Merle Economu's Contributions to Flight Test Have Far-Reaching Effects

Many industries have a pivotal figure that is so influential or develops contributions so innovative as to fundamentally change the way things are done.

In the flight test instrumentation sensors world that person was Merle Economu, chief engineer at SpaceAge Control based in Palmdale, California. Now deceased, Merle led SpaceAge Control's engineering efforts from 1972 until his death in 1991.

string potentiometer also known as string pot
Specialty position transducer developed for flight control surface monitoring

Building on experience obtained by working at what is now NASA's Dryden Flight Test Center, Merle jointly developed a new type of position sensor that allowed for key aircraft performance data to be quickly and accurately acquired. This device, known then as a CPT (cable position transducer), converts the linear motion of various aircraft components into rotary motion that can be sensed by reliable potentiometers and then recorded or used as a control mechanism.

This fundamental device is used today in a broad range of applications ranging from environmental control systems on manned space vehicles to Formula 1 race cars to ocean-going vessels.

miniature string potentiometer also known as string pot
Early miniature position transducer that set the standard for "small."

Before the CPT, aircraft instrumentation technicians and engineers had to design and fabricate special-purpose measurement devices each time a new measurement requirement came up. Today, this type of device is used for test, production, control, and OEM use in over 50 countries in industries ranging from aerospace to medical to automotive to industrial control.

These markets select these products to obtain the same benefits Merle Economu designed in over 30 years ago: flexibility, small size, durability, and accuracy.

Merle was also an innovator in the development of air data booms that are used to gather airspeed, altitude, temperature, and air flow information. One of his most significant contributions was the joint development with NASA of the 100400 mini air data boom which set the standard for small, lightweight (less than 6 oz.) air data measurement probes for flight test aircraft.

air data boom (pitot static)
The world's most frequently-used air data boom for rotary wing aircraft

Through his career at NASA Dryden and SpaceAge Control, Merle received a number of patents on designs related to sensors and instrumentation.

Note: Thank you to Shirley Economu for providing background information and photos for this article.