Photo courtesy of the Hollister family.
In 40 years at MIT, Walt Hollister authored or co-authored more than 75 technical papers on flight instrumentation and guidance, and co-authored the textbook “Gyroscopic Theory, Design, and Instrumentation.”

Professor Emeritus Walter Hollister, an expert in flight instrumentation and guidance, dies at 92

Walter M. Hollister ’53, MS ’59, PhD ’63, MIT professor emeritus in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro), passed away Sept. 9 at age 92. 

A resident of Lincoln, Massachusetts, Hollister was originally from Rye, New York. As a high school student, he was passionate about athletics, earning five varsity letters in sports. He held two undergraduate college degrees: a BA from Middlebury College, followed by a BS, which he earned in 1953 from MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. At MIT, he continued his passion for sports, playing rugby and running track.

Following his MIT undergraduate days, Hollister went to work for Sperry Gyroscope at March Air Force Base in Riverside, California, as an autopilot technical representative for Boeing’s B-47 Stratojet bomber. In 1954, Hollister joined the U.S. Navy, attending Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island, followed by flight training at the Pensacola Naval Air Station.

After serving as an attack jet pilot at Miramar Naval Air Station in California, Hollister returned to graduate school at MIT, earning master’s and doctorate degrees in 1959 and 1963, respectively, from the Department of AeroAstro. During that time, he was active in the Naval Air Force Reserve.

In 1960, Hollister met his future wife, Sally (Boston). They were married at her home near Oxford, England. While on their honeymoon, the Navy recalled him for a year of active duty. He was stationed at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station. His primary mission involved patrolling the Caribbean, taking aerial photos of Soviet ships bringing missiles to Cuba. His naval career eventually spanned 23 years, ultimately achieving the rank of captain, and including three years with an A-4 Skyhawk Jet Attack Squadron.

After Hollister completed his doctorate in 1963, he joined the AeroAstro faculty, where he taught for 40 years before retiring as professor emeritus. Over the course of his tenure he led AeroAstro’s Instrumentation, Guidance and Control PhD program, taught instrumentation and inertial guidance subjects, and was active in developing AeroAstro’s Unified Engineering course alongside Professor Ed Crawley and others. He collaborated extensively with Professor Bob Simpson and others in the Flight Transportation Laboratory, as well as numerous groups at MIT Lincoln Laboratory. 

“As a young faculty member he was a mentor and role model to many of us,” remembers senior lecturer Charles Oman SM ’68, PhD ’73. “He was very interested in aviation human factors and human-machine interfaces. In the late ’70s Walt had a clever idea how to measure the effects of recency among GA [general aviation] pilots, and got FAA funding for it. He and I collaborated on the modeling and stats. He and Art LaPointe leased a C150 at Hanscom, and acted as the in-flight evaluators. We concluded skill degrades faster than then thought — and we had great fun.”

Hollister authored and co-authored more than 75 technical papers, and co-authored the textbook “Gyroscopic Theory, Design, and Instrumentation” (MIT Press, 1972).

Hollister was teaching dynamics in the Unified Engineering course when Edward M. Greitzer, the H.N. Slater Professor in Aeronautics and Astronautics, arrived on campus in 1977. “Walt was a pleasure to work with, helpful and worked to make things better for all,” says Greitzer, who taught Unified Dynamics after Hollister. 

Throughout his life, Hollister was passionate about flying. He was a flight instructor for both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, and continued flying light aircraft and gliders into retirement. His hobbies included running, bicycling, hiking, swimming, rollerblading, and skiing.

R. John Hansman, MIT’s T. Wilson (1953) Professor in Aeronautics and International Center for Air Transportation director, says, “I was privileged to have Walt as my PhD advisor. He was an outstanding engineer, pilot, and teacher. He made significant contributions to improving the safety of aviation, and was a real down-to-earth advisor and mentor to MIT students, pilots, and astronauts.”

In addition to his wife Sally, Hollister is survived by his son, Mark Hollister of Wilmington, Massachusetts; daughter Heather Hollister of Somerville, Massachsetts; and son Hans Hollister and wife Olcan Hollister of Bethesda, Maryland. He is also survived by his sister, Jane (Hollister) Nicodemus of Warminster Pennsylvania; brothers-in-law Francis Boston of Montreal, Canada, and Simon Boston and Richard Boston of the U.K.; and grandchildren Dylan and Sophia Hollister.

Memorial contributions in Hollister’s name may be made to St. Anne’s in-the-Fields Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 6, Lincoln, MA 01773 or to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37839, Boone, IA 50037.