Born: United States of America
Primarily active in: United States of America


Ken Wernicke, Bell Tiltrotor and VTOL Pioneer

Kenneth G. Wernicke was born on Oct. 12, 1932, to Albert Frank Wernicke and Margaret Pritchard McGrew Wernicke. He was the older of identical twins; he and his brother Rodney both worked for Bell Helicopter.

Wernicke attended the University of Kansas, earning a Bachelor of Science in 1954 and a Master of Science degree in 1955, both in Aeronautical Engineering. He then went to work at Bell for 35 years (1955–1990), encompassing a broad range of powered-lift aircraft.

His first assignment was as the project aerodynamicist on the Bell XH-40 prototype test program. He then became the technical assistant to the follow-on UH-1 Huey development and was a research project engineer. For nine months in 1962, he worked for Bell Aerosystems as the aircushion vehicle technical director — after building a ground effect machine (GEM) demonstrator in his home workshop — the foundation of which would support Bell’s hovercraft products, including today’s Textron Landing Craft, Air Cushion (LCAC). He then returned to Bell as a pre-design and experimental project engineer for advanced Huey components.

In 1968, he began working on rotor configuration studies under various industry and government tiltrotor research initiatives, as a follow-on to the Bell XV-3 tiltrotor program that made 250 flights between 1955–1966. Wernicke led a Bell-sponsored effort to design, build and successfully test a 25-ft (7.6-m) diameter proprotor and transmission components for an experimental prototype. As a result of the success of the tests in 1969–1970, Bell won government funding for further development that resulted in the NASA/Army XV-15 Tilt Rotor Research Aircraft (TRRA) program.

After the untimely death of Bob Lichten (for whom the VFS Lichten Paper Award is named) in 1971, Wernicke was named the Chief Project Engineer on Bell’s highly successful NASA/Army XV-15, helping to prove the capabilities that led to the development of the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey. In 1984, he became the V-22 Director of Engineering, responsible for all technology, design and test development activities of the V-22. Later, he was appointed as the Director of V-22 Developmental Engineering, responsible for problem resolution, and weight and cost reduction for the production V-22.

A few years ago, Bell Technical Fellows (many of which were Wernicke’s former mentees) recalled, “Ken’s creative genius with a yellow pad and slide-rule is legendary, as he not only led these programs from the highest level of technical management, but always worked closely with individual engineers on the design floor to solve highly challenging and complex problems in virtually every discipline of aircraft design.”

In 1988, he was made a Consulting Engineer to provide guidance and assistance to Bell’s engineering department in design and problem solving, and to provide technical guidance and recommendations to management in the selection and planning of future helicopter and tiltrotor aircraft programs. After his retirement in 1990, Wernicke continued supporting Bell as an consultant, including contributions to Bell’s V-280 Valor.

Wernicke also formed the Sky Technology Vehicle Design & Development Company to work on his life-long dream of every family having a flying vehicle in their garage. He did concept development on the Aircar, and the design was chosen as a “Discover Technology Award” finalist in 1994. A full-scale mockup of the vehicle was displayed at Epcot Center. He also developed several tail-sitting drones; under contract to McDonnell Douglas, his Sparrow Hawk made test flights for the US Army and Marine Corps.

A second company, Fast Track Amphibian, formed with other family members, developed the first tracked vehicle that could get up on the plane from a standing start in the water using track propulsion. The Fast Track Amphibian was displayed and demonstrated twice on the East Coast at Multi-Agency Craft Conferences held by the American Society of Naval Engineers. It was displayed on the West Coast at a Wired Magazine Technology exhibition and made an exhibition lap at the I-500 snowmobile race in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. It was awarded a research contract from the Navy and a video went viral on YouTube.

According to his family, Wernicke’s love for engineering did not start or stop at the office. As a child, he built rubber band-powered model airplanes; as an adult he created the “Flying Surfboard,” a towline glider operated over water and pulled by an outboard motorboat; the “Kiddie Car,” a child-sized aircushion vehicle operated by his older daughter; and two different aircushion boats.

Wernicke was an author for more than 10 papers on vertical and powered-lift aircraft technology and designs, and was the 1978 recipient of the VFS Paul E. Haueter Award, given for “an outstanding technical contribution to the field of vertical take-off and landing aircraft development other than a helicopter.” His citation reads, “For his 12 years of devoted leadership in tilt-rotor technology and design which made possible the first flight of the XV-15 in 1977.”

Ken Wernicke passed away on Sept. 1, 2022.

VFS Updates: Vertiflite, November/December 2022