Born: United States of America
Primarily active in: United States of America
John Jacob Schneider, whose 40-year career in vertical flight gained him praise as master of preliminary aircraft design and perhaps the leading vertical flight historian, passed away on July 13, 2001 in Media, Pennsylvania at the age of 76. He had a 30+ year career at Boeing, was a major contributor to VFS (then the American Helicopter Society, AHS) and served as the de facto VFS historian.
Schneider was born on Dec. 11, 1924, in New Philadelphia, Ohio. He started his career working short stints at Curtiss-Wright Corp., Bell Aircraft and as a Goodyear Aircraft engineering representative. Goodyear then built and designed the H-21 fuselage and landing gear for the Piasecki Helicopter. In 1953, he left Goodyear and joined Piasecki Helicopter Corp.
In Feb. 1958, Schneider, Edward G. Vanderlip and several other former Piasecki coworkers formed their own company, Vanguard Air & Marine Corp. (outside of Philadelphia) to develop shaft-driven lift fan (fan in wing) vertical and/or vertical takeoff and landing (V/STOL) concepts for executive applications. Vanderlip, who had developed the first helicopter autopilot at Piasecki, was the president, and Schneider was the Vice President and chief engineer. Ground testing of the Vanguard Omniplane was followed by tethered hover testing beginning in August 1959 and then NASA full-scale wind tunnel testing. Mechanical damage in early 1962 led to the cancellation of NASA’s funding for the project, and the company soon folded.
In 1962, Schneider returned to his former company, Piasecki Helicopter, which was now Boeing Vertol in Ridley Park — today’s Boeing Vertical Lift outside of Philadelphia.
At Boeing, Mr. Schneider helped design more than 400 aircraft, including the Osprey tiltrotor and the Comanche attack aircraft. He held several patents in aircraft design and retired as Boeing's manager of configuration development.
John Schneider amassed a vast personal library of aircraft related material and lectured extensively. In 1996, he helped found the American Helicopter Museum & Education Center (AHM&EC) and served as chief curator and historian, and was said to be one of most dedicated and popular volunteers there. His files were bequeathed to the Museum in 2002. In noting his passing, then-Museum Chairman Peter Wright commented, “All museums need a source of accurate and timely information about their collections. Our Museum was particularly fortunate to have one of the best historians in the helicopter industry as a loyal volunteer.”
As part of a tribute to Schneider, then-AHS Deputy Director L. Kim Smith wrote in the Summer 2001 issue of Vertiflite:
“This gentle giant who was a consummate gentlemen and our community’s leading historian died on July 13th. My last view of John was at the recent AHS Annual Forum in May  when he appeared, resplendent in his tuxedo, making his way to a table of friends. In my tenure at the Society, John was present at every meeting, be it the AHS Annual Forum, the Technical Council get-together, Board of Directors meeting, or the International Powered Lift Conference this past October . His very presence was reassuring.
Whenever I queried John about his [own] past, he would inevitably segue into some aspect of vertical flight history — but information that was not about him… because he was humble and preferred to extol other’s virtues. At various times, he worked at Curtiss-Wright, Bell Aircraft, Goodyear Aircraft, Piasecki Helicopter and Piasecki Aircraft. All this preceded his long tenure at Boeing Helicopters.
He retired in 1993 after, if one believes the company press release, some 31 years at Boeing Philadelphia. According to the release, he ‘worked for many years in Preliminary Design and played a significant part in the development of all new Boeing rotorcraft since 1962. He was the author of 27 technical papers, held six patents and lectured on V/STOL throughout the U.S. and Russia.’ John was also a member of the AHS Board of Directors, Technical Council and the Society’s historian.
I guess I came to know John best through his articles for Vertiflite. These articles ranged from retrospectives on Alexander Young, Stanley Hiller, Glidden Doman, Anton Flettner, the Kellett brothers, Charles Kaman, William Hunt and so forth. He knew them all personally… He also provided (and inspired) the Society’s ‘Obscure History Maker,’ which portrayed a photograph from the past with a request to our subscribers to attempt to provide details about the mystery aircraft. This single-page became one of the most popular sections in the magazine and always produced a plethora of letters in response, sometimes contradictory in their conclusions.
John was highly instrumental in helping us produce ‘The Top 20 Technology Achievements in the History of Vertical Flight.’ This book, which was distributed at the Society’s fiftieth anniversary Forum, contained a timeline for ‘Significant Events’ that corresponded with each top technology achievement. John Schneider, in conjunction with his colleague John Shaw of Boeing, created these milestone events which managed to put the editorial into historical perspective.
At the Society’s celebration of its fiftieth anniversary we also displayed a much enlarged photograph of the Society’s first dinner in New York City. We asked out members to identify those attendees that they could and whomever could identify all of them would win a prize (of course, if John was still around he could have refreshed my challenged memory on what the prize actually was). John, of course, won this competition and managed to name every single blessed attendee at this dinner in 1943. He was the Vertical Flight Society’s collective memory.”
Former Boeing colleague Francis “Diz” Dean wrote:
“John was, in my opinion, a very unusual aeronautical engineer with a breadth of knowledge of things aeronautical that was quite amazing, covering fixed wing, rotary wing, and even lighter-than-air. And also everything in between. Thus he was particularly well suited to his job as a vehicle preliminary design and configuration type. He normally oversaw a group of several engineers and designers. He coordinated well with aerodynamic, structural, weights, systems, and others in the various specialties, and was liked much by all. He was quiet and soft-spoken but authoritative. He had a good sense of humor. John could work out a reasonable vehicle three-view drawing faster and better than any one I ever saw, and could make even a ‘dog’ of an air vehicle look pretty good, proportioning it to take account of all required systems and components.
John's knowledge of aero history was extensive, and I think he was the best rotary wing historian of all time. I just wish he had published a book of all his lectures. His history knowledge helped him in his new concept work. John Schneider had his hand early in all the Vertol and Boeing Philadelphia products I know about, as well as many advanced studies for the military and NASA. He was a fine guy and a wonderful boss — another John Schneider will not come along soon.”
In 2003, VFS officially established the John J. Schneider Historical Achievement Award in his memory. This award is given to an individual for distinguished achievement in encouraging appreciation of, and enhancing access to, the history and legacy of vertical flight aviation. The selection of the award recipient is based upon a significant achievement or sustained record of accomplishment in the documentation, preservation, analysis and illumination of historically significant events, prominent pioneers and/or technologies, designs and uses of vertical flight aircraft. The award recipient receives a scale model of Leonardo da Vinci's “Aerial Screw” on an inscribed mount, and a book selected from the titles available through the VFS Online Store.
Sources: Vertika, Vol. 8, No. 3, pg. 2 and Vertiflite, Vol. 47, No. 3, Summer 2001.