Time Machine

Designer of Messerschmitt fighter jet finished his career in Cedar Rapids

History Happenings

Alexander Lippisch is shown in a clip from the 1955 University of Iowa film, #x201c;Secret of Flight.#x201d; The 57-minu
Alexander Lippisch is shown in a clip from the 1955 University of Iowa film, “Secret of Flight.” The 57-minute film is on YouTube along with several newsreel clips of aircraft he designed. A search for his name yields a treasure trove of videos. (University of Iowa)
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Ever heard of Alexander Lippisch? He was an inventor and aeronautical engineer and might be one of the most significant people to have ever lived in Cedar Rapids.

Lippisch earned 50 patents and designed more than 50 aircraft. He’s best known as the creator of the Delta Wing, a design concept many aircraft have incorporated, including the Concorde and the F-22 Raptor.

He designed the wingless Aerodyne plane that was a precursor to today’s advanced drones and the first operational, rocket-propelled fighter jet — the Messerschmitt ME 163. Driven by the idea of delivering food to people in hard-to-reach places, he designed aerofoil boats that could hover and even fly.

His designs and inventions include a Mercury Marine speedboat and a kind of smoke tunnel still used for aerodynamic research today.

Wright inspiration

Born in Munich in 1894 (when the kingdom of Bavaria was a federated state of the German Empire), Lippisch grew up during the European aviation craze. The prospect of flight and air travel captivated scientists, daredevils and journalists.

German aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal’s winged contraption jumps and short glides inspired aircraft designers around the world, including the Wright Brothers. By the 1900s, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s rigid airships were floating through the skies over Germany.

In 1909, Lippisch attended many of Orville Wright’s demonstration flights in his barnstorming tour across Europe. He read as much as he could and modeled his engineering approach after Wilbur Wright, who was methodical about research and design.

Glider designs

Lippisch played the lute and studied art before the Great War called him to duty.

After a stint as a German infantryman in Russia, he worked on topographical maps with Zeppelin Works engineers. He was employed by Zeppelin Works after the war and focused on glider designs since the Treaty of Versailles forbade Germany from building powered aircraft.

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His designs were popular — especially his tailless Storch gliders — earning him the presidency of a 60,000-member national gliding organization.

The rise of Nazism swept Lippisch into a role as the chief designer for a gliding research operation and that led to his work at Messerschmitt. He also studied high-speed flight at the Aeronautical Research Institute in Vienna and earned a doctoral degree in engineering from the University of Heidelberg.

Operation paperclip

As World War II ended, Lippisch and a thousand other engineers and scientists were listed on documents hastily hidden in a Bonn University toilet and found by a Polish lab technician.

The people on the list were identified by Hitler to be recalled from various posts in order to form a new research group to bolster resources for Germany’s war efforts against Russia.

British intelligence gave the list to the United States, and it became the basis for Operation Paperclip, a secret intelligence program that brought Nazi scientists and engineers to the U.S. to gain their advanced knowledge in a number of fields.

The Russians were doing the same thing so the U.S. raced to get as many of these technological standouts as possible. It was determined that Lippisch had answered the call of his country’s need for aviation research but was not an impassioned supporter of Nazi ideology.

Operation Paperclip was controversial, but in Lippisch’s case, the program’s intentions were realized — he shared intelligence and technology with the U.S. Army Air Services at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, and was welcomed into U.S. aviation circles.

To Cedar Rapids

After a few years with the Naval Air Materiel Center in Philadelphia, he came to Cedar Rapids in 1950 at the behest of Arthur Collins. He worked for Collins Radio Company and became the director of its aeronautical division.

Collins developed his Aerodyne and hydrofoil boat-planes while in Cedar Rapids.

He retired in 1964 and formed Lippisch Research Corp. to continue his aviation research.

Lippisch lived in Cedar Rapids for 26 years until he died in 1976 at the age of 81.

His second wife, Gertrude, came to the U.S. in 1947 with their five children, including two children Lippisch had with his first wife, who died in 1938. They became U.S. citizens in 1956. Gertrude lived in Cedar Rapids until she died in 1991 at the age of 76. She received a degree in language studies at Coe College and taught there in the ’60s.

Speaking on his need to invent, Gertrude told a Gazette reporter in 1976 that her husband prioritized persistence over raw knowledge: “He believed that 95 percent of genius is stick-to-itiveness.”

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Joe Coffey is a freelance writer and content marketer in Cedar Rapids, who writes this monthly column for The History Center. Comments: coffeygrande@gmail.com

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