Engineering and Modifications Icon James Raisbeck Dies

 - September 7, 2021, 12:10 PM
James Raisbeck (left) died August 31 at the age of 84. He founded Seattle-based Raisbeck Engineering in 1973 and designed modifications that have been incorporated on thousands of aircraft. (Photo: Raisbeck Engineering)

James Raisbeck, who had an aviation career spanning 67 years and made his mark for his engineering and aircraft modifications expertise, died August 31 at the age of 84.

Raisbeck founded his Seattle-based business Raisbeck Engineering in 1973 and designed modifications that have been incorporated on thousands of aircraft. The firm was acquired by Acorn Growth Companies in 2016, but Raisbeck continued to advise the company and focused on philanthropic interests.

“James was an iconic figure in the aviation industry, best known for King Air modifications, but his influence reached well beyond that segment of the market,” said Rick Nagel, managing partner of Acorn Growth Companies. “James established and built a company we worked with as a channel partner for two previous Acorn companies before acquiring Raisbeck into our portfolio, allowing us the opportunity to continue James's legacy of developing products that improve aircraft performance and safety. The entire Acorn and Raisbeck teams will miss his unwavering passion for the aerospace sector and are deeply saddened with his loss."

Raisbeck’s aviation career began in 1954 in the U.S. Air Force, where he maintained a number of different military aircraft before becoming a flight engineer on the B-36.

After his service in the U.S. Air Force, he attended Purdue University, obtaining a degree in 1961 in aeronautical engineering. He put that degree to work as a research aerodynamicist with Boeing, where he joined the team that designed an innovative trailing-edge flap system that enabled the then-new 707 airliner to fly at speeds as low as 60 knots.

After working on this and other technologies that Boeing folded into its commercial aircraft line, Raisbeck left the manufacturing giant in 1969 and became president and chief engineer of Robertson Aircraft, famed for the development of the Robertson short takeoff and landing (STOL) kits used on a number of general aviation aircraft.

In 1970, he turned his attention to the Learjet wing. After studying results from full-scale testing of a Learjet 23 by NASA Ames, he saw opportunities that led to the development of the Mark II and Mark IV low-speed performance systems and the Mark III high-speed drag-reduction packages, the company said, noting Mark II and Mark IV wings became standard technology on Learjet Century III and Softflite versions.

Raisbeck left Robertson in 1973 to launch his own company and in 1976 worked with Rockwell International on a redesign of the Sabreliner series. This resulted in the Sabreliner model 65 being equipped with Raisbeck-designed supercritical wings, with retrofits available for Model 60s and 80s.

The company perhaps is most known for its modifications on the Beechcraft King Air family. That work began in 1981 when Raisbeck saw possibilities for improving the King Air’s productivity, performance, safety, and overall usefulness, the company said. This culminated in the Mark VI system for the King Air 200 series that included a number of systems still in use today, including the ram-air recovery system, dual aft body strakes, and high float gear doors.

Since then, Raisbeck has developed multiple modifications for the King Air and the company said 64 percent of the more than 6,200 King Airs are equipped with at least one of its modifications. In addition, Raisbeck continued to develop modifications for other Learjets and aircraft such as the Airbus A320 and Boeing 727.

His work has been recognized throughout the industry, as well as academia. In 1979, Purdue University presented its Distinguished Engineering Alumnus Award to him, and again in 1999 its Outstanding Aerospace Engineer Award. He also has received the AIAA Commercial Aviation Technical Achievement Award. In 2002, NBAA honored Raisbeck with its Lifetime Achievement Award for Meritorious Service to Aviation, considered one of the association’s highest honors. He also has been recognized with the Living Legends Lifetime Aviation Entrepreneur Award, as a fellow of AIAA, and on the National Air and Space Museum's Wall of Honor.

“James Raisbeck’s impact on aviation is enormous and enduring. His legacy extends from aircraft innovations to aviation institutions that educate and inspire, including the Raisbeck Aviation High School,” said NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen.

He also is known for his philanthropic endeavors supporting education, the arts, the Museum of Flight, medical research, and the Raisbeck Aviation High School.

He is survived by his wife Sherry, two daughters, a son, four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.