It is not circumstantial, and indeed entirely fitting, that I find myself writing another one of these for “Uncle Bill,” “Dr H,” William H. Heiser, after his passing on September 26, 2022…one year to the day when Jack Mattingly passed. The two were great friends, the closest of friends, humanly and spiritually. At the urging of Jack, who flew to Colorado Springs weeks before his own death to convince Bill to move to the Seattle area close to family, Bill moved into his new Seattle residence on the day of Jack’s passing.
I met Dr H in 1993 where he was a Professor and I an AF Captain at the USAF Academy in the Department of Aeronautics. I shared an office ‘suite’ (row of cubicles) and a couple phone lines with him and a few others. Just a few months in, I’ll never forget picking up the ringing phone with a female voice saying “Hello this is Sheila, is Dr H there?” The Sheila was the Honorable Dr Sheila E. Widnall, the 18th Secretary of the United States Air Force! You would never know it by his demeanor, but Bill Heiser was one of the most highly knowledgeable and respected propulsion giants of the modern era. He was being called by his country to head up a review board to fix a major engine issue that was resulting in losses of military lives and airplanes. He served in this capacity many times. He was also a teammate of mine on an Academy intramural bowling league (for the record, his average was lower than mine).
Bill LOVED teaching and interacting with students of all ages. He was a master storyteller, captivating his audiences with witty, practical tales from his extraordinary experience base to drive home foundational principles at a systems-level—an approach that’s at the heart of PAI’s mission. He was author/co-author of two textbooks: Hypersonic Airbreathing Propulsion, with Dave Pratt, and Aircraft Engine Design, with Jack Mattingly and Dave Pratt. Bill’s witticism is displayed in full force in the current 3rd edition of Aircraft Engine Design, page 85, where discussing the finer points of airplane structural, fuel, and payload weight fractions, he writes: “This is a scenario rich with heroes and villains, real and imaginary.” This is language one would expect to find in a romance novel, not in an advanced engineering textbook…this is classic Bill Heiser…you want to read on to get to the exciting conclusion!
Bill Heiser was a mentor, role model, colleague and friend to myself, Jack, Hans von Ohain, and countless others. Over a 50-year balanced career in education, government, and industry, Bill was the Chief Scientist at the Arnold Engineering Development Complex and AF Propulsion Lab (he convinced co-inventor of the jet engine, von Ohain, to replace him in this role). He held key leadership positions in Turbine Technology at P&W, Advanced Technology at GE, and VP/Director of Research, Aerojet General Corp. He was on the faculty of USAFA, MIT, UC-Davis, and Cambridge University, UK. His positive influence was extraordinary reaching thousands upon thousands, the last few years with us at PAI (2012-2017).
Bill’s legacy will continue to live on through his textbooks, short courses, and far-reaching influence. We love and will miss you Uncle Bill. Your infectious enthusiasm toward teaching, famous story-telling, and family perspective, as opposed to teacher-student, will remain a hallmark of our PAI style.
See tribute to Bill posted by Col Doug “Beaker” Wickert, current Permanent Professor & Head, Dept of Aeronautics, USAF Academy.