Rens H. Swan, 90, engineer on Boeing team that developed the Chinook helicopter

Rens H. Swan, 90, of Springfield, Delaware County, a Boeing Vertol mechanical engineer who worked on the first developmental team for the Chinook helicopter, died Friday, Aug. 25, of a brain aneurysm at Penn Hospice Care at Rittenhouse in Philadelphia.

Camera icon Courtesy of the family
Rens H. Swan, a Navy electronic technician, served in World War II.

Mr. Swan was a veteran of World War II, in which he served as a Navy electronics technician. After being honorably discharged, he began his engineering career with the Piasecki Helicopter Corp. in Essington, and then worked for its successor, Vertol Aircraft Corp., which became Boeing Vertol and finally the Boeing Co. in Ridley Township, Delaware County.

His career spanned 41 years, ending with his retirement in 1991.

He was Boeing’s manager of weight technology – the technical discipline that balances the heft and moment of every component of a new product to ensure its safe, efficient performance. In that role, he was involved in virtually every aircraft project, trade study and major proposal effort during his tenure there. He was on the first developmental crew for the Chinook helicopter, according to a Boeing rotorcraft history.

The first helicopters were built by Piasecki Aircraft for the Navy, Air Force and Army. Though known as workhorses, the helicopters were hobbled by the spotty performance of their piston engines. In 1956, when Piasecki Aircraft became Vertol, work began in earnest to develop the Model 107 helicopter with turbine propulsion. Once the latter was created, the piston-engine helicopter became moot.

Vertol created a team of engineers to handle the project. They included: Tom Peppler, Vertol’s chief design engineer; Dick Degan, a project engineer; Tom Griffith, a design engineer; Joe Mallen, an aerodynamics specialist; Mr. Swan, a weight specialist; and Ken Grina, who specialized in engineering structures.

“These veterans rank among the finest rotary-wing engineers the United States has ever produced,” Boeing said in the history.

“He was very humble about it, though,” said his daughter, Beryl Pugliese.

In 1960, Boeing acquired Vertol. The move provided funding and manufacturing expertise critical to the Models 107 and 114, which in service were called the H-46 Sea Knight and H-47 Chinook. Production of the two peaked in the early 1970s, when Boeing Vertol turned out 30 large helicopters a month for use in the Vietnam War, the rotorcraft history said.

Mr. Swan was a member of the Society of Aircraft Weight Engineers.  He was a member of the Boeing Lifetime Management Committee and the American Helicopter Society.

Even in retirement from 1991 until 2013, Mr. Swan continued to make a contribution as a consultant at Piasecki Aircraft, said the firm’s president and CEO, John Piasecki, the son of company founder Frank Piasecki. “I’ve known Rens all my life. He worked for my dad,” Piasecki said.

“Rens continued spending time and effort educating a whole new generation of young engineers,” Piasecki said.

Born in Bristol, Mr. Swan was a graduate of West Philadelphia High School and Drexel Institute of Technology, with a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering. While in high school and college, Mr. Swan was a champion diver and gymnast. He was a resident of Springfield, Delaware County, for the past 65 years.

He was an active and devoted member of the Springfield-based Covenant United Methodist Church, where he taught seventh-grade Sunday School, served on the board of trustees, was chairman of the property committee, and participated in the Covenant men’s breakfast group. He was a confirmation mentor and a participant in mission trips with the church’s Appalachian Service Project.

He headed the Wednesday Willing Workers at Covenant. “They were a group of retired men who would go to the church every Wednesday and do odd jobs,” his daughter said. “He loved it.”

Mr. Swan had many hobbies. As an accomplished woodworker, he created hope chests, coffee tables, toys, clocks, and home decorations. He enjoyed camping vacations with his family, and traveling across the country with his wife, Jane Spear Swan, until her death in 2014.

Over the years, Mr. Swan took up skiing, working on his computer, softball, and listening to music. He especially enjoyed bike riding with his brother, William Swan.

“He could fix just about anything, and he built TVs and stereos from scratch,” his daughter said.  “It was a kit that would come in the mail back in the 1970s. He would put the TV together, and it worked.”

Besides his daughter and brother, Mr. Swan is survived by daughters Bonnie Swan, Barbara Swan, and Betsy Pritchard; 12 grandchildren; nine great-grandchildren; and many nieces and nephews. Two great-grandsons died earlier.

A visitation starting at 10 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 31, will be followed by an 11 a.m. funeral service at the Covenant United Methodist Church, 212 W. Springfield Rd., Springfield, Pa. 19064. Interment will be in the church memorial garden.

Donations may be made to the Covenant United Methodist Church building fund at the address above.