Willis M. Hawkins, a Lockheed engineering legend who was a principal designer of the C-130 Hercules, a transport plane that has remained in continual production for 50 years, longer than any aircraft in history, died Tuesday of natural causes at his Woodland Hills home. He was 90.
During more than five decades at Lockheed, Hawkins played a leading role in the development of a number of historic aircraft, including the P-80, the Army Air Forces' first operational jet fighter, and the Constellation, a commercial airliner adapted for military use during World War II. He also was a principal designer of the submarine-launched Polaris missile, developed during the Cold War for the U.S. Navy.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 05, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Hawkins obituary -- An obituary of aerospace engineer Willis M. Hawkins in Sunday's California section said his 1937 degree from the University of Michigan was in aerospace engineering. It was in aeronautical engineering.
While serving as assistant secretary of the Army for research and development during the Kennedy administration, Hawkins oversaw the early development of the M1 Abrams main battle tank, often described as the backbone of U.S. armored military operations and the first American-built tank since World War II considered superior to Russian models.
He later returned to Lockheed as a senior executive and remained a consultant to the company for many years after his retirement in the 1980s.
Hawkins was born in Kansas City, Mo. He attended high school in Glen Harbor, Mich., and was one of only five students in the first graduating class of Leelanau School, an experimental high school on the shores of Lake Michigan that emphasized the outdoors and science.
He earned a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Michigan in 1937. That year he was hired by Lockheed's chief engineer, Hall Hibbard, as a junior detail engineering draftsman with a starting salary of $1,500 a year.
He was chief of preliminary design in 1951, when the Air Force invited several companies to compete for the chance to design and build a rugged cargo aircraft that could handle landings on almost any terrain. Combining the assets of a jeep, a truck and a plane, the new aircraft had to be able to carry 92 infantrymen or 64 paratroopers 1,000 miles as well as haul heavy equipment.
Hawkins' team delivered a blueprint for a plane that would not win any beauty contests: It was a bulky, low-slung workhorse with a cargo area as big as a standard American railroad boxcar. When Clarence "Kelly" Johnson, the visionary engineer behind Lockheed's famous "Skunk Works" operation, was asked his opinion of the model Hawkins provided, he told Hibbard, "If you send that in, you'll destroy Lockheed."
Luckily for Lockheed, Hawkins persevered and Hibbard gave the OK to submit the design. Lockheed won over bids from the Douglas, Boeing and Fairchild aircraft companies.
Since the first test flight in Burbank in 1954, the C-130 has built one of the most storied records in aviation history.
"It has dropped bombs, supplies and paratroops, jammed electronic transmissions, fought fires, tracked icebergs, flown in hurricanes, hauled a live whale and camels, carried Muslims to Mecca, taken Ethiopian Jews to Israel and even landed on an aircraft carrier," Walter J. Boyne, a retired Air Force colonel and former director of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., wrote recently in Air Force Magazine.
It was crucial to many missions during the Vietnam War. Boyne noted that a fleet of C-130s frustrated North Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap's efforts to trap American forces at Khe Sanh. It also carried evacuees out of Saigon under heavy fire: Boyne wrote of one of the planes taking off from Tan Son Nhut Air Base 20,000 pounds overweight as it carried 452 people, including 33 crowded on its flight deck.
Today, it is flown in 60 countries, and Lockheed has a backlog of orders for the latest incarnation, the C-130J, which retains the ungainly appearance of the original.
"The fact the plane still looks like it did 50 years ago suggests we did a few things right," Hawkins told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in August during a celebration at Lockheed Martin's Marietta, Ga., plant marking the golden anniversary of the prototype's maiden flight.
Although the C-130 Hercules reaped Hawkins the most glory, his son Willis Hawkins Jr. told The Times this week that his father was also proud of his work on the T-33, America's first jet trainer and the first plane he solely designed.
Hawkins is also survived by son James of Lomita, Calif., and daughter Nancy Hawkins Bostick of Menlo Park, Calif.
His contributions to a number of top-secret projects, such as the Corona reconnaissance satellite, only recently have come to light. The Corona took pictures in space that were retrieved midair by an airplane (a modified C-130) dispatched to catch its bucket-shaped reentry vehicle. A Corona film canister became the first object to be recovered from space and was presented to the Smithsonian by President Eisenhower.
Among Hawkins' many honors are the Navy's Distinguished Public Service Award in 1961 for his work on the Polaris, the first missile launched underwater using a submarine as a firing platform. He received the National Medal of Science in 1988 for his overall contributions to aeronautics and defense.
Hawkins, who was married for 42 years to a former American Airlines flight attendant he met on a Valentine's Day flight on a DST (a version of the DC-3 called the Douglas Sleeper Transport), rebuilt antique planes for a hobby. He was working on his first kit plane at Van Nuys Airport on the day he died.