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Ken Iliff
Chief Scientist
NASA Dryden Flight Research Center

Picture: Ken Iliff


I got Polio when I was nine years old. When I was struck, I couldn't turn over in bed for 6 months. I was completely paralyzed but since then I have some movement back. Little by little I got well enough so I could sit and I have been in a wheelchair since 1950. I now have some use of my hands and arms. In those days they made people stay in hospitals a lot longer, and I went through school with an intercom system most of the time which was hooked up from the school to a hospital or my home.

I never looked at the polio that negatively. My goal was to be on my own and to be useful and successful in my own mind. I looked at it as a kind of experiment, like I had a different set of abilities from other kids and I had to see what I could do with my abilities. And I had wonderful support from my family.

I was fortunately good at science and math. I could do these studies without my disabilities being a handicap. I went through grade and high school and got a BS from Iowa State. I then got a degree in aerospace engineering at Iowa State and then got job with NASA Dryden Research Center in 1962. When I first started at Dryden, Neal Armstrong was a pilot here as were several other astronauts that I had a chance to work with.

While I was at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, I got an MS in Mechanical Engineering at USC in 1967, and a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering at UCLA in 1973. I finally added a Master of Business Engineering at UCLA. I guess I liked school!

After I got a job with NASA, they would have made special accommodation for my disabilities but they really didn't have to.

Question 1: Can you describe your job?

My title is Chief Scientist at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center. Basically I'm a research engineer. Our method is to fly aircraft to see how they perform. Then we look at how they behaved while they flew and try to figure out why they acted the way they did.

Question 2: How did you get interested in aeronautics?

My roommate at college was in aeronautical engineering. His laboratories, classes and the conversations he was having with his fellow students were pretty interesting so I majored in the same thing.

Question 3: Is learning math important if you want to have a career in aeronautics?

Learning math is the single thing that is the most important if you want to have a career in aeronautics. Without a solid math basis, you would find working in aeronautics very frustrating and confusing.

Question 4: What's easy and what's hard about your job?

You need to understand that I love my job and 90% of the time I enjoy coming to work. Almost everything I do in my job is fun - except the paper work. I don't mean technical or research papers, I mean filling out all those silly forms!

Question 5: Would you encourage young people to pursue careers in aeronautics?

Certainly, engineering is a great career. In a high technology society, you need to have great skills to succeed. If you are good at math, a job in aeronautics or engineering is hard to beat if you ask me.

Question 6: Would you encourage young people to pursue careers in math?

I would encourage young people because if you are good at math, you can always use it as a basis to train for another related field. Of course, you can always teach math but there is more demand in the workplace for using math within another field like physics, aeronautics, computer science, and so on.

Question 7: Is there anything you would like to say to young people with physical disabilities who are considering a career in aeronautics and/or math?

If you are trained and properly qualified in the kinds of math and aeronautics careers we have been talking about, then I think you will find that your handicap is a non-issue as far as a job is concerned. Being handicapped can actually be a plus, because it might help you be a little more dedicated with fewer distractions and more determination to succeed.

Question 8: What challenges, if any, have you dealt with in your career due to your disability?

Getting through colleges that were not accessible was probably the biggest obstacle for me, although that's not such a big problem now. Once I got into the workplace with NASA my disabilities have not been any handicap at all.

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