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The professor Neil Armstrong whom students, faculty knew

... at UC from 1971 through 1979; died Aug. 25, 2012, at age 82
"I am, and ever will be, a white-socked, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer. And I take substantial pride in the accomplishments of my profession. Science is about what is; engineering is about what can be."
           — Neil Armstrong at the 2000 National Press Club, which named him among those who
                completed the 20th century's Top 20 Engineering Achievements

Teaching Armstrong to fly

by Deborah Rieselman

When Neil Armstrong needed to ponder a question, his face would often go blank as his pale blue eyes stared into the distance. Always engaging his brain before his mouth, Armstrong frequently left people in the room uneasy about what kind of reaction they were going to get.

Luama Mays, JD '66, knew that look well, and it led to one of the most meaningful experiences he ever had.

Mays was an Army helicopter test pilot when he first met Armstrong in 1960. The Army had sent him to a 10-month engineering course at the University of Southern California, and the class spent a substantial amount of time at Edwards Air Force Base to further their studies.

One day, the students met with a NASA pilot testing the new X-15 rocket-powered aircraft. His name was Neil Armstrong, one of only 12 test pilots who would ever fly the X-15, and he had just gone nearly 4,000 miles an hour, Mays says.

After interacting with Armstrong several times at the Air Force base, Mays was impressed at his willingness to answer questions and the fact that both of them had first soloed at age 16. Later, when Armstrong took that "one small step" and "one giant leap" in 1969, Mays immediately recognized the astronaut.

Several years after that in downtown Cincinnati, Mays was waiting for an unidentified UC engineering professor to show up for a ride in his helicopter. When the stranger walked across a helipad, the two instantly recognized each other. "You're Neil Armstrong!" Mays exclaimed, to which his passenger surprisingly replied, "And you're Lou Mays, the chopper test pilot from Edwards Air Force Base."

By that time, Mays had received a Distinguished Flying Cross for a helicopter rescue flight, saving another Army helicopter pilot and an Army officer in the Arctic; earned a juris doctor from the UC College of Law, specializing in aviation and space law; was employed by GE Aviation; and was the owner of Mays Aviation, which provided a traffic helicopter to WLW radio. The aircraft was the old bubble type as seen on the M.A.S.H. television show, Mays notes, and was leftover from the Korean War.

What interested Armstrong was that after the first jet-powered, practice lunar lander exploded (see story), he then practiced moon landings using that type of helicopter, which had been modified into a lunar-landing simulator. Although Armstrong had spent 300 hours making vertical descents by radar only — with no visual contact — he never learned to fly the craft, Mays adds.

Armstrong called the aviation company after seeing a photo of the copter. "I often gave free rides to faculty," Mays says, "and in those days, failing to ask for a name was not unusual." Consequently, Mays did not know whom he was meeting at the helipad atop the Western and Southern building.

In the end, Armstrong wanted lessons, which Mays provided with the help of the company's chief pilot Wayne Siebe. The only complication involved obtaining insurance for Armstrong to fly the helicopter solo.

Lloyds of London, the only company that would insure commercial helicopters at the time, required 1,000 hours of flight time to get insurance. Mays had to negotiate before the company would apply 300 hours of moon training to Armstrong's balance. Mays recalls the relief he felt when he received a notice that read, “N. Armstrong, first man on moon, hereby approved to fly.”

To this day, Mays is still thrilled about those flight lessons. "After flying all those jet- and rocket-powered high-altitude vehicles, Neil still loved flying in a low-tech, Bell 47 helicopter around Cincinnati at 500 feet and 70 mph," Mays says. "He was still fascinated to fly low and slow."

One day, after the two men had become good friends, Mays sprung his big request on Armstrong. Would the former astronaut relive the moon landing with him, repeating the conversation he and mission control had, as best he could recall it?

That is when Mays realized the depth of those blue eyes and suffered through what seemed like a very long silence. He began to fear that he had crossed the line regarding his friend's reluctance to talk about the moon, and his stomach began to twist. Just then, Armstrong began a vertical descent while repeating the dialogue, in what seemed like exact detail to an amazed Mays.

