Wilson, Thornton “T.A.”
Entrepreneur/EngineerEnshrined 1983 1921-1999
When long-time employees retired, whether the gardener or the chief of security, Wilson made a point of organizing and participating in an appropriate ceremony to wish them well. He did not lavish praise often, but when deserved Wilson happily gave it, and the recipient and his colleagues appreciated its worth.
- After World War II, he became senior group aerodynamics engineer on the B-47 and later he became senior group engineer on the preliminary design of supersonic bombers.
- Was senior project engineer of the B-52 in 1958.
- Named Minuteman manager for the assembly and test phases of the missile in 1960.
- In 1968, was elected president at Boeing, producing the 707, 727, and 737 jetliners and military aircraft.
- In 1972, he was elected Chairman of the Board and the company rebounded due to sales of the 747.
Thornton “T.A.” Wilson learned his first practical bit of knowledge about business and mass production as a youth when he bought a pregnant rabbit named “Madam Queen” his friend Eddie Mathews. But he wasn’t satisfied with owning just one rabbit. So after she gave birth to nine bunnies he traded two of them for another pregnant doe. In a matter of a few weeks, he had nineteen hungry rabbits. At this point he learned his second lesson in business salesmanship. He soon developed a business enterprise out of his rabbits when he found a man who would buy each rabbit for fifteen cents, so long as they were fat ones.
By collecting fresh alfalfa from along nearby fence rows, Wilson found he could economically supplement his rabbits’ diet with oats and still turn a profit. At that point he learned a final lesson: compassion for those who are necessary to your business. The roof fell in on his enterprise when he discovered that his avid customer was making hot tamales out of the rabbits. With that stunning bit of news, Wilson lost enthusiasm for his first business venture. All of this took place in Sikeston, Missouri, Wilson’s birthplace. When Wilson was twelve, his parents moved to Jefferson City, the state capital. There he played on the town’s high school basketball team and participated in competitive swimming. In fact, one of his first paying jobs as a lifeguard in a swimming pool that the Chamber of Commerce managed.
Wilson’s next job with the Chamber of Commerce was as a janitor and he kept this job until he went to college. However, there was a bane to his existence in this job. It was the brass spittoon that he had to clean nightly. Years later, he acquired a similar brass spittoon for his own executive office. Not so much for use, as such, but to remind himself of the simpler but not necessarily better days of his life. After finishing high school in 1938, Wilson enrolled in the Jefferson City junior college. During this time he perfected his skills at billiards and this taught him that perception and skill, as opposed to physical strength, dominated in many situations.
Even before he entered college, Wilson knew that he wanted to build and sell airplanes. In fact, he took flying lessons, soloed, and received his private pilot’s license at the age of nineteen. When he enrolled in Iowa State University, Wilson took an option to study aeronautical engineering. He also became the captain of the varsity swimming team. Between his college years he worked for a Kansas City firm constructing the Knob Noster Army Air Corps Base in Missouri. His job was as an inspector at the mixing hoppers where a tough Kansas City businessman was loading his ready-mix trucks to supply concrete to the new base. Later Wilson said, “We often had little disagreements about the relative proportions of rocks and cement. I was usually on the side for more concrete and he was on the side for more rocks. But we worked out our differences.” During his college studies his interest in aviation and flying continued to increase. In fact, soon after the U.S. entry into World War II, Wilson decided to join the Army Air Corps upon the completion of his studies. However, in his senior year he broke his foot in a tobogganing accident and by the time it had healed he had graduated from Iowa State with a degree in aeronautical engineering.
When Thornton A. Wilson graduated from Iowa State in 1943, he joined the world renowned Boeing Aircraft Company as a junior engineer. The company was hard at work improving the famous B-17 “Flying Fortress” bombers that were making heroic assaults on Nazi Germany. One of his first engineering assignments was the “Stratofreighter”, an aircraft intended for transportation of men and materiel to the far-flung war fronts. Soon after his promotion to Major Engineer, Wilson was helping to develop the pressurized “Stratocruiser” airliner, which later went into service with Pan American Airlines.
When the war ended, “T” Wilson took a leave from Boeing and earned a Master of Science degree from California Insititute of Technology. When he returned to the company, Wilson was officially an aerodynamicist. He utilized his newly acquired knowledge in the development of the revolutionary B-47 “Stratojet”, the nation’s first swept-wing bomber. In fact, Wilson soon received a promotion to Senior Group Aerodynamics Engineer on the B-47, which later became the Strategic Air Command’s front-line defense weapon. By 1952, Wilson received great recognition as a “comer” at Boeing and he earned a Sloan fellowship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
After Wilson returned to Boeing as Senior Group Engineer in charge of the preliminary design of supersonic bombers, the company won an Air Force competition for a long-range jet-bomber. The resulting B-52 “Stratofortress” turned into the principal global-range strike force of the Strategic Air Command for the next 30 years. Shortly after this breakthrough, Boeing took a major gamble when it invested $16 million in a swept-wing four-jet prototype aircraft. Dubbed the “Dash-80”, it first won an Air Force competition for an urgently needed aerial tanker and became the KC-135 “Stratotanker”. After Wilson became assistant to Boeing’s Chief Engineer the “Dash-80” grew into the prototype of the sleek 707 jetliner. It not only paved the way for a new era of international travel, but also placed Boeing solidly back in the commercial airliner field, and the company eventually produced over 1,000 of the aircraft. After Wilson served as Assistant Chief of Boeing’s technical staff in 1956, he received a promotion to Senior Project Engineer for the B-52 bomber. As a result of his leadership, improved versions with increased range, armament and stores entered production.
