Newport News, Va., Daily Press
Published: Saturday, August 21, 1999
Langley engineer is remembered
for part in history
By DAVE LAWRENCE
The width of a continent and more than half a century separate Robert Thomas Jones from Hampton, but the man, who died Aug. 11 at his home in Los Altos Hills, Calif., left a legacy of friends and accomplishments that guarantees he will not be forgotten.
Mr. Jones, who was 89, was an aeronautical engineer at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory - now NASA Langley Research Center - in the 1930s and 1940s before he transferred to Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., in 1946. Near the end of his tenure at Langley he independently invented the swept-back wing, helping lay the foundation for modern high-speed flight.
Mr. Jones' innovative wing design, used in nearly all jet aircraft today, made jet travel feasible and, as a consequence, helped to significantly reduce travel times. Whereas a cross-country flight once took eight or nine hours in a propeller-driven, straight-winged airplane, it now takes about half that in a jet featuring swept-back wings.
Coleman Donaldson, a former Langley engineer who lives in Newport News, described Mr. Jones as "slight, somewhat stooped, almost hollow-chested." Both Donaldson and Macon "Mike" Ellis of York County, another former Langley engineer, recall that the dark-haired man always wore a dark suit and tie.
Mr. Jones had a reputation for being rather quiet. When he did speak, however, those within earshot listened.
"Whenever he said something, he had really thought about it," Donaldson said, "What he said was carefully considered."
Despite Mr. Jones' quiet demeanor, other engineers found him easy to talk to. He had a way of inviting others to share their ideas.
"The most impressive thing about him," Donaldson said, "was the way he listened very carefully to everybody."
Mr. Jones was an inspiration to younger engineers like Clinton Brown, who now lives in Annapolis, Md. Brown viewed him as a mentor. Mr. Jones' willingness to help others may have been influenced by his own background.
Mr. Jones, an airplane fanatic as a youth in Macon, Mo., never completed college, according to an account of his career in James R. Hansen's book, "Engineer in Charge." He began attending the University of Missouri in 1927 but left a year later to join Charles Fower's flying circus, where he received flying lessons in exchange for maintenance work on the airplanes. Afterward, he worked at Nicholas-Beazley Airplane Company, but it folded at the start of the Depression.
In 1933, Mr. Jones took a job as an elevator operator in a congressional office building. At night he attended aeronautics classes at Catholic University taught by former Langley superintendent Max Munk.
A Missouri congressman helped Mr. Jones get a temporary job at Langley in 1934. His talent for tackling thorny theoretical problems was quickly recognized, and Langley officials kept giving him other temporary assignments. They could not promote him to the lowest professional grade, however, because he lacked a college degree, which was specifically required at that level by civil service rules.
Someone found a way around the obstacle in 1936. A degree was not mentioned among the requirements for the next-highest grade. Thus, in full adherence to the letter of the law, Mr. Jones was hired at the more-advanced level.
Mr. Jones had other interests and concerns besides aeronautics. Among them, Brown said, was civil rights. His beliefs and willingness to act upon them led to a night in the Hampton city jail.
Arthur Kantrowitz of Dartmouth, N.H., another former Langley engineer and ex-roommate of Mr. Jones, described what happened.
Mr. Jones "was walking down the main street of Hampton about 9 o'clock one evening and he saw a group of policemen really badgering a black man," Kantrowitz said. "I think they charged him with having said something behind their back, but they were badgering him and looked like they were about to beat him up.
"Jones was passing by and turned to say to them something to the effect that this wasn't such a serious crime and asked why were they badgering him. So they left the black guy alone and turned to Jones."
Kantrowitz bailed Mr. Jones out of jail the next morning. He said Mr. Jones was exonerated in court the following month.
As Mr. Jones grew older, he spent some of his creative energies on hobbies like violin-making - basing his instruments on a computer analysis of Stradivarius violins - and designing and building high-powered telescopes. But he will best be remembered for his contributions to modern flight.
"He was really a bright guiding light at the Langley Research Center in the early days when we didn't really know anything," Brown said.
"It took bright guys like Jones to keep us ahead of the pack."