As they landed, Armstrong's oh-so-familiar voice stated, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” And Mays broke out in goose bumps.

Relating theory to practice

by Deborah Rieselman

Few alumni would be able to find the notes they took in class nearly 40 years ago, but Ralph Spitzen, Eng '74, MBA '76, could quickly find the comments he saved from his four courses that Neil Armstrong taught at UC's College of Engineering, including a handwritten question Neil sent to Ralph asking if he had turned in his project late.

Spitzen saved the latter because he thought it showed how much his professor cared about his students and how much he valued their opinions. Spitzen says his work was not late, and his professor took his word for it.

As a student, Spitzen says he was in awe of his professor. Part of his admiration, he suspects, had to do with going to college in the early 1970s.

"I grew up in the 1960s — a decade filled with assassinations, race riots, riots at the '68 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the escalating war in Vietnam. The Apollo missions brought a welcome relief and hope for a better future. I like to think Apollo 11 not only helped us close the chapter of the 1960s — perhaps slamming the book down might be more fitting — but also provided much needed therapy for our psyches as we moved forward."

Despite the era, Armstrong was simply an instructor whom students loved and faculty respected. "To me, he was a good teacher because he was an engineer at heart," Spitzen adds. "He was able to relate theory to practice. It only recently occurred to me that is exactly what the co-op program was designed to do."

Spitzen also recalls two interesting souvenirs in Armstrong's Rhodes Hall office — a plaque for Weber Aircraft's exclusive Turtle Club and a prescription bottle of motion-sickness pills.

The plaque contained a handsomely mounted "ejection handle" to honor his entry into the club whose price of membership was being an aviator who had safely ejected from an aircraft. The handle was what engaged the Weber ejection system when the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle Armstrong was operating spun out of control during training near Houston one day. (See photos and related story.)

On the other hand, the pills were presented to Neil by a Soviet cosmonaut "with best wishes for a safe journey to the moon and then back home," Spitzen says. "This was a most interesting gesture considering the state of the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States at the time."

Now director of continuous improvement at Worthington Industries (a diversified metal manufacturing company in Columbus, Ohio), Spitzen remembers a "control theory" professor setting up a stability-simulation problem using an analog computer. "The goal of the simulation was for the operator pilot to use a joystick and keep a pen centered on a small plotter that was wired to the computer.

"Most of us could keep the pen centered, indicating we had the system under control, for a few seconds, but then each of us lost control, and the pen quickly skewed to an edge of the plotter indicating we crashed." When Armstrong tried the simulator, he set the record for maintaining control the longest.

"Many have said that Neil had nerves of steel," he adds. "I think what we saw was a man with an extraordinary ability to adapt and to learn, both on the fly — no pun intended— and with incredible speed. Couple that with a sixth sense when it came to timing in the face of escalating risks, and you have the right stuff to be Apollo 11’s commander."

When asked to further reflect on his favorite professor, Spitzen wrote the following:

"My classmates and I speculated that Neil grew up with two dreams. The first was to be a farmer. The other — to fly — took him on the journey of Apollo 11.

"There is great comfort to return to one’s roots after a long and risky journey, and no one deserved this more than Neil. Neil’s purchase of a farm in Southwestern Ohio took him home and opened two new doors for him — farming and teaching future aerospace engineers how to push the envelope of man and machine.

"The first man to walk on the moon also liked keeping his feet on the earth and his eyes to the sky. And that’s the Neil Armstrong my classmates and I knew."

Other remembrances

Getting thrown out of class

I remember sitting in our aircraft performance class with Andy Lee [Eng '74, MBA '95] and just getting into one of those moods when I just couldn’t stop laughing. Andy couldn’t stop, either. I have no idea what started it, but Armstrong threw us out.
Fred Krause, Eng '74

Honesty in the 4th grade

I told my fourth-grade nephew that Neil Armstrong was one of my college professors. When he told his teacher, she told him to quit telling lies.  She believed him after I wrote a letter.
Jim Kocher, Eng '74

Humility and conduct

One day I took my grade-school-age daughter to UC with me. We happened to run into Neil Armstrong. Neil knew who I was, but we had had only brief professional contact and no personal contact. Yet in front of my daughter, Neil acted as if I was his best friend. My daughter still talks about the day she met Neil Armstrong.

