Leonard Greene; Invented Lifesaving Aviation Tools
Wednesday, December 6, 2006
Leonard M. Greene, 88, an aviation-safety innovator who received patents for helping pilots avoid deadly wind hazards and who used his fortune to fund an economic policy think tank, a group that flies cancer patients to hospitals and ventures into America's Cup racing, died Nov. 30 at White Plains (N.Y.) Hospital Center. He had lung cancer.
Sen. John H. Glenn Jr. (D-Ohio), a former astronaut, inducted Mr. Greene into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1991 and placed him among "American inventors who have changed our world in ways we can see every day of our lives."
During World War II, Mr. Greene was an aerodynamics specialist and engineering test pilot at Grumman Aircraft in Bethpage, N.Y., where he was a terrified and helpless witness to a plane crash that he said could have been avoided had the pilot been warned of the angle of airflow over a wing that led to an excessive drop in lift.
This aerodynamic stall, as it is known, caused the majority of aviation deaths at that time.
In the mid-1940s, he developed the first practical way to alert the pilot of the aerodynamic stall. His first design involved threaded bolts, a bicycle horn and other odds and ends, all powered by flashlight batteries.
A company he formed in 1946, the Safe Flight Instrument Corp. of White Plains, N.Y., refined and marketed the stall-warning indicator. The indicator was the first of his 60 aviation-related patents. The Saturday Evening Post magazine reported in 1947 that Mr. Greene's innovation "may be the greatest life saver since the invention of the parachute."
He and his engineering staff went on to conceive devices now commonplace in aircraft, including an automatic throttle system in 1956 and an instrument that allowed pilots to see the warning signs of wind shear, drastic shifts in wind speed and direction that can cause a plane to lose control.
He developed the latter in the late 1970s after a series of wind-shear-related crashes that claimed hundreds of lives.
His clients included plane manufacturers, major airline companies and the U.S. military, and Safe Flight products are installed on two-thirds of the world's aircraft, said marketing director Matt Greene, a grandson of Leonard Greene.
Safe Flight made Leonard Greene a multimillionaire. He remained involved in the business until his death and as recently as 1998 co-patented and marketed an airborne power line detector and warning system for helicopters.
In his 2001 book "Inventorship: The Art of Innovation," Mr. Greene described finding "creative ideas in the simplest things." To address a key problem of supersonic aircraft -- window-shattering sonic booms when they break the sound barrier -- he turned to the earthworm for inspiration.
Just as an earthworm eats and excretes the earth to move past mounds of dirt, he figured a supersonic aircraft's deafening boom is caused from its inability to move air out of its way fast enough to avoid external shock waves.
He patented a device, sold to Boeing in 1994, that would use a hollow fuselage and strategically placed ducts to suck in, compress and then release air through a plane's tail.
Leonard Michael Greene was born June 8, 1918, in New York. His chemist father and artist mother encouraged their son to create his own toys. His parents made him a gift of their old stove, which he could take apart.
At City College of New York, he received a bachelor's degree in chemistry and a master's degree in engineering in the late 1930s. He received a pilot's license at 19 and later did postgraduate work in aeronautics at New York University.
While running Safe Flight, Mr. Greene honed dozens of patents for his varied interests. Many of them went unmarketed, included a three-dimensional chess game, a device to aid blind painters by using musical notes to identify colors and an instrument of revenge against telemarketers who interrupted dinner.
When a pitchman called, the harassed resident could press a code that alerted the marketer that he would be liable for a surcharge for continuing the call.
Mr. Greene was a critic of Great Society anti-poverty programs of the 1960s as ineffective, a waste of taxpayer dollars and a disincentive to work.
In 1974, Mr. Greene founded the White Plains-based Institute for SocioEconomic Studies, which advocated reforms to the tax, health-care and welfare systems. With very limited success, he pushed for eliminating the welfare bureaucracy in favor of providing a guaranteed minimum income.
An avid sailor, Mr. Greene became a technical adviser to several America's Cup races before buying two-time winner Courageous from Ted Turner in the early 1980s. Despite several of Mr. Greene's modifications to the keel, the boat's age remained a problem, and his team withdrew during the 1986 competition.
In 1981, Mr. Greene, whose second wife died of cancer, helped start and finance Corporate Angel Network, which arranges free transportation on corporate jets for cancer patients. To date, the organization says it has flown more than 25,000 patients to treatment centers nationwide. Mr. Greene piloted several of the patients himself.
Mr. Greene's marriages to Beverly Kaufman Greene and Joyce Teck Greene ended in divorce. His second wife, Phyllis Saks Greene, an heiress of the Saks Fifth Avenue department store family, died in 1965.
A son from the second marriage, Donald Greene, died Sept. 11, 2001, aboard United Airlines Flight 93 when it crashed in Pennsylvania.
Survivors include three children from the first marriage; four children from the second marriage; 17 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.