Wong Tsoo

Wong Tsoo 王助 (1893-1965, Class of 1916, MS 1917), a native of Nangong in Hebei Province, was born in Beijing and studied at the Yantai Naval Academy (煙臺海軍學校) before being sent as a cadet to study naval architecture and mechanical engineering in England (image). Owing to the outbreak of World War I, the Chinese government transferred Wong to MIT, where he joined the recently-launched program in aeronautical engineering.[1] Wong was part of a cluster of Chinese students who were among the first to receive degrees in aeronautical engineering, a course of study established in 1914 by Jerome Hunsaker, including: Hou Kun Chow (MS 1915), Charles Hsi Chiang (MS 1917), Wai Po Loo (MS 1917), Tsao Yu [Ba Yu Cao] (MS 1917), Shao Fung Wong (MS 1917), Wong Zen Tze (MS 1918), and Zhou Heng Huang (MS 1918). Indeed, Chinese students were so closely associated with the new study of aeronautical engineering, that the 1917 issue of the Technique mockingly wrote that [an unnamed individual’s] fledgling efforts in aviation had earned him a position of instructor at MIT, teaching the Chinese students aviation:

"Why does he teach the Chinese aviation?

Oh, because they are the only ones who are foolish enough to believe he knows enough about it, and also they are the only ones nervy enough to take the course."[2]

Together with classmate Tsao Yu (Class of 1916, MS 1917), better known as Ba Yu Cao, Wong wrote his master’s thesis on Air Resistance of Cylinder Combinations (May 1916), using data they obtained from experiments in the MIT wind tunnel.[3] Wong also had an internship at Curtiss Aeroplane & Motor Company, and learned to fly at the Curtiss Flying Boat School in Buffalo, New York. After finishing his degree, Wong was recommended by Hunsaker to MIT alum George Conrad Westervelt, a Navy engineer who had worked with William Boeing on the design of the "B&W," Boeing's first airplane. Apparently, Boeing was so impressed by Westervelt’s account of Wong, that he cabled him: "Engage Chinaman."[4] Through Westervelt, Wong became the first chief engineer hired by the new Boeing Company in Seattle, and he designed Boeing’s first mass-produced airplane, the Model C training seaplane. Both Westervelt and Boeing had to convince Wong to take the job, owing to Seattle's notorious reputation for anti-Chinese agitation after the Seattle Riot of 1886, which drove over 200 Chinese from the city.[5] According to Boeing accounts, Bill Boeing personally guaranteed Wong’s safety for his first year of employment.[6] Using data from the MIT wind tunnel, Wong designed the Model C, the first military plane and first mail plane built by Boeing. When the U.S. Navy adopted the Model C for use in World War I, it led to Boeing's first financial success. In 1917, Wong returned to China together with aviation classmates Ba Yu Cao (巴玉藻) and Wong Shao Fung (王孝豐) to develop China's aviation industry. Along with a fourth man, Tseng Yee King, the three MIT alums (now lieutenants in the Chinese Navy) were placed in charge of establishing the country's first airplane manufacturing facility at Mawei in Fuzhou (image). Ba became Director of the Naval Air Establishment set up by the Chinese Navy at the Mawei Naval Shipyard ( "Foochow Dock"), and Wong Associate Director. Continuing their collaborations from their MIT student days, they built the first Chinese floatplanes, the Sea Eagle and the River Bird, and in 1922, designed the world's first floating seaplane hanger.[7] In 1928, Wong became Director of the Aviation Bureau of Navy General Headquarters. MIT connections also played a role in the formation of the China National Aviation Corporation (originally, China Airways), founded in 1929 by agreement of the Curtiss-Wright Corporation and the Chinese government. Wong’s old friend Westervelt was sent out to China to handle negotiations, and he hired Wong as chief engineer. Tragically, Ba was assassinated by Japanese spies in 1929, and the Navy dispatched Wong take his position directing the naval aircraft engineering department. Wong would also adopt Ba’s son. As a colonel in the Chinese Army, Wong supervised the construction of the nation's first fleet of military aircraft at a new facility established in Hangzhou in 1933 with the Curtiss-affiliated Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO).[8] CAMCO assembled Curtiss airplanes, including Hawk II and Hawk III fighter-bombers. Following the Japanese invasion of China, CAMCO was compelled to move operations inland, to Hankow and then Loiwing. Wong’s engineering ingenuity came into play during the war, as materials were virtually impossible to obtain, and Wong built bamboo gliders to carry troops. Wong was likely familiar with his classmate Hou-Kun Chow’s experiments and publications on bamboo as a building material, and may have built on this knowledge. Wong also designed a water rudder for an amphibious craft that was used by Lindbergh when he was in China.[9] With assistance from the Americans, the fledgling Chinese aviation industry and air force were pivotal in the war against Japan -- and Wong, as a pioneer of Chinese aviation, played a vital role in this history. Wong made numerous contributions to the development of aeronautical research in China, helping found the Chinese Bureau of Aeronautical Research in 1940, and becoming head of the Aviation Research Academy five years later. Wong also kept up the MIT connection by teaching in Tsinghua’s engineering college, where he encouraged aspiring aeronautical engineers to pursue further training at the Institute. One of his students was Tsien Hsueh-sun/Qian Xuesen, who would go on to become the "father of Chinese rocket science." Following the Communist takeover of China, Wong fled to Taiwan, where he became a professor of aeronautical engineering at the National Cheng-Kung University. He died in 1965.[10] Wong is today celebrated not only as one of the “fathers” of Chinese aviation, but also as "The Chinese Birdman Who Got U.S. Aircraft Giant Boeing Flying."[11]




[1] https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E7%8E%8B%E5%8A%A9

[2] Technique, 1917, 450.

[3] Institute Archives - Noncirculating Collection 3 | Thesis Aero 1916 M.S.

[4] Wings for China

[5] Seattle Riot

[6] Jetgala.

[7] James Fallows, China Airborne: The Test of China's Future.

[8] CAMCO. CAMCO photo.

[9] On Westervelt

[10] Eve Dumovich, "The 1st...and the Best." Challenge, Dec. 2006, 46-47.

[11] Wall Street Journal. Numerous other accounts of Wong Tsoo can be found online, including: http://proj.ncku.edu.tw/research/commentary/e/20110218/1.html