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Alvin Howell, 96; professor led spy balloon project

Dr. Alvin Howell, 96, a former Tufts University professor who led the first team to send an unmanned balloon around the world, died of heart failure Sunday at his home in Arlington.

The 1957 around-the-world flight of the 400-foot-tall balloon was a triumph, but Dr. Howell never got a chance to revel publicly in the achievement: It was a top-secret spy flight funded by the Air Force to gather intelligence on the former Soviet Union.

"I had a top-secret clearance, and you keep your trap shut," Dr. Howell said in a story published in the Wichita Eagle in 2002.

It was a clear, cool morning at the Naval Auxiliary Air Station in Vernalis, Calif., when Dr. Howell and a team of about 40 engineers and technicians inflated and released the light-gray helium balloon.

The balloon circled 20 miles over the earth's surface at 100 miles per hour, taking photographs through a telescope at programmed intervals.

Twenty-eight days later, the photographic equipment detached from the balloon and parachuted down to the surface of the Pacific, where it was retrieved.

"The high-altitude balloons were used when the military had no other mechanism for flying over Russia," Denis Fermental, a professor of electrical engineering at Tufts University, said yesterday. "They used them until they got the spy planes going."

Dr. Howell was the second of nine children born on a family farm in Sedgwick, Kan. The farm didn't have running water or electricity. "Basically he didn't have either until he went to college," his son Harry, of Cambridge, said yesterday.

Dr. Howell began plowing with a horse team when he was 7 years old. "His father had to hitch the horses for him, but then he was on his own," said his son. By the time he was 11, he was controlling a four-horse hitch.

An electric train passed about a mile from the farm, and Dr. Howell became fascinated by the converters and high-voltage equipment.

"I though, 'Gee,' wouldn't that be wonderful to work with?" Dr. Howell said in the 2002 story.

After borrowing money from a family friend to attend school, he graduated from the University of Kansas, earned a master's degree in electrical engineering at Michigan College of Mining and Technology, and received a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dr. Howell joined the Tufts faculty in 1940; he was chairman of the electrical engineering department from 1941 to 1970.

"He was old-school -- a very serious scientist," Tufts professor Sol Gittleman said yesterday.

"The thing that was most impressive about him was not his brain, which was exceedingly good, but his energy," his son said.

His son said that during his father's career, Dr. Howell launched about 300 balloons. It took about five days to prepare each for flight. He brought three teams of technicians with him, and they each worked eight-hour shifts, so work could continue 24 hours a day. Dr. Howell rarely slept. "He stayed awake for the five days, " said his son.

"He personally checked things off because he knew there are thousands of things that could go wrong and if any one of them does, the whole flight is a failure."

After his spy flights, Dr. Howell adapted his balloons to make high-altitude spectrographic examination of the moon for NASA before the first moon landing, and to study the stars.

"He was an exceptional engineer, very creative, if a little brusque," said Fermental, a former student who worked with him on his balloon research. "He was a very hard worker who put in very long hours.

"He wanted everything he did to be as close to perfection as possible."

After retiring from Tufts, Dr. Howell was a member of the board of directors of Doble Engineering Co. in Watertown until his retirement earlier this year.

"He worked hard at it, too," said his son. "He worked right up until the end."

In addition to his son, Dr. Howell leaves a daughter, Betty of California; two other sons, John of Indiana and Gordon Fletcher-Howell of Amherst; five grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; and his companion, Marianne D'Amico of Arlington.

A funeral will be held tomorrow at 11 a.m. in First Baptist Church in Arlington. Burial will be in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Arlington.

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