It was a great accomplishment to walk on the moon, but Neil's humility and conduct afterwards made him a great man.
Max Brown, Eng '59
Professor emeritus of engineering

Commonality in outer space

Neil Armstrong worked with my mother at the University of Cincinnati. She told me to never talk to him about the moon. That's what I wanted to talk to him about. Neil could relate to me, though; he was an astronaut, and I could tell he thought I was a "space cadet." "Outer Space" was all we had in common!
Larry Love
Via Twitter

Anything is possible

What Neil taught us is that if you have the desire, anything is possible. I think what the students can learn from him is if you put math and science into practice, you will be able to accomplish a lot -- accomplish things that can help mankind -- that help society advance forward.
Teik Lim, interim dean
College of Engineerig and Applied Science

Why did he join UC?

As far as I know I am one of only a very few faculty members who knew Neil Armstrong while he was with us at UC. Others who knew him are now mostly long ago retired or have passed away.

A question raised by many at the time was: Why would Neil Armstrong want to join us at UC when he could have gone virtually anywhere, or even into politics, as did John Glenn? I believe there were three principal reasons:

  • First, Cincinnati was close to his hometown.
  • Second, our university was better suited to having a very strong aerospace engineering program than other regional universities.
  • Finally, Cincinnati had (at the time) one of the nation’s major airports with direct daily flights to most other major cities.

Unlike John Glenn, however, Neil Armstrong was politically conservative. When he came to UC, he did not want to be a member of the Faculty Collective Bargaining Unit. Therefore, to accommodate him, he was assigned to the Institute of Space Sciences (ISS), a research institute in the Office of Graduate Studies and Research.

At the time, I was the director, and Neil was then given the title associate director. His teaching duties, however, were assigned through the Department of Aerospace Engineering.
Neil enjoyed teaching and was well liked by the students. Nevertheless, I believe he missed flying. He soon became close friends with aerospace engineering professor Bob Kroll who was a pilot and flight instructor. Several afternoons each week, Neil and Bob would go flying. Bob probably knew Neil better than any other person here at UC. Unfortunately, Bob passed away several years ago.

Ron Huston
Professor emeritus of mechanical engineering

Alumni met Armstrong

We really enjoyed your issue on Neil Armstrong. It brought back memories of our family meeting Neil Armstrong in Las Vegas in 2002. We attended a Master Mind personal-development seminar, and we were among the 10 or so of the 5,000 attendees who got to meet with him.

He is a very private individual and it took over a year to convince him to attend the seminar, let alone meet and greet a lot of people. One of the tenets of personal development and referral business is to write a personal handwritten note to people in your sphere of “life.”

I wrote a personal note to Armstrong and mentioned that we were 1959 UC grads, that we were both Ohio natives and that I was an instrumentation engineer in helping to develop the "Back Pack" (Portable Life Support System) for the Apollo Space Suit that he wore. United Aircraft Corp. (UAC), now United Technology Corp., was the prime contractor in Connecticut for the space suit.  UAC also built Pratt & Whitney jet engines and Sikorsky helicopters.

This was in the old days of 1962-1965, after our three years in the Air Force. Babe (Kathryn) Gallenstein, and I got married just before graduation in 1959, and I went into the service as an engineering officer working on the Titan I ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) program.

When we met Neil Armstrong, he said, “Oh, here’s the Bearcats” and happily posed with us.

Neil Armstrong and the host of the event had a conversation on stage, and it is the only recorded interview of its kind with him. When asked, “When you look up at the moon, what do you think of?” his droll, humorous, comment was “Girls.”

Priceless and a lot of fun.
Kathryn "Babe" Reger, Ed '59 Jim Reger, Eng '59
Lakewood Ranch, Fla.