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George C. Watkins, 84; Navy Test Pilot Set Speed and Altitude Records

October 15, 2005|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Capt. George C. Watkins, who had a singular career as a record-setting Navy test pilot in the 1950s and later delighted in unnerving a new generation of swashbuckling pilots at his aerobatic-glider school near Palmdale, has died. He was 84.

Watkins, who served three presidents as a White House social aide, died Sept. 18 of a heart attack at a hospital in Lompoc, Calif., said his wife, Monica.

Over a 30-year military career, the pilot set records for speed, altitude and number of landings on an aircraft carrier.

He never planned on being a pilot. After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy during World War II, he served in the Pacific as a battery turret officer on the battleship Pennsylvania.

When the Navy needed more pilots, he signed up and earned his wings just after the war ended.

At the Navy's test pilot school in Patuxent River, Md., two of his classmates in 1950 were future astronauts John Glenn and Alan Shepard. But at 5 feet 11, Watkins would be an inch too tall to join the Mercury astronaut program later that decade.

During the Korean War, he was a fighter pilot before once again becoming a leading test pilot.

Watkins was the first Navy pilot to exceed 60,000 and 70,000 feet in altitude. In 1956, he set a speed record of 1,210 mph and an unofficial altitude record of 73,500 feet on the same flight. Two years later, he set two altitude records while flying a Grumman F11F-1F Super Tiger to nearly 77,000 feet. He also was the first Navy pilot to make 1,000 landings on aircraft carriers, in 1962, and eight years later was the first to log 10,000 hours flying Navy aircraft.

An inscription by author George C. Wilson in the front of his 1986 book, "Supercarrier," about life aboard the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy, summed up the pilot's attitude: "To George Watkins, who had the right stuff before they had a name for it."

In 1991, Watkins bought a school for glider pilots in Llano, east of Palmdale, and ran it for seven years. When test pilots from Edwards Air Force Base took a glider for a 15-minute spin, they were often surprised by the negative gravity forces -- the light sensation felt on a roller coaster ride -- as they flew upside down or in a loop.

Watkins just grinned as he watched the jet jocks crawl out of the glider looking a bit green.

He had a reputation for colorful antics, including flying upside-down underneath the Colorado Street Bridge in Pasadena.

"There is an amazing story about him flying under the bridge, but George didn't want the details divulged," said Monica Watkins, his wife of 26 years.

While he was stationed at the Pentagon in the 1960s, Watkins' duties included being a social aide at the White House under Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. He helped plan White House functions, including Kennedy's funeral in 1963.

As the commanding officer of a supply ship during the Vietnam War, Watkins ordered helicopter supply drops to be made at night, which became common Navy practice.

Late in his military career, he was an advisor on "Tora! Tora! Tora!," the 1970 film that reenacted the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He helped find vintage planes and recruited pilots to fly them. In the film, he appears as a Japanese pilot landing a fighter on an aircraft carrier.

George Clinton Watkins was born March 10, 1921, in Alhambra, the third of seven children. He was named for his grandfather, George Clinton Ward, president of Southern California Edison Co. in the early 1930s.

His father, Edward Francis Watkins, owned Southern California Winery Co. and grew grapes in what is now San Marino. After he lost his ranch during Prohibition, he went to work for his father-in-law at Edison.

George Watkins' mother, Louise, ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in the Republican primary in 1938 -- a rare activity for a woman in those days -- and organized political rallies attended by hundreds on the front lawn of the family's Pasadena home.

Watkins attended the Army and Navy Academy in Carlsbad, Calif., and spent a year at the Citadel in South Carolina before entering the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. Because of the war, his class graduated a year early, in 1943.

After retiring from the military, Watkins was a landscape designer for several years. His interest was nurtured through a close childhood friendship with Robert Boddy, who grew up on the La Canada Flintridge estate that became Descanso Gardens. Landscaping of high-end filling stations was a specialty.

He especially liked the location of his nursery in Virginia Beach, Va. It was under the flight path of an airport.

In search of cooler weather, Watkins and his wife moved a scaled-down version of the glider school to Lompoc in 1998. He formed a glider-flying club and flew his custom glider in competitions.

With his health failing, Watkins made the last of his more than 26,000 flights in September 2004.

In addition to his wife, survivors include two brothers, John Watkins of Pasadena and retired Navy Adm. James Watkins of Annapolis, who was chief of naval operations from 1982 to 1986 and secretary of Energy under former President Bush.

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