By Amanda Star Cline
Legendary people make brave life decisions, turn thoughts into actions, and do things that benefit the greater good. Legendary Las Colinian, Dr. Felix Fenter, is the first student to receive a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin in 1960. But this isn’t the only thing that makes Dr. Fenter interesting. His research, development, and management activities were major contributions to the aerospace industry, and much of the technology that he helped invent is still used today. This makes him a legend. This makes him incredible.
“We were pioneers and didn’t know it.” Dr. Fenter muses about his work on developing missiles and being part of the “Nation’s First Defense Against Tactical Missiles”.
“Ever since I was a toddler, I was fascinated with aviation, flying, and aircraft. In fact, I took flying lessons when I was 15 years old.” He built model airplanes, thinking about how they would work and how they would fly. His childhood fascination with all things aerodynamic and aeronautical would make a huge impact on United States defense capabilities.
The Paris, Texas native signed up for the Navy in 1944, right after his 18th birthday. However, before serving on the USS Helena, which would take him to China, Japan and Panama, he was sent to the USN Advanced Electronics School for training. The students were trained in ‘new’ classified technology like sonar and radar. This was well suited for Fenter who had built radios as a kid.
“I was a nerd, that word not having been invented yet, anyway,” he jokes.
Fenter promises that the Electronics School was more challenging than the aeronautical engineering school that he would go on to attend. He completed training and graduated to an Instructor, eventually teaching at the Advanced Electronic School, located in the naval base on Treasure Island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. Even though the school turned out 50 graduates per week, there was still a shortage of technicians during World War II so Fenter kept busy.
After serving in the military, Fenter started over, eventually landing at the University of Texas Aeronautical Engineering Program. Before he received the first-ever Doctor of Philosophy (P.h.d) in Aerospace Engineering awarded by The University of Texas at Austin, he did a 6-year stint as a research specialist in a lab. But this wasn’t just any lab, it was the University’s Defense Research Lab which was funded by defense contracts and carried out research for the Air Force, Navy, and other government operations including Project Bumblebee.
Project Bumblebee was initiated shortly after World War II and involved research and development to provide guided missiles that would protect our ships from enemy attacks. This pioneering program was very successful, and today’s Navy combat ships protect themselves with standard missiles which are direct descendants of the original Bumblebee missiles. Surface to air missiles (SAMs) incorporated guided missile technology and allowed for layered defense and long-range capabilities. Over the span of his career at the Chance Vought Aircraft Company in Dallas (and its successor companies), Dr. Fenter worked on Tactical Battlefield Missiles, defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles (SRHIT, Patriot PAC-3), the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS), Sidewinder Air-to-Air Missile (AIM-9 series), and many others.
In 1983, President Reagan announced at his annual State of the Union Address that the United States would develop a defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles. This program was a response to the threat of the Cold War and SCUD missiles developed by the Soviet Union. Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, also known as ‘Star Wars’, included the SRHIT that had been renamed to Flexible Lightweight Agile Guided Experiment (FLAGE). Dr. Fenter led the FLAGE initiative while serving as President of the Missile Division for the LTV Aerospace and Defense Company of Dallas. Thankfully, the defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles was never needed.
At age 70, Dr. Fenter, then President of the Loral Vought Systems Corporation, decided to retire. “…I made up my mind, long before, as the result of observing what goes on around me, that when I retired, no matter when it was, it’s going to be a short cut. I was going to get out of the way because we had seen nearly every top executive in the various divisions of the company, and in other companies where at 65 years, they were immediately hired as consultants.” Fenter wasn’t going to do that. He was going to retire strong and give his colleagues a chance to run the company, besides he wanted to do something else.
What does a retired engineer do? They help develop robotics technology to improve surgical procedures in the medical industry. At 91, the Legendary Las Colinian has blueprints of a single person aerodynamic watercraft on top of this desk, in the middle of his home office in Las Colinas. His lifelong research in missile defense gave the Nation capabilities of combating enemy missiles. He continues his work for the greater good by working to improve surgical procedures. This makes him a legend. This makes him incredible.