Thomas Eugene Upton, PE, Aerospace Engineer, age 77, of Navasota, Texas passed away August 5, 2023. Tom was born May 18, 1946 to William Otto, Jr. and Johnnie Mae Upton in Pensacola, Florida Naval Station where his father was stationed.
Tom’s father was a Naval aviator, so the family moved often based on his father’s assignments. Tom admired his father and wanted to become a pilot. Tom knew at an early age he wanted to be an aerospace engineer. His father wanted him to go to the Naval Academy but an aerospace degree was not offered at the time. Knowing this, Tom applied to other universities where he received several acceptance letters. In the end he chose Texas A & M and pursued a degree in Aerospace Engineering. At the same time, he joined the ROTC which paid a portion of his tuition and other expenses.
Upon graduating in 1969, he accepted a commission in the United States Air Force as required by his ROTC commitment. His first duty station was Warner Robins as a second lieutenant. Later he was transferred to Wright Patterson. He was soon informed that his hopes of becoming a pilot wasn’t going to happen. The need basically vanished following reductions of pilots in the Vietnam War and Tom was assigned to the aero laboratory. Tom’s group worked on future designs including what we know today as Drones. His team’s work was vital in establishing design and test methods to start the program. They also worked on crash investigations. His team was instrumental in finding the cause of several helicopter crashes. The air worthiness directives that followed were accredited to saving many lives.
Tom’s passion for model airplane building began at an early age and again after working in the aero lab. He took his hobby to the next level, considering his background, modifying and eventually building engines from scratch. His designs won him several awards and the respect of his competitors. His lifelong friend and college classmate Dub Jett spend endless hours together building, flying and competing throughout the 1970’s.
In 1972, Captain Tom Upton resigned his commission as the Vietnam War was winding down and opportunities for advancement diminished. Tom with his family moved to Reno, Nevada but unfortunately the company was in financial trouble and Tom soon found himself out of work. It would be his last time working in the aerospace industry.
Tom and his family then decided to move to Pasadena, Texas staying with his in-laws while contacting potential employers. At the time his best friend Dub Jett was working at Dresser Industries where he secured Tom a position working for him. The work was interesting and Tom was assigned to projects which included working with Dresser’s clients on oil field components. This was his introduction to the oil and gas industry. Tom applied for several patents while working at Dresser for which he received five, for Packer valves and tools. Another aspect of his job was to work for Dresser’s clients. One of their primary clients was Spring Engineers, a Dallas based spring manufacturing company. After several successful projects Spring Engineers made Tom an offer of employment which he accepted at their Houston branch. He wore several hats including engineering, purchasing and management positions. His skill set was perfectly matched for this endeavor. He quickly excelled in spring and component design and many other items common to a multi-faceted manufacturer. A few years passed and the oil industry experienced a slowdown causing many companies to reduce their workforce. Tom got caught up in the downturn which motivated him to go into business for himself. He started a machine shop and eventually partnered with two others he had met during his previous employment. Together they started Engineered Spring Products in 1983, of which he was the principal owner. The company flourished over the next twenty years. Tom not realizing at the time, hired the love of his life, his future wife, Jeanette. The two of them built a beautiful life together. She loved him and he her.
Tom’s new hobby and passion became car racing. Many people only know Tom through his car racing, CVAR - Red Pantera number 77, SCCA - GT1 number 8. Racing became his passion which lasted over a decade. He loved it and was good at it. He built his own engines, modified the suspensions and tracked his cars performance. He went to several driving schools to perfect his skills. Like everything he did he dove in with both feet. His engineering and problem-solving skills all came into play here. He won several races but as important were the people he met, many of whom became lifelong friends. Racing wives can write their own stories about being married to a racer. Jeanette put up with his racing for all those years and supported him all the way. She not only took care of Tom but made sure the other racers had lunch and dinners to come back to. Basically, she spoiled them all. Those of us who knew Tom can’t imagine what his life would have been without her. We thank you Jeanette.
Tom’s passion, tenacity and especially his attention to detail is responsible for many innovations in the oil industry. He never tolerated poor workmanship or compromise. He was obsessed with excellence, most likely going back to his crash investigations. Customer inspectors used to rave about both his procedures and custom tools to aid then in inspections. He was the one they referred to as never compromising.
Tom had a big heart and was always willing to help another engineer out even if they were with a competing company. Like he used to say, “It’s about safety first and making it work correctly.” His work involved safety valve assemblies and he took it very seriously, never, never compromising. In addition to his aerospace degree, he was a professional engineer (PE) and has too many certificates to list here. Right to the end he was always learning something new. He will be missed!
Tom is survived by his wife Jeanette; children, Thomas Ashley and Ryan Thomas Upton, James McKnight wife Kelli, John McKnight, Jeffery McKnight wife Jessica, and Jennifer McKnight; grandchildren, Marcell (Cosmo), Mallory and Molly Upton and Preston, Colin, Jillian, Juddson McKnight.