In memoriam: Robert Nelson, former chair and professor emeritus of aerospace and mechanical engineering

Closeup of Grotto candles

Robert C. Nelson, professor emeritus of aerospace and mechanical engineering, passed away October 19. He was 81.

Nelson earned a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering at the University of Notre Dame and a doctorate from Pennsylvania State. He worked for three years in the Air Force Flight Dynamics Laboratory before beginning his academic career at Notre Dame in 1975.

Robert Nelson

Throughout his career, Nelson served as a consultant to governmental entities, including the Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, and NASA. His research focused on flight dynamics and safety. With the aim of ensuring safer flight under a wide range of operating conditions, he conducted experiments that analyzed potentially destabilizing airflows. 

“Bob inspired students, developed an internationally recognized research program and wrote his classic textbook “Aircraft Stability and Automatic Control”— all while working in the ‘Aero Shack,’ a WWII-era Quonset hut,” said Steve Batill, professor emeritus of aerospace and mechanical engineering. The “Aero Shack” was replaced in 1991 with the Hessert Laboratory for Aerospace Research.

Nelson was department chairman from 1996-2002. His fairness, friendliness, and generous nature made him ideally suited for that role, according to Patrick Dunn, professor emeritus of aerospace and mechanical engineering.

Nelson was highly regarded as a teacher and mentor. “He was the type of advisor who didn’t hover. He let me learn from mistakes and solve problems on my own,” said Andrew Arena, professor and chair of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Oklahoma State University and Nelson’s former graduate student.

“I have used his textbook for 30 years now, and I feel very privileged to have been able to teach the same subject that he taught me.”    

Nelson was a loyal fan of Notre Dame football. “Our football season tickets have been together for over 40 years,” said Batill. “I expect somehow Bob will figure out how to continue following the Irish from a much better seat.” 

Nelson is survived by his wife Julie and two sons, Joseph and Robert.

— Karla Cruise, Notre Dame Engineering