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In memoriam: Allen E. Puckett, 94

Life trustee pioneered aerospace engineering

by Jessica Raymond
Allen Puckett
Engineer Allen E. Puckett (Photo/Courtesy of the Puckett family)

USC Life Trustee Allen E. Puckett, pioneering aerospace engineer and chairman emeritus of Hughes Aircraft Co., died on March 31 surrounded by his family in his home in Pacific Palisades, Calif. He was 94.

Elected to the USC Board of Trustees in 1983, Puckett played an integral role in USC’s growth and development, and significantly contributed to the university’s academic progress.

A Lifetime of Service

“Allen touched all those who work, study and teach at USC through his insightful guidance and remarkable generosity,” said USC president C. L. Max Nikias. “Over the course of his three decades of distinguished service as a trustee, he worked to advance the vitality of our university, and his efforts continue to be felt throughout the USC community. We will all miss him very much.”

Puckett remained especially committed to the advancement of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and provided invaluable support to the school through his philanthropic giving and visionary leadership. He held a research faculty appointment in engineering and served as a member of the school’s Board of Councilors. In 1978, the school recognized his prowess as an industry leader by naming him the inaugural recipient of its Engineering Management Award.

“Allen was a titan of industry and a brilliant scholar who inspired all of us with his far-reaching contributions,” said Yannis C. Yortsos, dean of USC Viterbi. “As a long-standing supporter, he greatly strengthened the Viterbi School’s research enterprise.”

Canny calculations

Born in Springfield, Ohio, Puckett enrolled at Harvard University at age 16 and went on to receive bachelor’s and master’s degrees there. In 1941, he began his PhD studies at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., at the invitation of renowned Caltech professor and aeronautical engineer Theodore von Kármán.

While working at the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at Caltech, Puckett helped design a new supersonic wind tunnel, the first of its kind in the country. Later, he produced the calculations that led to the development of delta wing theory, which predicts the aerodynamics of supersonic aircraft and continues to be applied in the production of modern aircraft. This work formed the basis for his landmark PhD thesis, Supersonic Wave Drag of Thin Airfoils.

When the United States entered World War II, Puckett received orders to report for duty, but shortly before he was scheduled to leave for flight training, he learned that he had been discharged from the Army Air Corps. Unbeknownst to him, von Kármán had written directly to the secretary of war, making the case that Puckett would be much more valuable to the war effort by continuing his research at Caltech.

In addition to many influential technical papers, Puckett co-wrote the seminal textbook Introduction to Aerodynamics of a Compressible Fluid with Caltech Professor Hans Liepmann and co-edited Guided Missile Engineering with Simon Ramo, a current holder of the USC Presidential Chair.

After Puckett completed his PhD in aeronautics in 1949, Ramo recruited him to build the aerodynamics department at Hughes Aircraft. He joined the firm that year, and over the course of his nearly four-decade tenure at Hughes, rose steadily through the ranks, eventually becoming president in 1977 and chairman of the board in 1978.

Surveying unmanned spacecraft

At Hughes, Puckett shifted his focus to the burgeoning field of electronics and helped usher in a new era of satellite communications. He promoted the development of the first geosynchronous satellite, which enabled live television coverage of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, marking the first time the Games could be seen in real time on several continents. In 1985, Puckett received the National Medal of Technology, the nation’s highest honor for technological achievement, for his crucial contributions to geostationary communications satellites.

Under Puckett’s leadership, Hughes also participated in NASA’s Surveyor program, constructing unmanned spacecraft that explored the feasibility of lunar landings and transmitted images of the surface of the moon back to Earth. These missions paved the way for the Apollo program. Puckett later remarked that the Surveyor program was one of his most memorable and valuable accomplishments.

In addition to his illustrious career at Hughes, Puckett served on the board of directors for several companies, including General Dynamics Corp., Lone Star Industries, Fluor Corp. and Logicon.

Puckett was elected to the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences, and was awarded the French Legion of Honor. Among many other accolades, he received Caltech’s Distinguished Alumnus Award, the Lawrence Sperry Award from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the Lloyd V. Berkner Award from the American Astronautical Society, the Brandeis University Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Field of Technology, the Frederick Phillips Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the Medal of Honor from the Electronics Industries Association.

Savvy sailing

Puckett strove to support future generations of technological leaders and gave generously to his alma maters in support of research and scholarship. Together with his wife, Marilyn, he endowed the Allen E. and Marilyn M. Puckett Professorship in the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. At Caltech, he established the Allen and Marilyn Puckett Professorship and provided funding for the Puckett Laboratory of Computational Fluid Dynamics.

An avid competitive yachtsman and cruising sailor, Puckett participated in regattas around the world and was regarded as a legend in the sailing community. He brought his technological expertise to this arena as well, helping to develop some of the first computer programs for navigation and performance analysis.

Puckett is survived by Marilyn, his wife of 50 years; children Allen (daughter-in-law Laura), Nancy Puckett Grant (son-in-law Jeff), Susan Puckett Prislin, Margaret Puckett Harris (son-in-law Russell) and James; six grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.

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