-ranking position in this country" on January 26, 1950. He died suddenly less than two months later on March 13 at his home in Greenwich, Connecticut at the age of 61. He was survived by his wife of 24 years, Ethel, and his daughter Diana.

Klemin is credited with designing or developing for the NYU Guggenheim School of Aeronautics the first double-return wind tunnel,a moving belt to simulate ground effects for stationary models, the first mirror-pitot to more accurately measure in-flight air speed, an experimental rig for measuring spinning characteristics of airplanes in a horizontal tunnel, and apparatus for testing autogyro models to eliminate scale effects. He was instrumental in the development of a power-plant laboratory and a 150 ft (45.7 m) long towing basin that was particularly useful in studying seaplane porpoising.

In addition to the Textbook of Aeronautical Engineering (1918), he authored Simplified Aerodynamics (1919), Airplane Stress Analysis (1927) and If You Want to Fly: the Boy's Book of Aviation (1928), and numerous other books and papers. He was a contributor to Aero Digest, Aircraft Engineer, Air Law Review, Aviation Magazine, Encyclopedia Americana, Encyclopedia Britannica, Flight Magazine, IAS’s Journal of the Aeronautical Sciences and Nation’s Business, as well as to Scientific American as its aeronautical editor. He was the editor of the Department of Commerce / American Engineering Council report on civil aviation.

Klemin was also a key witness at the Congressional autogiro hearing in Washington, D.C., April 26-27, 1938, which resulted in the first funding for the nascent helicopter development field.

Other contributions included acting as a consultant for the Dept. of the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics (1917-1919), the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA, precursor to the FAA), US airmail service, the US Army Air Corps, and a number of aircraft manufacturers. He supervised the formation of the Air Commerce Bureau and was a lecturer at the College of Engineering at Princeton University.

Along with being a founding member of the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences (IAS), Klemin served with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, precursor to NASA). His other memberships included the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Royal Aeronautical Society, Society of Automotive Engineers and, of course, the American Helicopter Society (now VFS).