Born: United States of America
Primarily active in: United States of America


Luigi Cicolani, US Army Scientist

Luigi Sante Cicolani, the younger of two brothers, (“Gigi” to his family) was born to Italian immigrant parents in Norwood, Massachusetts, on Aug. 2, 1934. Although their parents were not educated beyond the fifth grade in Italy, they instilled the quintessential immigrant educational ambitions in their children. The two boys earned money for college from many odd jobs.

Cicolani was valedictorian of Westwood High School Class of 1952 and received six years of full scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he graduated in 1958 with an Engineer’s Degree in Aeronautical Engineering.

He also studied classical music throughout junior and senior high school playing the accordion. In fact, Cicolani continued his squeeze box lessons while at MIT and won at least one amateur accordion-playing contest.

At MIT, Cicolani joined the Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). When he graduated from MIT, the Air Force sent him to work at Ames Research Center just as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) evolved into NASA. There, Cicolani made Mountain View and Sunnyvale, California, his lifelong home, while he worked at NASA literally until a few weeks before his death. Cicolani never married. He was blessed with a gifted touch in the kitchen and cooked himself a delicious meal at almost every dinner. But his favorite food was a salami sandwich for lunch followed by his quintessential cigar(s). He had a lifelong friend, Mark A. Miller, who was very close to him his entire time in California.

Cicolani was a long-term fixture at the Ames Research Center starting in the 1950s — first with NASA and then with the Army Aeromechanics Laboratory. In his early years at NASA, he conducted research on trajectory control for the space rendezvous problem during the Apollo buildup, and on the development and evaluation of Kalman-filter algorithms and nonlinear inverse methods for aircraft navigation and control. Later, he became interested in and started working on the dynamics and control of external slung loads, especially using two or more helicopters, work for which he became world renowned.

Upon retiring from NASA in 1997, Cicolani worked within the Army rotorcraft flight control research group for 26 years as a San José State University Research Foundation contractor. His primary focus was on understanding, simulating and flight-testing the complex dynamics of helicopters carrying heavy external payloads. Cicolani worked closely with colleagues in Israel under the Army’s bilateral international research cooperation, and together they developed and validated in the wind tunnel and flight-tested many advanced and highly creative techniques to simulate and stabilize the complex external load dynamics. The cooperative team was awarded the first Army International Collaboration Award in 2010.

Cicolani was a mentor and a role model to many, known for maintaining the highest professional and technical standards, and for his emphasis on understanding and explaining the underlying physics of complex dynamic systems. He worked closely with many younger researchers and in the words of several, he had such a profound impact on their work/career, saying he “will always be appreciated for his help and guidance. It was always a highly rewarding experience working with Luigi.”

He was a prolific writer, publishing many in-depth research reports and technical papers together with his colleagues. Cicolani always had an easy laugh, worked smoothly with all of his junior and senior colleagues, and had many great stories. He was loved by his research colleagues and research group leaders.

In a lifetime of good works, Cicolani’s accomplishments were extraordinary. The many plaques on his office wall, along with his colleagues’ high esteem for him, speak volumes. At the same time, Cicolani was modest, yet he experienced quiet satisfaction in knowing that whatever he did, he did it well. Cicolani was a man of insatiable curiosity with broad interests ranging well beyond his aeronautics specialty. Everything interested him, from psychology studies to in-depth horticulture (his roses were coveted by many admirers). He was an outdoors man at heart, loved long hikes and delving into nature, most often with camera in hand. He was also an avid tournament bridge player. With a true Italian heart, he loved opera and attended many seasons with orchestra seating. He held his parents in honor, as well as his Italian heritage. In gratitude of his high school science teacher, Christos T. Sarris, Cicolani and his brother established a scholarship, funded in perpetuity, in Mr. Sarris’s memory.

Luigi Cicolani, a VFS member and lifelong rotorcraft expert researcher, passed away after a brief illness on October15, 2023 at the age of 89.

Society Update: Vertiflite, January/February 2023