UCAR > Communications > Staff Notes > November 1994 Search

Celebration of a Renaissance Man: The Joachim Kuettner Symposium

Photo of Joach Kuettner at 
As UCAR president Rick Anthes (left) looks on, SCD documentation production coordinator Christine Guzy (right) presents Joach Kuettner with a scrapbook of memorabilia that she assembled from friends and colleagues worldwide. Joach hired Christine to work on the Monsoon Experiment (MONEX) in 1978. (Photo by Bob Bumpas.)

Webster's defines a Renaissance man as "a man having varied interests and expertise in several areas." Those who came from near and far to celebrate the 85th birthday of UCAR scientist Joach Kuettner at the Joachim P. Kuettner Symposium (18-19 October) bear witness that the definition fits this man for all seasons to a T. Joach's present activities with NCAR and UCAR are only the latest chapter in a one-of-a-kind career that spans over 60 years.

Born in what was then the German city of Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland), Joach--pronounced "yahk"--was the son of Hermann Kčttner, a well-known surgeon, and Johanna, an accomplished violinist. According to Joach, his mother was one of the first German women to attend a university and his father, a professor at the University of Breslau, was the first physician to use x-rays in medicine. Joach's father became internationally known when, as head of several Red Cross missions, he used x-rays for operations involving bullets and broken bones during such turn-of-the-century military conflicts as the Greek-Turkish war, the Boxer Rebellion in China, and the Boer War in South Africa.

When Joach began university studies at age 17, he took with him his father's love of nature and his mother's love of music. Although Joach was attracted to medicine, music, and a range of sciences, he finally decided to study law and economics. He was the youngest person to obtain the doctorate at the University of Breslau, graduating in 1931 at the tender age of 21.

Meteorology wins out

Serving as a judge's assistant in small-town German courts while learning to be a glider pilot, Joach found himself looking wistfully out of the courtroom window at cumulus clouds and realized that his real interest lay in meteorology. Although Joach had been one of the best in his high school class at mathematics, he realized he had to renew what he had learned, which he did by isolating himself on a small island in the North Sea for three months. From there, he went to Finland to study meteorology and teach at a new gliding school. There, he became acquainted with several famous meteorologists. Because of his high regard for Paul Raethjen, a theoretical physicist considered far ahead of his time, Joach chose to earn his second doctorate--this one in meteorology--at the University of Hamburg.

Joach chose the newly discovered phenomenon of lee waves for his dissertation topic. To explore it, he organized a totally unfunded field project using 25 gliders (previously assembled for a competition) equipped with altitude and temperature recorders. Joach's work proved that the lee updrafts were not due to a lee vortex or a displaced slope updraft, but instead to a wave phenomenon. His doctorate, completed in 1939, contained the first detailed description of lee waves and a hypothesis based on hydrostatic theory.

Before Joach could begin his career as a research meteorologist, World War II intervened. In the Luftwaffe (the German air force), Joach received intense training in flying single- and multi-engine aircraft, hoping that he would be assigned to weather reconnaissance rather than combat. His wish was not granted, however, and he ended up flight-testing various aircraft, among them the Gigant, which was then the world's largest airplane. When, during a test of this aircraft, it broke apart at eight kilometers, Joach bailed out-- managing to open his parachute only 200 meters above ground.

After the war, Joach spent three years at the meteorological observatory at the summit of the Zugspitze, at 2,963 meters the highest point in the Bavarian Alps. There he determined the polarity of the electric field during frequent summertime lightning strikes and developed a theory of charge generation in thunderstorms. Joach also healed his soul from the horrors of the war by studying and writing about the flight of birds.

California, Mt. Washington, and NASA

Joach was visited on the Zugspitze by Wolfgang Klemperer, a well-known aerodynamicist and glider pilot who had emigrated from Germany to the United States. Klemperer suggested that Joach participate in a research project on mountain waves with the University of California and the Southern California Soaring Association. Emigrating to the States, Joach joined the U.S. Air Force/Cambridge Laboratories and its Sierra Wave Project, which studied mountain waves with instrumented gliders and powered aircraft. The project successfully documented the mesoscale structure and propagation characteristics of lee waves; it also allowed Joach to combine his keen interest in meteorology's unanswered questions, skills as a project field director, and love of soaring. He set two world altitude records of 11,500 meters for two- seater gliders and 13,000 meters for single-seaters (the latter still a German record).

Soon afterward, Joach became the scientific director of New Hampshire's Mt. Washington Observatory, researching precipitation processes and atmospheric electricity. But his work at Mt. Washington was interrupted in 1958 by an even greater challenge. Wernher von Braun, the German rocket pioneer, invited Joach to Huntsville, Alabama, to develop and direct the first spaceflight project to carry a human.

Joach and his team put together a proposal for the first suborbital flight, which eventually became the Mercury project. Some 2000 reporters witnessed the successful launch of Alan Shepard in his space capsule at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on 5 May 1961. In Joach's words, "Everything went perfectly." Soon afterward, President Kennedy agreed to support flying a human to the moon, Congress accepted it, and voila--the Apollo project was born.

