Recalling a Good Pilot Friend and One Curious Character

The late John Ronz made many meaningful contributions to aviation, including airfoil designs.

John Roncz, who made many contributions to aviation, died of cancer in September 2023 at the age of 75. [Courtesy: Michael Moore]

It’s long ago now—more than four decades back, during a time when I would fly to Mojave every week in Melmoth to have lunch with Burt Rutan and his then tiny group of employees. From a dilapidated barracks there, RAF, the Rutan Aircraft Factory, sold plans of the novel canard VariEze to amateur builders.

RAF started in the pre-digital age, when the tools of the aeronautical engineer were still slide rule and drafting paper. Around 1980, however, Rutan bought an Apple 2 computer. When the salesman asked him whether he would like a second 160 kilobyte floppy disk in addition to the one supplied with the computer, he declined it, saying that he would certainly never fill even the first disk. Some time later he proudly showed me a Corvus hard drive for which he had paid thousands of dollars. It had the unimaginably vast capacity of 10 megabytes.

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I too had acquired a computer, but not a printer. So when I developed a rudimentary program for generating fuselage cross-sections, I delivered the results to Rutan in the form of snapshots of my computer screen, developed and printed in my basement darkroom.

During one of our Wednesday lunches at Reno’s Cafe, Rutan mentioned that some fellow in the Midwest had written to offer to design airfoils for him. At that time, most designers picked their airfoils from catalogs developed by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in the 1930s. I suspect that Rutan may even have designed some of his with a French curve and draftsman’s spline, relying on the time-tested principle that they ought to be round in front and pointy in back. This Midwestern fellow said he could do better, using a computer that he had built and codes he had written. Thus did digital simulation come to RAF.

Eventually this Midwestern fellow turned up in Mojave, and it was there that I met him. His name was John Roncz. He was cherubic: plump and pink, with a boyish voice and air of innocent candor. He was, I would soon learn, in addition to his coding and analytical skills, sweet-natured and generous and a formidable classical pianist. His day job, rather incongruous, involved running a metal stamping business he had inherited from his father.

Thereafter our paths would cross from time to time, and at a certain point they converged. A pilot himself—he once glided a Commander 112 to an airport landing after a night engine failure—he had by then left the metal stamping business and become a full-time computational aerodynamicist— that is, someone who uses computer simulations in place of wind tunnels to discover the properties of airplanes and their various parts. He was using a computer program called VSAERO for his analyses of complete aircraft.

It happened that I and a partner, Dave Pinella, were selling a package called PSW that bundled a program I had written for defining airplane geometries with Pinella’s programs for analyzing the digital models and displaying the results. Our analysis code, Cmarc, was descended from VSAERO, and their input “decks” were sufficiently alike that Roncz and I could conveniently collaborate. My main contribution was turning complicated geometries into digital models digestible by VSAERO and Cmarc.

Though we seldom met in person, we corresponded copiously and became good friends. When I needed an answer to some difficult question for an article— such as, how much power would be required to hover a 7,000-pound, four-rotor electric air taxi in ground effect?—I would email Roncz, knowing that a reply would come to me within hours. Roncz’s contributions to aviation were many and significant. He created airfoils for Voyager, the Beech Starship and other airplanes, including mine, and designed several complete airplanes. He also designed the wing sail for a victorious America’s Cup boat and odds and ends such as windmill blades and race car downforce wings.

He had a merry sense of humor and would name his airfoils with funny acronyms. The laminar profiles for my second Melmoth were SODA (Stamp Out Drag Airfoil) and POP (Peter’s Other Profile). When Rutan needed an airfoil with extra trailing-edge thickness for a complex Fowler flap, Roncz produced OSPITE (Olympic Swimming Pool in Trailing Edge). A STOL project yielded GOLA (Gobs of Lift Airfoil). Although his work involved scrutinizing mountains of numbers, Roncz was not an obsessive drudge. He laughed often. Beset by intermittent maladies and amorous tragedies, he had an entirely separate life into which he would disappear from time to time and in which I suspect he found more satisfaction than he did in his fluid-dynamics work.

In this other life, Roncz was a medium. He would regularly visit Arthur Findlay College in England—“the real Hogwarts,” he called it—to practice his spiritualistic skills in sessions in which he would stand before an audience and, as he described it, say whatever came into his mind. Invariably some astounded stranger would confirm that what he had said was true, and what’s more, there was no possible way he could have known it.

Roncz was quite aware of the incongruity between his two lives and said he was just as puzzled as anyone else about how “it” worked—“it” being his weird ability to hit so many invisible nails on the head. He wrote a book, An Engineer’s Guide to the Spirit World: My Journey from Skeptic to Psychic Medium, part autobiography and part case study, in which he matter-of-factly laid out his dealings with the “spirit world” without making any attempt to provide a scientific-sounding explanation for it.

Being on the knuckle-dragging level of spiritual evolution myself, I could never view Roncz’s mediumistic side other than with a skeptic’s condescending amusement. But he didn’t mind. For him, it was a lived experience, and my doubts were like those of a shut-in who questions a visitor’s assertion that outside the sky is blue.

Roncz died in September of cancer at the age of 75. I talked with him a little before his death and suggested that he come knock on the wall of my house once he was comfortably ensconced in the spirit world. He laughed and said he hoped he would.

I have not yet heard the knock. But his airfoils keep me aloft, and whenever the raccoons are dancing on the roof, I think of him.

This column first appeared in the January-February 2024/Issue 945 of FLYING’s print edition.

Peter Garrison taught himself to use a slide rule and tin snips, built an airplane in his backyard, and flew it to Japan. He began contributing to FLYING in 1968, and he continues to share his columns, "Technicalities" and "Aftermath," with FLYING readers.

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