Jim Drake, 83, engineer; helped design X-15 rocket, Windsurfer

Jim Drake at Playa del Rey in Los Angeles in 1988.
Los Angeles Times
Jim Drake at Playa del Rey in Los Angeles in 1988.

NEW YORK — Jim Drake, an aeronautical engineer who helped design the X-15 rocket plane and the Tomahawk Cruise Missile, and in his spare time created the Windsurfer, a surfboard with a sail that became synonymous with sailboarding, died June 19 at his home in Pfafftown, N.C. He was 83.

The cause was complications of pulmonary fibrosis, his daughter Hollis Drake Fleming said.

Mr. Drake was more Steve Jobs than Thomas Edison: The inventors S. Newman Darby and Peter Chilvers had already built early sailboards, but Mr. Drake’s version, which he first built in his garage in Santa Monica, Calif., made windsurfing attractive to a mass market. (In 1999 the Smithsonian Institution recognized Darby as the first person in the United States to invent a sailboard.)


A sailor sits in a small sailboat, and maneuvers using a tiller.

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Sailboards let sailors stand and steer by directly manipulating the sail itself, meaning that the mast must be able to move in any direction. Darby’s design used a rope connecting the mast to the board, so it could move, and a diamond-shaped sail, rather like a large kite.

The Windsurfer featured a hand-held wishbone boom joined to an asymmetrical sail and a universal joint where the mast met the board.

The asymmetrical sail, like a sailboat’s, was better at harnessing the wind; the boom was stronger, and allowed the sailor to stand on the windward side of the sail, an easier position from which to manipulate the sail; and the joint allowed the sail to pivot and tilt in every direction and be easily recovered when it hit the water.

‘‘It was Drake who actually made the modern windsurfing concept happen,’’ Clyde Giesenschlag, a windsurfing blogger, said in a telephone interview.


Mr. Drake worked with his friend Hoyle Schweitzer on the board, which they called the Skate, then the Baja Board, before a young public relations man suggested the catchier name Windsurfer, Drake said.

They patented the sailboard in 1970 and began promoting and selling the boards through their new company, Windsurfing International, based in Marina del Rey, Calif.

Schweitzer began working full time on windsurfing; Mr. Drake never quit his day job. In the early 1970s, Schweitzer bought Mr. Drake out of the patent for $36,000, a move that rankled Mr. Drake when Schweitzer took the company worldwide and made millions of dollars.

Schweitzer enforced their patent from the late 1970s until it expired.

The patent was controversial because Darby’s invention was described in a widely circulated 1965 article in Popular Science magazine, which some thought invalidated the patent claim filed by Mr. Drake and Schweitzer.


In interviews, both denied having read the article.

Mr. Drake publicly stated that he had not originated the idea — in one interview he referred to himself as the Windsurfer’s ‘‘reinventor.’’ Regardless, windsurfing is now an Olympic sport, and there are about 50 board manufacturers and more than 30 sail manufacturers.

James Robert Drake was born on Jan. 8, 1929, in Los Angeles, the only child of Harrison and Doris Drake.

He graduated from Stanford in 1951 with a bachelor’s ­degree in engineering, and married Mary Robertson in 1955.

Over the course of his career he worked for companies like North American Aviation and the RAND Corp., as well as the Defense Department, where he worked on the X-15, which set a record for fastest manned aircraft, and the Tomahawk Cruise Missile system, a long-distance subsonic missile.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Drake leaves his wife, Phyllis, whom he married in 2000 after his first wife died; another daughter, Stephanie Drake Lees; four sons, Matthew, James Andrew, Alexander, and David; and 15 grandchildren.

Mr. Drake remained a passionate designer and windsurfer.

He most recently designed innovative boards, including wide models for increased ­stability and long, narrow models for greater speed, for Starboard, a company based in Thailand.