John "Cap" Capellupo is a key figure in the development, sales, and operational success of the McDonnell Douglas F-18 Hornet, the worlds most advanced jet fighter. He was born in 1934 in Minnesota and grew up in Centralia, Illinois. As a youth he developed a keen interest in mathematics and the outdoors, and he was active in sports and scouting. When he graduated from high school, he chose to study civil engineering hoping this would let him combine his interests in math, sciences, and the outdoors. Capellupo graduated from St. Louis University, and in 1957 he joined McDonnell Aircraft Company as a technical analyst. Assigned to conduct flutter and vibration testing on the F-101 Voodoo and the Super Talos missile, he concurrently earned his masters degree in applied mechanics from St. Louis University in 1958. He soon left McDonnell to work as a research engineer in armaments.
However, the lure of working at the cutting edge of the aerospace industry brought him back to McDonnell in 1962. He worked in guidance and control development in the missile division. He also completed studies towards a Ph.D. in applied mechanics from Washington University. Then in 1965 Capellupo moved to Florida to work on the Dragon missile and on the development of the company's now-famous Harpoon anti-ship missile. A year later, he returned to St. Louis to pioneer the use of flight simulation as a tool during the test and development of aircraft. In 1970, heading the newly formed Flight Simulation Department, he advanced flight simulation into air combat and air to ground arenas. Capellupos ideas were used to prepare McDonnell Douglas test pilots for the historic first flights of the F-15 Eagle in 1972.
Later that same year, he began work in advanced aircraft development that led to the F/A-18 Hornet strike fighter. He was the Proposal Manager for the aircraft and was later responsible for activities improving the aircraft's reliability, maintainability, and safety. As a result of Capellupo's close work with the US Navy, the Hornet sets the standard in these areas today. In the late 1970's, he transferred to Los Angeles where he assisted Northrop in the design, development, and testing of the Hornet's center/aft fuselage. In 1982, Capellupo received the Navys first "Salty Dog" award for his work on the Hornet. Next he was named Manager for International Programs and worked closely with customers in Canada, Spain, Australia, Turkey, and Greece.
He became Deputy Program Manager for the Hornet in 1985, but was then quickly promoted to Vice-President and General Manager for the Hornet program. In 1990, Capellupo became Deputy President of the Douglas Aircraft Company, which was then producing the MD-80 and MD-90 airliner and was developing the MD-11 airliner. Douglas was also working at this time on the T-45 Goshawk for the Navy and the C-17 Globemaster for the Air Force. One year later, Capellupo became president of McDonnell Aircraft Company and, in 1992, was named Executive Vice-President of McDonnell Douglas Corporation. In 1994, he was named President of McDonnell Douglas Aerospace, which was responsible for tactical aircraft, helicopters, space electronics, and missiles.
Even after production of the F/A-18 Hornet had begun, then-Secretary of the Navy Lehman was ready to cancel the program at the first opportunity. Cracks were discovered in the tail structures of operational aircraft at only 400 hours flight time. F/A-18 forces were precipitously grounded, and the Navy refused to accept new aircraft from the factory. At McDonnell Douglas, Capellupo was told to head a "tiger team" to fix the problem. The company was in chaos! Capellupo formed his team from 400 experts within the company. Their quick fix raised the service life of tails to 2,000, but this was far short of the 6,000-hour life the Navy expected. Capellupo's team then came up with the "LEX fence," which not only solved the tail problem but also improved the aircraft's performance at high angles of attack! Had the company been forced to redesign the plane's tail and then retrofit several hundred F/A-18s in the fleet, it would have done "major surgery" on company finances and would have been a great embarrassment to the company's entire workforce.