The Most Important Innovator In U.S. Aviation History Was An Immigrant

News of the Trump administration's executive orders restricting travelers from certain countries caused many tech companies and their employees to express their objections.

The reasons are obvious: immigrants are vital to preserving U.S. leadership in technology and innovation.

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff tweeted a tribute to his grandfather, "Thinking of great grandfather Issac Benioff who came to US from Kiev as Refugee. W/O him no @Salesforce (2M jobs/200B GDP) or@GameOfThrones!" (Benioff's cousin, David, is the co-creator of the hit TV series.)

Another area vital to U.S. interests is aviation and aeronautical engineering. Alexander Kartveli, who was perhaps the most important innovator in U.S. aviation history, came to the U.S. on the heels of the Bolshevick revolution.

Kartveli emigrated from his home country of Georgia to pursue a dream to design aircraft.  In the 1920s and 1930s, aviation captured the imagination of entrepreneurs and financiers looking for glory and riches – not unlike today’s Internet boom.   Fleeing the Bolsheviks, Kartveli moved to Paris, studied aviation and, in his early 20s, designed an aircraft for Louis Bleriot that established a world speed record.

As a result of early success in the Paris aviation scene, Kartveli met and eventually moved to the United States to work with entrepreneur Charles Levine.  When Levine’s aviation company failed, Kartveli joined forces again as chief engineer for Alexander de Seversky, another early aviation pioneer who also happened to be born in Tbilisi, Georgia.  Seversky Aircraft eventually become Republic Aviation, a major force in aircraft manufacturing through World War II and the conflicts that followed shortly thereafter.

At Republic Aviation, Kartveli oversaw the design of some of the era’s most important fighter planes including the A-10 Thunderbolt II (nicknamed the “Warthog”), the P-47 Thunderbolt (nicknamed the “Jug”), the F-84 Thunderjet (nicknamed the “Hog”) and the F-105 Thunderchief.  In fact, the A-10 remains in service today, nearly five decades after it was introduced, despite quantum leaps in aviation technology.

Kartveli design the famous P-47 and the A-10 Warthog

Kartveli design the famous P-47 and the A-10 Warthog

Today, the tech industry has been anxiously waiting for the Trump administration's revamp of the H-1B visa program, which Silicon Valley uses to hire skilled workers. Late last week, the administration jettisoned an aspect of the H-1B visa application process called "premium processing," which allowed companies to pay extra for their visa applications to be expedited.

That change underscored the uncertainty in the industry over how the Trump administration will ultimately handle both work visas and travel restrictions.

Kartveli’s contributions were not limited to Republic Aviation.  His capacity to translate ideas into reality led to his role as an advisor to the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, the predecessor to NASA, where he contributed designs that proved to be the seed concepts for the space shuttle.  NASA's History Office, in "The Space Shuttle Decision" published in 1999, references Kartveli's work on ramjet technology.  Kartveli and Antonio Ferri collaborated on some notable early ramjet designs.

It is hard to imagine what would have happened had Kartveli remained in Georgia and his talents absorbed by the Soviets.