The AEDC Fellows

by | Jul 2022

IF YOU LOOK at the major milestones in aerospace history, such as getting a man on the moon, most of the materials, rocket engines, and models were tested right here at Arnold Air Force Base (Arnold AFB), or Arnold Engineering Development Complex (AEDC). 

Former Commander of Arnold AFB, Major General Mike Wiedemer, spoke of the significance of the facilities that hide just down the road, tucked away beneath the tall pines. He shared, “Even though people know Arnold does really great things, I don’t think they fully know. Every time you get into a commercial aircraft, those engines, materials, and models were all tested at AEDC.” 

“Of all the Air Force bases, Arnold is truly the most unique. There are about 58 ground test facilities for which Arnold is responsible. Thirteen of those facilities are unique in the world, meaning there is no other place you can test like that in the world. Twenty-six are unique to the United States. No place can test like Arnold can.” 

Behind every world-class test facility are world-class people. Unfortunately, these extraordinary people were hidden beneath the shady towering forest too. Though they weren’t looking for it, these men and women worked steadfastly day in and day out with little to no recognition. In 1989, this all changed when the AEDC Fellows program was established. Slowly, the names and stories of brilliant men and women began to surface. 

Wiedemer, chairman of the AEDC Fellows collection committee, shared, “The people at Arnold Air Force Base have a wonderful mission of expanding aerospace excellence for the United States, both from a defense perspective and a commercial perspective. The AEDC Fellows program was created specifically to recognize those who have a disproportionately positive impact on the aerospace community at large. Fellows award recipients are those who have gone above and beyond as it relates to their impact.” 

Since the program’s formation, 114 individuals have been inducted into this exclusively honorary program (meaning there are no monetary bonuses or stipends related to the honor). Upon submitting a nomination, fellow nominees must be sorted into one of four categories: Technical Fellow, Craft Fellow, Lifetime Achievement Fellow, or Honorary Fellow. 

Technical Fellows are often the most advanced scientists and engineers in the world. Craft Fellows include those who build and maintain facilities. These are not just any facilities, though. Essentially, craftsmen put together instrumentation that has never been created by anyone else in the world. Lifetime Achievement Fellows have made a significant impact regardless of time on the job or employment status. Many of the Lifetime Achievement Fellows were also employed outside AEDC but were connected to the base in some other capacity. Contractors, customers, sponsors, and contributors from other organizations like NASA or the Navy, might be nominated for a Lifetime Achievement award. Lastly, Honorary Fellows are those who might be unable to receive the honor in a traditional manner. This type of fellow is the rarest of the four. 

To be an AEDC Fellow, you practically have had to hang the moon or at least figured out how to throw a lasso around it and bring it in for extensive testing. Suppose you look through the old archive of the 114 past fellow inductees. In that case, you would see greatness staring right back at you there in the gaze of every man or woman—each with a particular name, story, and significant contribution. 

Major General Wiedemer shared a few of the most memorable fellows in his mind. Two of the fellows he shared about were Honorary Fellows, Dr. Theodore von Karman, and General Henry “Hap” Arnold. Arnold is the same Arnold whom AEDC was named after. Karman was a brilliant scientist and served as the Chief Scientist of the United States of America during World War II. Arnold was a five-star general, the military’s highest-ranking position. Wiedemer shared, “The two men came back from World War II after the bomb damage assessment campaign was done. They concluded that the United States was lucky to come out on the winning end of WWII because the Germans were way more advanced than we were in regards to aerospace systems, rockets, missiles, jet fighters, etc.” 

Wiedemer continued, “We won because we simply manufactured more more weapons systems and logistics support. In response, von Karman and Arnold co-authored a 50-year strategic plan for the Air Force, to make sure we would never be second to anyone.” The plan was entitled “Towards New Horizons.” Years following, the two men worked tirelessly to bridge the gap between academia and military aviators. Their work paved the way for establishing many aeronautical research centers, wind tunnels, and testing facilities. 

Another fellow that stuck out to Wiedemer was former Tullahoma resident Dr. Jim Mitchell, the chief scientist at AEDC for many years. Wiedemer explained, “Many people understand that the facilities are the heart and soul of AEDC. They are used to test and determine the potential effectiveness and efficiency of any aerospace structure. Jim Mitchell is probably more responsible for successfully getting the government to build new facilities at AEDC than anyone else.” 

According to Wiedemer, the process for getting a new facility is extensive. Imagine trying to convince people to give their support and money to build a facility to test something that doesn’t exist yet. Wiedemer said, “It takes a lot of faith, smarts, advocacy, money, political support, and governmental support to get it to happen. We have had people from the Arnold Community Council go to Washington D.C. for many years to make things like building a new hypersonic test site (happening right now at AEDC) happen. And that is exactly what Jim Mitchell did. He camped out at the Pentagon and in Congress and wouldn’t take no for an answer when it came to getting major facilities at AEDC.” 

Whether a fellow spent most of their time testing how much fuel was needed for a trip to the moon or how the various components would separate when traveling there, all the work was done locally at Arnold AFB. Whether a fellow spent most of his or her time lobbying in our nation’s capital for support of a grandiose idea, it was all done to ensure the effectiveness and superiority of the United State Air Force. Whether a fellow was inducted for reasons that are beyond the general public’s clearance level, you can guarantee he or she worked on cutting-edge technologies that directly influenced the United State’s effectiveness in war. 

Wiedemer, an AEDC Fellow himself, shared, “It is the highest honor one connected to AEDC and the aerospace community can receive.” 

This year’s fellows will be announced on June 25, 2022, on the birthday of General Arnold. Please help us congratulate and celebrate some of the most remarkable minds of our time! We salute you, fellows!

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