It Happened at Michigan — ‘Michigan is not to be outdone’


When the university established a course in the principles of aerodynamics in 1914, the seven young men who gathered before a professor in the West Engineering Building quietly made history.

Led by Professor Felix W. Pawlowski, the two-hour Theory of Aviation class was the first aeronautical engineering course taught in the United States.

A photo of Felix W. Pawlowski
Felix W. Pawlowski served as an aeronautical engineering professor for 33 years. (Photo courtesy of CalTech Archives)

What began as a campus flying club, established seven years after the Wright Brothers’ historic 1903 flight, evolved into Pawlowski’s course and then a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering.

Key to U-M’s aeronautical engineering achievements were Professor Herbert C. Sadler, professor of naval architecture and mechanical engineering, and Engineering Dean Mortimer Cooley.

Sadler organized the U-M Aero Club in 1910, saying, “If the students show sufficient interest, we may in time give two or three courses in aeronautics.” The club was open to all students, not just those studying engineering, and members would build models and conduct research. Some 100 students turned out for the inaugural meeting.

“Michigan is not to be outdone in the matters of aeronautics,” the Michigan Daily announced.

A native of Poland, Pawlowski arrived in Ann Arbor via graduate school in France. Watching Orville and Wilbur Wright fly their plane at LeMans in 1908, he immediately shifted his academic interests from mechanical to aeronautical engineering, earned a flying certificate from the University of Paris, and applied for a teaching job in the United States.

A photo of several students around a glider in 1911
Members of U-M’s Aero Club built a glider in 1911. (Photo courtesy of Bentley Historical Library)

After writing to 18 colleges and universities, Pawlowski received only one offer: Dean Cooley said the University of Michigan would hire him to teach mechanical engineering, with the promise of an aeronautical engineering course to come. Pawlowski accepted and joined U-M in 1913.

When the College of Engineering offered the first aeronautics class, it was intentionally kept under the radar.

“I hid this course in the Department of Marine Engineering for a time,” Cooley recalled, “for aeronautical engineering was not considered important enough to make it conspicuous by giving it a prominent place.”

That quickly changed. A Department of Aeronautics was established in 1916, led by Sadler as its first chair, offering 14 courses.


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