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Air born: Bruce Del Mar

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An accomplished pilot, Bruce Del Mar (B.S.’37 ME), seen here in 1988, says he was lucky to land a job with Douglas Aircraft just as the industry was taking off.
PHOTO COURTESY BRUCE DEL MAR

Like a lot of kids, Bruce Del Mar (B.S.’37 ME) built model airplanes. Unlike most, though, he went on to fly real ones and patent several inventions that would support the burgeoning military and commercial aircraft industry. At Del Mar’s 95th birthday party last year, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin was a guest.

The son of a mining engineer, Del Mar grew up in Pasadena. He graduated from high school in the middle of the Great Depression and attended UCLA for two years, living at home and driving to campus in his 1932 convertible “rumble seat” Ford to keep costs down. In the summers, he worked for Douglas Aircraft Company to help pay his way through school. Transferring to Cal to finish his degree, Del Mar met one of his mentors, Professor John Younger, an expert on metal airplane design.

“I latched onto him like glue,” says Del Mar, who stayed in Berkeley an extra year so he could take a course from Younger on cabin pressurization, which allowed people to comfortably fly above 10,000 feet without oxygen masks. Back at Douglas after college, Del Mar was all fired up to build a plane using the principles he had learned. “They said, ‘Bruce, we haven’t quite got there yet,’” he recalls. “I said, ‘That’s why I’m here, to design the first one!’”

That he did, working with German engineer Wolfgang Klemperer (responsible for the dirigibles that predated the Goodyear blimp) to co-patent the first pressurization system of a commercial aircraft. In 1952, he founded Del Mar Engineering Laboratories in Santa Monica, California, to build targeting systems for military aircraft. And in 1963, he was the first to patent and produce the Holter monitor, an electrocardiogram system that allowed physicians to track their patients’ hearts 24/7.

Del Mar Avionics, as it’s called today, located in Irvine, California, produces HydraSet, a hydraulic lifting device used to hoist space shuttles onto 747s for transport to Cape Kennedy and move fuel rods in nuclear power plants. The remote-controlled units—sandwiched between a crane and its cargo—can lift 250 tons to within 0.001 inch (the size of a dust particle) of a specified location.

In his autobiography, Ready for Takeoff, due out next year, Del Mar reflects on a life filled with lofty aspirations and mile-high accomplishments. Although there are still great heights to be discovered, he says he feels lucky to have landed where he did.

“The 20th was a century of opportunity for invention because scientific knowledge kept opening up,” he says. “I was there. I’m a product of that century. I had the brains and physiology to go with it and the desire to succeed.”