As head of Apollo's systems integration, Joach worked closely with the project astronauts, especially Frank Borman. But once the design stage of Apollo was completed, it became clear in Joach's eyes that it would pose a monumental management problem. "There were 40,000 contractors and a budget of $20 billion," he recalls. "This sort of work had little appeal for me, and I told von Braun that I was thinking of leaving to go back to being a scientist." Joach next served as chief space scientist with the National Environmental Satellite Center, part of the Environmental Sciences Services Administration, headed by Bob White (later to become president of UCAR).

The World According to GARP

The seeds for Joach's first international project leadership post were sown in 1969 when Joach directed the field phase of the Barbados Oceanographic Meteorological Experiment (BOMEX), a large U.S.-Canadian project to study air-sea interaction in the subtropical Atlantic. While in Barbados, Joach and colleagues were visited by the famed Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, who arrived from Morocco aboard his Egyptian reed boat, Ra.

By the early 1970s, plans were afoot for the largest-ever meteorological field experiment, the Global Atmospheric Research Program (GARP). Joach joined the World Meteorological Organization and was appointed international director of the GARP Atlantic Tropical Experiment (GATE), which he designed with Norman Rider of the United Kingdom, Igor Sitnikov of the former Soviet Union, and the help of other leading scientists. GATE's purpose was to investigate the global atmosphere's heat engine over the tropical Atlantic Ocean and adjacent land masses of West Africa and South America. Launched in 1974, GATE involved several thousand participants from 75 countries, 39 ships, and 13 research aircraft. Twenty years later, research is still going on based on the GATE data, which are now regarded as a classic set of data on the tropical atmosphere and oceans.

Joach's next field program was the Monsoon Experiment (MONEX), which studied the large summer and winter monsoons over the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, respectively. (In the latter, bursts of cold air from Siberia and China penetrate far south towards the equator and Australia.) Headquarters for the Winter MONEX was at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, while summer operations were based first in Az Zahran (Dhahran), Saudi Arabia; Bombay, India; and Calcutta, India.

The last of the GARP field programs was a return to one of Joach's first passions. The Alpine Experiment (ALPEX), operating in March and April 1982, studied mountain-induced development of lee cyclones over the Mediterranean Sea with equipment that included the NCAR-operated Electra aircraft.

Today and Tomorrow

The early 1990s have taken Joach back to the tropics. He was briefly acting director of the Tropical Ocean and Global Atmosphere Program's Coupled Ocean-Atmosphere Response Experiment (TOGA COARE). Immediately afterward, in 1992, he jointly directed the Central Pacific Experiment with V. Ramanathan (Scripps Institution of Oceanography). CEPEX investigated the "thermostat hypothesis" that tries to explain why the world's tropical sea- surface temperatures never exceed 31 degrees C. Presently Joach is involved in planning the Mesoscale Alpine Project (MAP) involving 12 European countries (Joach predicts the United States will eventually participate). The goal of MAP is to investigate the influence of orography on mesoscale weather events on a smaller scale than ALPEX.

Since the late 1980s, Joach has collaborated with Bob Grossman (University of Colorado) and Terry Clark (Mesoscale and Microscale Meteorology Division) in the Convection Wave Experiment, using the NCAR-operated Sabreliner and King Air and NASA's Electra aircraft. "Glider pilots had discovered that cumulus clouds cause wave updrafts on their outside by acting as obstacles in moderate wind shear," says Joach. "Similar to mountain waves, they can extend up to the tropopause, and you can soar and climb in these waves with a glider." Recently Terry, Joach, and a German colleague have simulated these cumulus waves numerically, finding that the clouds form the initial waves but the waves then feed back into the cumulus clouds and determine their spacing.

"I've been with Joach on field experiments for the past 25 years, beginning with BOMEX in 1969," says Grossman. "If one were to describe Joach succinctly, one would have to use the adjectives 'focused', 'curious', and 'expansive'. My relationship with him can't be put into a single quote because he's been a friend, mentor, and occasionally even a student of mine. He treats me like family."

Another colleague, E. B. (Gus) Emanuel, is head of the NOAA Environmental Technology Laboratory's Office of Programs and currently assigned to UCAR's TOGA COARE International Project Office. Emanuel collaborated closely with Joach during field programs in Switzerland, India, Malaysia, and Senegal as well as in TOGA COARE. "Joach never has a negative thing to say and always makes you feel what you are doing is worthwhile," says Emanuel. "I have the greatest respect for him."

These sentiments echoed throughout the symposium in comments from other friends and colleagues. Happy 85th birthday, Joach, from all of us who have had the privilege of knowing you.
--Joan Vandiver Frisch, Media Relations

Events from Joach's youth and professional career were largely excerpted from "The Bulletin Interviews," Bulletin of the World Meteorological Organization (October 1989).


One of Joach's glider flights in Germany during the 1930s gave him more than he bargained for. To research how high gliders might be able to soar, Joach decided to ride a huge wave cloud in a small open glider. Joach knew he had to end the experiment when oxygen deprivation went to work: he began seeing two suns, could not feel his feet anymore, and noticed that his fingernails had turned blue (the temperature was around -45 degrees C). Joach made his escape by flying alongside the wave cloud, eventually landing at a Polish village far from his departure point. A check of the thermobarograph attached to the wing of the glider revealed that Joach had reached around 7,000 meters--a world record, though not officially submitted as such.

This summary of the Kuettner Symposium program lists the various participants and how their lives intertwined with Joach's.

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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
Last revised: Wed Mar 29 12:20:53 MST 2000