Irish aeronautical engineer wins top Boeing award at age of 34

15 Nov 2011

Irishman Dr Pio Fitzgerald, Boeing Commercial Airplanes Engineer of the Year 2011. Photo by Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times

Dr Pio Fitzgerald, a University of Limerick aeronautical engineering graduate, has won the highest engineering accolade from Boeing, having been named Boeing Commercial Airplanes’ Engineer of the Year, aged just 34.

On 12 November, Fitzgerald attended the Dubai Air Show as one of four nominees for the Innovator of the Year award from Flightglobal.  Previous winners of this award include Richard Branson in 2009 and the aircraft manufacturer Embraer in 2010.

Hailing from Killarney, Co Kerry, Fitzgerald graduated from UL 1999 with a Bachelor of Engineering degree in aeronautical engineering.  As part of his degree, he undertook an eight-month co-operative education placement in 1997 with Boeing Commercial Airplanes, which formed the basis of his interest in his current speciality, flight-control laws. Following graduation from UL, Fitzgerald attained both a master’s degree and a doctorate at Cranfield University in the UK.

Fitzgerald’s breakthrough OAMS system for the Boeing 747-8F

In the spring of 2010, Boeing encountered a design crisis with the new 747-8F jumbo jet freighter aircraft, when “flutter tests” revealed a vibration in the jumbo freighter’s wing.

Fitzgerald and his team made aerospace history when they developed the Outboard Aileron Modal Suppression (OAMS) system that dampened out the flutter on the Boeing 747-8F without necessitating any physical redesign of the aircraft.  

Fitzgerald’s breakthrough system required an agreement on a “regulatory special condition” between the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Boeing. 

Fitzgerald’s ingenuity secured FAA certification and contributed to the delivery of Boeing’s innovative jet in October. 

In aerospace circles, his accomplishment has already been compared to the legendary Sutter Twist solution four decades ago, when a similar design crisis faced the original 747 passenger aircraft.

Speaking about the award, Fitzgerald today said he was “honoured and humbled to be named Boeing Commercial Airplanes Engineer of the Year”. He also thanked UL for giving him the educational foundation to go on and progress his aeronautical career.

“The great education I received in aeronautical engineering at the University of Limerick provided me with the necessary skills to contribute at the highest levels in the commercial airplane industry. I owe a great deal of thanks to the faculty and staff of UL.”

Prof Michael McCarthy, chair of Aeronautical Engineering at the Department of Mechanical, Aeronautical and Biomedical Engineering at UL, also spoke today about Fitzgerald’s achievements.

‘Mind-boggling achievement at such a young age’ – UL professor

“These awards represent the highest honours an aerospace engineer could hope to achieve. Pio was a fabulous student, who we expected to do well. But to achieve this recognition is beyond anything we could have imagined. Boeing is such a prestigious company that every aerospace engineer in the world would love to work there. To even get into the organisation, let alone be named their top engineer, and at the tender age of 34, is mind boggling,” said McCarthy.

Boeing Commercial Airplanes employs more than 70,000 people worldwide, including top aerospace engineers.

In 2010, Boeing had revenues of more than US$31bn, with more than 12,000 jetliners in service. 

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic