John Tracy, whose career crossed space, defense and commercial applications, and who was an early proponent of composites, is a 2017 Philip J. Klass Lifetime Achievement Award honoree. 

When Tracy retired in 2016, he was Boeing’s chief technologist and its senior vice president of engineering. It was a far cry from where he began. 

A native of Southern California, Tracy earned a degree in physics from California State University-Dominguez Hills. After college, he became a high school teacher. After being laid off three times in three years, he turned to industry for opportunities. But his classroom experience was invaluable later. 

In 1979, Tracy got a job at chemical and munitions manufacturer Hercules as a detonation analyst. By 1981, he had moved on to McDonnell Douglas (now part of Boeing), where he worked on Delta launch vehicles. 

“I became convinced that composites were the future,” Tracy says. He pushed for the use of composites in Delta rocket fairings. While there is no “free lunch” in engineering, Tracy saw composites as presenting a golden opportunity to improve system performance and reduce manufacturing costs simultaneously. 

At Boeing, the development of the 787 brought composites to its biggest test. Tracy knew the company’s engineering team had to show that composites could be used to economically manufacture an airplane and that the aircraft would pass certification. The program had significant hiccups, not just related to composites, of course. Still, Tracy recalls some uncomfortable moments before the company’s board of directors where he had to defend the decision to go with a “plastic” airplane. 

Tracy believes one of his chief achievements at Boeing was centralizing its test and evaluation capabilities across its defense, space and commercial operations. Without that, his cohorts say, rollouts and deliveries of such products as the 787 and 747-8 would have slipped further. But those who know him cite his overall leadership abilities, and here’s where we go back to high school. Asked about his experience with students and the relevance in aerospace, he said: “You learn how to communicate, to honor them, to respect them, to help them grow, encourage them. We end up doing more than we thought we could.” 

Tracy remains bullish on the future of aerospace and its ability to attract a new generation of engineering talent. “People don’t realize everything they touch, in one way or another, is enabled by aerospace or is a spinoff from aerospace,” he says. “We have had more impact on the world than any other industry.”