Ralph D. Kimberlin of Tullahoma, Alumni Distinguished Service Professor and Chair of the Aviation Systems Graduate Program at The University of Tennessee Space Institute, has retired.
A test pilot and author of “Flight Testing of Fixed-Wing Aircraft,” Kimberlin led numerous short courses relating to aviation during his 26 years and saw nine graduates of the Aviation Systems program chosen as U.S. astronauts.
As a major in the Air Force Reserves, Kimberlin earned a master’s in Aerospace Engineering at UTSI in June 1975. He joined the Institute’s faculty in April 1979 and later earned a doctorate in Aerospace Engineering from the Technical University of Aachen. He retired Aug. 31 – the day after attending a retirement party held for him at the Institute.
“We thank Kimberlin for his many contributions to our Aviation Systems program and wish him the very best in his retirement years,” said John E. Caruthers, associate vice president and chief operating officer.
Having baled out of airplanes twice – including once when his parachute opened just as his shoes were touching corn tassels – Kimberlin said he wrote his flight-testing book to be used as a text and also as a “reference for folks in the aviation industry so they won’t have to re-invent the wheel.”
Published in 2004 as part of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Inc.’s AIAA Education Series, the book was Kimberlin’s attempt to “capture some of the things I’ve learned in the last 30 years about flight testing.”
Kimberlin graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with a bachelor’s degree in engineering and was commissioned as an Air Force officer. While serving in Vietnam, he was one of three officers responsible for the development and combat evaluation of the AC-47 side-firing gun ship. He was a test pilot and flight test engineer for Piper, Rockwell International, and Beech Aircraft companies for 10 years before joining the Space Institute. For three years he was a design engineer with Cessna Aircraft Company, but flying was always his passion. It almost cost him his life.
As a seven-year-old growing up in Missouri, a neighbor’s pilot friend landed one day in a field and took Ralph and his father for a ride, and “the bug bit me and bit me hard,” Kimberlin remembers. “That’s what I’ve wanted to do since that moment.”
He was 31 when in 1971 he jumped out of his first airplane. He remembers the second time, in 1976, as a “near-death experience.”
“It was a dive test, and the tail came off the airplane at dive speed,” he told an interviewer in 1998. “The plane just started tumbling down, and I had a near-death experience.” G-forces were so great he was unable to function, he recalled, and he thought he would die.
Though he had his parachute on, he had trouble getting out of his harness, but finally got it unbuckled and jumped, and about 300 feet above ground, yanked the pull-cord with both hands.
“It was a cornfield I was coming down in,” he told the interviewer, “and I remember my feet touching the top of the corn stalks when my parachute fully opened. But it was a soft touch down…All I can say is that the Good Lord was with me.”
Kimberlin is proud of UTSI’s 10,000-square-foot Flight Research Center at the Tullahoma Airport, which includes classroom, hangar, and about a dozen airplanes – some called “flying classrooms.” He remembers that “when I came here, we had two airplanes parked on the airstrip that were being maintained out of a pickup.”
Son of a school teacher, Kimberlin discovered that in addition to flying, he found another passion; he discovered that he also “loves to teach.”
Now he expects he and his wife Jean will spend more time in their vacation house in Winter Haven, Fla. He may fish some, but he probably won’t be that far from his airplane.