An explorer's life

Joachim Kuettner heads for the skies

4 March 2011  •  Atmospheric science has lost one of the last living links to its formative era. Joachim Kuettner—the eminent researcher, administrator, field project leader, and glider pilot—died on 24 February at the age of 101.

Joach Kuettner on gliding expedition, 1950s
A record-setting glider pilot, Joachim Kuettner used these aircraft as atmospheric sensing tools for decades, as was the case in the Sierra Wave Project of the 1950s.

Kuettner’s seven-decade career was saluted in a 2009 UCAR Magazine article and in a daylong symposium at the American Meteorological Society’s 2010 annual meeting. In addition, a website with links to many articles and videos by and about Kuettner has been created by the NCAR Archives.

“Joach was a remarkable colleague with an amazing, rich history. His collaborative spirit, energy, kindness, and sense of humor will be greatly missed by all,” says UCAR president Richard Anthes. 

Born and raised in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), Kuettner initially studied economics and law. At 21, he became the youngest person to earn a doctorate at the University of Breslau. However, his career would soon shift toward science, as described in a 1994 profile in UCAR & NCAR Staff Notes: “Serving as a judge’s assistant in small-town German courts while learning to be a glider pilot, Joach found himself looking wistfully out of the courtroom window at cumulus clouds and realized that his real interest lay in meteorology.”

Kuettner successfully combined his new interests, beginning in the late 1930s. His doctoral dissertation at the University of Hamburg analyzed the dynamics of lee waves as observed by a fleet of instrumented gliders. After emigrating to the United States, Kuettner learned even more as scientific field director for the Sierra Wave Project in California during the 1950s. (His U.S. arrival was a bit rocky, as he explains in this short video from 2009). Kuettner’s interest in gliding was more than academic: he set two world altitude records, in one case soaring to 13,000 meters (43,000 feet) in a single-seat glider. 

Joachim Kuettner disembarks from HIAPER during T-REX
Still an active investigator into his 90s, Kuettner took part in the California-based Terrain-Induced Rotor Experiment in 2006. The project was the first major deployment for HIAPER, the NSF/NCAR Gulfstream V.

The next phase of Kuettner’s extraordinary career began in 1958 as he was asked to lead NASA's Mercury Redstone effort, which in 1961 made Alan Shepard the first American to head into space. As Kuettner later described that launch, “Everything went perfectly.”

Kuettner later served as head of systems integration for the Apollo project before transitioning to leadership roles in observational field campaigns. Among the projects under his watch were 1969’s Barbados Oceanographic Meteorological Experiment (BOMEX), 1974’s GARP Atlantic Tropical Experiment (GATE), and 1992’s Central Pacific Experiment (CEPEX). Most recently, he was principal investigator on 2004’s Terrain-Induced Rotor Experiment (T-Rex), which took him back to the Sierra Nevada.

“If one were to describe Joach succinctly, one would have to use the adjectives focused, curious, and expansive,” said longtime collaborator Robert Grossman (University of Colorado) in a 1994 article. Kuettner was also renowned for his supportive working style and his extensive mentoring.

Kuettner’s career took a new turn in 1994 when, at age 84, he became the first holder of the UCAR Distinguished Chair for Atmospheric Science and International Research. The initial appointment was for two years, but it continued well into the 2000s, as Kuettner’s unquenchable thirst for discovery kept him in touch with many colleagues at NCAR, UCAR, and beyond. 

Kuettner’s family has requested no flowers or contributions. “Since there were several large public celebrations of my father’s professional life, we’ve decided to have a small, private memorial service for the family only,” says Kuettner’s son, Peter.


Joachim Kuettner in 1999
This portrait of Kuettner was taken in 2009 at the NCAR Mesa Laboratory, close to his 100th birthday. In a brief video interview the same day, he recalled his first days in the United States.


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