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James N. Hallock '63, SM '69, PhD '72

Research on air turbulence saves lives
December 20, 2011

In seventh grade, Jim Hallock had two consuming interests: Egyptology and nuclear physics. Egypt was then closed to U.S. visitors, so Hallock opted for physics—and ultimately wound up working in the space program, advancing aviation safety, and helping solve the mystery of the accident that destroyed the space shuttle Columbia.

Hallock arrived at MIT in 1959 and was soon drawn to physics professor Harald Enge’s lab. “Harald took me into his group and allowed me to stay there for three thesis projects,” he recalls.

After completing his SB, Hallock took a summer job at MIT’s Instrumentation Lab, now Draper Laboratory. Doctors treating him for an ulcer suggested that he delay his graduate studies, so he stayed on. “It turned out to be great,” he says. While there, he helped identify Earth landmarks for the Gemini and Apollo navigation systems.

In 1966 he joined NASA’s Electronics Research Center in Tech Square to research holography and optical spatial filtering for spacecraft navigation. He earned his master’s degree in 1969, and in 1970 he moved to a new Department of Transportation research center, which became the Volpe Center.

Hallock began studying the hazardous turbulence generated by airplanes because early on, “someone needed a physicist to analyze an instrument for tracking aircraft wake vortices.” By reviewing airport data, his team discovered that newly introduced jumbo airliners like Boeing’s 747 required greater-than-expected separation from small private aircraft. “There had been close to an accident per month, with about half of them fatal; the rate went way down after we increased the separation standards,” he says. He was chosen in 1986 to lead the Transportation Department’s Aviation Safety Division and was named a senior scientist there in 2006.

Hallock is proud of his work on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which pieced together the story of the spacecraft’s mysterious breakup on reëntry in February 2003.

“Photos of the incoming shuttle showed pieces breaking away; we worked seven days a week to find out why,” he recalls. A data recorder found in a Texas field provided temperature readings that pinpointed the problem’s origin near the left wing’s leading edge. “That helped us find the cause—foam insulation that broke off during launch,” he says.

NASA was skeptical that foam could cause the damage; the board pushed for a costly but conclusive experimental reconstruction. “I’m glad we did,” Hallock says. “It let us know with 100 percent certainty what occurred.”

Now officially retired, Hallock spends time with his wife of 45 years, Georgie, and their two sons but also consults for the FAA, DOT, and other agencies. He enjoys lake sailing and interviewing prospective MIT students as an educational counselor. And he is relearning how to translate hieroglyphs.

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