Linwood C. Wright Sr., 97, of Elkins Park, an aeronautical engineer whose research, though largely hidden from public view, contributed to the science of jet aviation, died Monday, Feb. 6, of heart failure at his home.
Starting in 1941, Mr. Wright was employed at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Va. His mission was to develop warplanes whose engines operated efficiently.
He and his fellow engineers were inducted into the Army, but they never saw combat. Instead, they immersed themselves in theorems and experiments aimed at coaxing the most efficient use out of propellants pumped into the planes. Later, he did work on the nascent jet engine that made air travel more affordable.
Due to racial barriers in the 1940s, it was unusual for African Americans to be chosen for such high-profile work. But during the war, black engineers and mathematicians were recruited by the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), the precursor to NASA.
The recruits threw themselves into the work at Langley. Their contributions became common knowledge only in September 2016 with the release of Hidden Figures, a movie profiling three African American mathematicians who worked at Langley running important calculations for airplane and, later, space flight.
Mr. Wright's daughter, Linda Wright Moore, said that, like the three women in the film, her father toiled in relative obscurity.
"He was a pioneering engineer – an unsung 'hidden figure' in his field," she wrote in a tribute.
Mr. Wright was born in Augusta, Ga., to Mariah Ramsey and Leon Remarkus Wright. His father ran a dairy and his mother was an elementary school teacher. Both held college degrees.
Early in 1929, he moved with his family to Detroit, where one of Mr. Wright's uncles lived and where in 1936, Mr. Wright graduated from Northwestern High School. In 1941, he graduated from Wayne State University with a bachelor of science degree in aeronautical engineering. Two decades later, he would follow up with a master's degree in the same subject from the University of Cincinnati.
Mr. Wright was employed in the Fluid and Gas Analysis Section at NACA until 1956. When jet flight was new, aeronautics researchers struggled to solve a critical problem, his daughter wrote: "Jet engines were inefficient. Most of the energy they produced went out the tailpipe as waste heat."
Mr. Wright and his colleagues posited that a big fan in front of the jet engine's compressor would send air blasting through a bypass duct, creating more thrust than the jet's own exhaust. The scheme worked, and the turbo-fan invention landed Mr. Wright a job in 1956 at General Electric's Aircraft Engines plant in Cincinnati – and later, a mention on the Wall of Honor at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
"When GE made the turbo-fan engine, that revolutionized aviation," said Garland L. Thompson, author of the 2010 book Unheralded but Unbowed: Black Scientists & Engineers Who Changed the World. "You could put more people on a jet and travel more cheaply. It made jet travel affordable for the average person."
Mr. Wright spent 20 years at GE, and went on to managerial jobs in the area of flight propulsion at Pratt & Whitney and NASA headquarters in Washington, before retiring in 1985. Mr. Wright was honored as a distinguished alumnus by Wayne State University and the University of Cincinnati.
Thompson, however, said he thought insufficient attention had been paid to Mr. Wright's contribution.
His daughter said her father succeeded because he had the right balance of gentleness and love, with tenacity and stubbornness. "Never one to let adversity get him down, he raised us to stay the course and forge ahead when we faced difficulties in life."
Mr. Wright was a great reader and loved to play golf and listen to Big Band music. He was active in St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Elkins Park after he moved there in 1999. Before that, he had lived in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and Manchester, Conn.
Besides his daughter, Mr. Wright is survived by his wife, Ernestine McIver; a son, L.C. Wright Jr.; four grandchildren; a brother and a sister; and nieces and nephews.