Richard McFarland

Richard McFarland

Photo courtesy of: University Communications and Marketing

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University mourns loss of avionics engineering pioneer, OHIO alumnus


Richard "Dick" McFarland, director emeritus and chief engineer at Ohio University's Avionics Engineering Center, passed away Sept. 3 at the age of 83. He was a renowned researcher and pilot who made significant contributions to the field of aviation safety.

McFarland, who received his bachelor's of science degree in mathematics from Ohio University in 1950, founded the Avionics Engineering Center – the only of its kind in the U.S. – in 1963.

"Not only is the Avionics Engineering Center internationally recognized as the top research organization in the areas of electronic navigation and aircraft control and landing systems, it actually stands completely alone as a center fully capable of conducting its own flight tests and evaluation of new navigation systems," said Dennis Irwin, dean of the Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ College of Engineering and Technology. "This is a capability that Dr. McFarland insisted upon and one of which we at Ohio University are extremely proud."

Now the university's largest research outfit, the center performs research for federal agencies such as the FAA and NASA, as well as leading private companies.

McFarland retired in 2010 as Russ Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering after spending 48 years on the faculty. His pioneering research included the development of mathematical models for predicting performance of the Instrument Landing System (ILS), and he ultimately worked on landing systems at more than 100 airports.

Avionics Research Engineer Jamie Edwards worked with McFarland for 25 years, starting when he was fresh from OHIO with a bachelor's in electrical engineering.

"Having specialized in microcomputers, I never expected to be doing the work of a radio-frequency engineer. For the next eight years, I flew pretty much everywhere in the U.S. with Dr. McFarland," Edwards said. "Ohio University was a primary resource to the FAA for fixing ILS problem sites, and Dr. McFarland was an expert in siting in new ILS systems."

Edwards explained that the FAA had asked OHIO to continue work on a mathematical computer model McFarland had developed to predict the effects of terrain, trees and man-made structures on the ILS. The computer program ran on a mainframe computer – before it was modified to run on an IBM-compatible personal computer.

"Still in world-wide use today, this accurate ILS modeling tool has saved the FAA and airport operators millions of dollars while providing the Avionics Engineering Center with a nearly continuous source of revenue to maintain and improve it," Edwards noted.

The Avionics Engineering Center's current director, Mike DiBenedetto, credits McFarland with the fact that he's at the helm now himself.

"Avionics is my professional home because as a student and young center engineer, he took me under this wing, helped me find my way along the route that led me to where I am today, and was constant source of encouragement and advice when times were challenging," DiBenedetto said. "We had many conversations over the years during trips in his Bonanza, or while sitting around a table, just chatting like engineers do."

Senior Avionics Research Engineer Simbo Odunaiya, who met McFarland in 1981 as a new undergraduate from Nigeria on a government scholarship, says he was known for being a great mentor.

"The man singled me out right away and gave me a job analyzing flight data at the center. This single act helped in making sure I finished my program on time," Odunaiya said.

Later, Odunaiya had to withdraw from the graduate program to participate in Nigeria's national youth service and was deployed to a village without running water or electricity. He later learned that McFarland was writing him every three months.

"Because I was in a very rural area, no one was forwarding the letters. One day in the mail room at my place of work, the folks remembered they'd seen my name on so many letters and gave me a bundle of about ten letters," Odunaiya said. "He'd been writing every three months to ask me to come back. Once I fulfilled my obligations. He made all the arrangements, got me another assistantship, and I was back at Ohio University within three months."

As a pilot who held airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates and who compiled more than 21,000 hours of flying time, McFarland was called upon to serve as an expert witness in a number of legal trials involving airplane crashes.

His mother arranged his first flight when he was a young child -- aboard a Ford Tri-Motor plane. He learned to fly in OHIO's aviation program while studying mathematics, and as a student, would fly home on weekends and land in a neighbor's field.

"Very few know that Dick actually saved his life and mine many years ago when I flubbed a takeoff in his Citabria aerobatic plane, and he grabbed the stick. That was the last time he allowed me to take the controls of an airplane," Irwin said.

Edwards says the time he spent in the cockpit with McFarland was invaluable. "I attribute my successful 26 year flying career to him. He taught me how to fly a non-turbocharged, piston-powered, single-engine aircraft in every weather situation imaginable," Edwards shared. While a student, McFarland participated in Air Force ROTC. He was called to active duty in Korea while attending graduate school at Purdue and served as an Air Force meteorologist.

He returned to Lockbourne Air Force Base near Columbus and completed master's and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering at Ohio State University, where he began his teaching career as an assistant professor before joining Ohio University in 1948.

He received many honors in his career, including include Washington High School (Massillon) Distinguished Citizen, Aviation Week and Space Technology's Laurel Award, fellowship in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering (IEEE), the Institute of Navigation's Hayes Award, the FAA Distinguished Service Medal and Excellence in Aviation award, and the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award.

He was a member of the American Society of Engineering Education and the National Association of Flight Instructors, as well as several honor societies, including Tau Beta Phi, Phi Beta Kappa, Eta Kappa Nu, and Sigma Xi.

He served Ohio University on the Russ College Board of Visitors for more than a decade, meetings of which he'd commonly plot the university's DC-3 to in order to do landing system work along the way. He received OHIO's Alumni Association's Medal of Merit, Alumnus of the Year and Outstanding Alumni Award, as well as being made an honorary alumnus of the Russ College and inducted into the Russ College's Academy of Distinguished Graduates.

Odunaiya wants people to know that in addition to McFarland's legacy of groundbreaking research and championing students, McFarland cared deeply about people.

"My last daughter calls him 'grandpa' – and he in turn was the only one who attempted to call her by her African name," Odunaiya said. "He did it so exclusively that if anyone else dares to do so, she will remind him or her, "Only Grandpa calls me by that name.'"

Retired from flying in 2010 at age 81, McFarland donated his Beechcraft Bonanza – which Edwards says McFarland had always used for Avionics business – to the center. Current engineers now routinely fly it to Washington, D.C., for research meetings and to promote additional work with the FAA.