In 1958 Boeing’s President William Allen selected Wilson to be Program Manager of the “Minuteman” ballistic missile advance projects proposal team. Through his efforts Boeing won the assignment to perform the final assembly and testing of the “Minuteman”. To handle this tremendous assignment, requiring the integration of the efforts of a great number of other contractors, Wilson set up an extensive management control system. This system proved so effective that upon the test firing of the first “Minuteman”, it was proclaimed the most successful test in missile history. As Vice President of Boeing’s Aerospace Division, Wilson’s efforts made possible the operational capability of the first “Minuteman” launching facility by mid-1963. Eventually more than 1,000 of the missiles would be in their silos, ready for launch in defense of freedom. Wilson’s achievement was so outstanding achievement that it brought him a promotion to corporate Vice President of Operations and Planning, and Wilson helped to shape the design of aircraft to be built in the years immediately following. Among the first was the advanced 727 “Tri-jet”, the most successful medium-haul jetliner in the air at the time. Eventually, Boeing received more than 1,800 orders for them. This was a real boon to Boeing, the airlines, and the public alike.
After serving briefly as Vice President and General Manager of the Boeing Military Airplane Division, “T” again became corporate Vice President of Operations and Planning, due to the need for a wider spectrum of jetliners. The company began with the development of the compact short haul 737, which entered commercial service in 1968. By 1982 the company had received more than 1,050 orders for them. A newer, stretched version, the 737-300, was ready for production. Less than a year later the company named Wilson as Executive Vice President of Boeing, and shaeholders elected him to its Board of Directors. In 1968, he scaled the corporate ladder when he was elected President of the company and in 1969 also became Chief Executive Officer. This period was a crucial time for Boeing as the giant 747 “Superjet”, the first of the jumbo jets, made its maiden flight. Soon afterwards, it entered commercial service with Pan Am Airlines in 1970. The 747 proved to be such a remarkable contribution to commercial aviation that Boeing received the coveted Collier Trophy.
In the midst of these events, suddenly the national economy took entered a severe recession and sales of the 747 plunged exactly at the moment that Boeing had geared up for a sharp increase in production. To make matters worse, Boeing’s earnings plummeted when Congress canceled the development of the SST supersonic transport. Only the construction of a few advanced airborne national command post planes kept the factory in business. Almost overnight, the outlook Boeing had turned grim. Wilson knew that weathering the economic troubles would be an extremely difficult task and painful task. Tragically, Wilson had to reduce employment at Boeing drastically. Fortunately, the bare-bones work force doubled its efficiency and this increase in efficiency, coupled with the irresistible lure of its jetliners, enabled Boeing to slowly recover.
“T” Wilson’s final upward step came in 1972 when he was elected Chairman of the Board while also remaining as Chief Executive Officer. The 747 “Superjet” paced Boeing’s remarkable recovery, for eventually Boeing would receive nearly 600 orders for them from airlines worldwide. Boeing even developed a special performance version, the 747 SP, and in 1975 Wilson displayed it to visiting representatives of the People’s Republic of China. After the Chinese government ordered three at $60 million apiece, Wilson flew aboard one to personally deliver the first to the Chinese.
By 1979, Boeing was regarded as one of the most brilliantly managed and profitable companies in the world as sales climbed to a stunning $8.1 billion, and the backlog of orders swelled to $18 billion. At this point Boeing commanded the major share of the world’s commercial jet market, as it kept meeting Wilson’s target goal of remaining an aircraft manufacturer without parallel.
In 1980 Boeing won a fiercely contested Air Force contract to produce the “air-launched cruise missile”, a key weapon in the nation’s nuclear strike force. Its purpose was to provide a strategic edge by flying up to 1,500 miles at tree-top level and to reach its target with pin-point accuracy. Also, Wilson had placed Boeing well on its way in a company-financed $3 billion program to develop a new generation of far more fuel-efficient jet-liners. The first was the 767, with a $40 million price tag. After its maiden flight in 1981, Wilson was on hand to congratulate its flight crew. Deliveries of the 3,000 mile range 767 began in mid-1982, when Boeing received 173 more orders for the aircraft and options on many more have been taken. The second new cutting- edge technology jetliner was the 757, A $32 million twin-jet capable of carrying 178 passengers up to 2,200 miles. After Boeing rolled it out in January 1982, it made a world flight tour and Wilson relished greatly showing it off to dignitaries, such as Britain’s Prince Phillip. In fitting recognition of the private development of the 767 and 757, Wilson and the Boeing company were named recipients of the 1982 Collier Trophy.
In the new era of jet travel, “T” Wilson stood out as one of the great pioneering leaders of the aerospace industry. Through his basic dedication to integrity in craftsmanship, excellence in technology, and professionalism, the Boeing Company became one of the great aerospace enterprises in the world today.
Wilson died in 1999. With his death the Boeing Company in particular and the aviation community in general, lost a great leader. His ability to envision the opportunities for building aerospace products to serve the world-wide needs of Man, and then turning these visions into realities earned for Thornton Arnold Wilson his honored place in aviation’s National Hall of Fame.
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