Atwood, John Leland “Lee”
EngineerEnshrined 1984 1904-1999
While John Leland Atwood didn’t write the book on military aviation, his role in determining its content was monumental. Atwood and his company, North American Aviation, almost single-handedly shaped the face of military aviation from World War II to the Space Age, producing many of the period’s best fighter, bomber and experimental aircraft. During this time, Atwood was directly responsible for the design of more aircraft than any one person.
- Was Chief of Advanced Design for the Douglas Company and helped design the DC-1 airliner.
- Helped design Douglas DC-3 commercial transport, a plane vital to the rise of the passenger airline industry.
- In 1934 became the Vice President and Chief Engineer at North American Aviation, Inc. where his BT-9 Air Corps trainer launched the company into military aviation. He designed the B-47 plane, the improved BT-14 trainer, the AT-6 Texan combat trainer and the B-25 Mitchell bomber.
- Originated the design of the P-51 Mustang fighter.
- Led North American Aviation, as the company designed planes such as the T-6, B-25, F-100, X-15 and B-1.
- Following World War II he directed the design of the FJ-1 Fury, the B-45 Tornado and the AF-1 Savage.
- Became president of North American Aviation and oversaw the development of the F-86 Saber jet, FJ-2 Fury and the F-100 supersonic super Saber fighter as well as the Redstone rocket used to launch the first American astronauts, X-15 research aircraft and the XB-70 Valkyrie bomber.
- Became North American CEO in 1960 and Chairman of the Board in 1970.
Among the most respected titles that John Leland “Lee” Atwood earned over the years is that of “Dean of Aerospace.” For in more than a half-century in the nation’s aerospace industry, Atwood dedicated his life to the continuing advancement of aviation and space technology. His career spanned the era from after the flight of Charles Lindbergh across the Atlantic to the fantastic voyages of Man into space.
A former member of the Board of Directors, President and Chief Executive Officer of Rockwell International Corporation, Lee Atwood prepared well for his fascinating career by attending Wayland Baptist College, Hardin-Simmons University, and the University of Texas, where he received a degree in Civil Engineering.
Atwood’s first involvement in aviation came in 1928 when he became a junior engineer with the Army Air Corps at Wright Field, Ohio. After short subsequent stints at the Okay Airplane Company in Oklahoma and Moreland Aircraft, Inc. in Inglewood, California, Atwood joined the up-and-coming Douglas Aircraft Company in Santa Monica, California as an aircraft design engineer in 1930. There he made vital contributions to the DC-1 and DC-2 transports, and to the world famous DC-3 commercial transport. The DC-3 later achieved fame as the plane that made the airline industry and brought commercial aviation to the farthest reaches of the world.
Despite these achievements, Lee Atwood gave up his position as Chief of Structural Design at Douglas in 1934 to join James Howard “Dutch” Kindelberger in the challenge of breathing life into the fledgling North American Aviation, Inc. in Dundalk, Maryland. In his initial positions as Vice President and Chief Engineer of the new organization, his designs soon won a large basic trainer contract from the Army Air Corps. The BT-9 was the astute private venture investment that launched the company on an historic course in military aviation.
In 1935, North American Aviation moved its facilities to Inglewood, California, when Atwood’s unique O-47 observation plane went into production for the Air Corps. It was the company’s first tactical aircraft and it served until World War II. Meanwhile the company ventured into the bomber field with the twin-engine XB-21 Dragon and the NA-40 prototype. Though neither went into production, they paved the way for the subsequent B-25 Mitchell bomber.
In 1937, Atwood’s design won the Air Corps competition for a new kind of trainer with the attributes of a combat aircraft. The result was the North American Aviation BC-1 basic combat trainer. After the Air Corps ordered 185 of these, the subsequent model, the BC-1A was produced in great numbers. When the Air Corps changed the designation of its aircraft in 1940, the BC-1A was renamed the AT-6 Texan, and went on to become the most famous of all combat trainers.
Meanwhile, in 1939, Atwood became Assistant General Manager of North American Aviation in recognition of his increasing value to the corporation and his influence on its continuing progress. With the outbreak of World War II, North American Aviation geared up to mass produce the AT-6A Texan. The company built more than 16,000. Probably no aircraft was ever more perfectly designed for its intended mission than the Texan. In fact, for two decades eager student pilots honed their combat skills on the AT-6. Its Navy version was the SNJ-6 and the Canadians built their own version of this great trainer for use by fledgling Royal Canadian Air Force pilots. The AT-6 design also entered production in Australia as the “WIRRAWAY.”
In 1939, Atwood led his engineering team in a private venture to design a twin-engine bomber for an Army Air Corps design competition. As a result, the Air Corps ordered the B-25 Mitchell bomber into production. These began to enter service in 1941 prior to the infamous Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The B-25A was the plane that Lieutenant Colonel James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle selected for his epic raid on Tokyo from the aircraft carrier Hornet in April 1942. The Mitchell bomber, named after Billy Mitchell, the outspoken proponent of airpower, was used by the Allies on every front of the war.
No fighter plane more significantly influenced the war in the air after the Allied invasion of France in 1944 than the P-51 Mustang. Its design began in 1940 the first prototype was built in less than 120 days for the British Purchasing Commission. First produced for the British as the Mustang I fighter, it was not until after Atwood had been named first vice president of North American Aviation in 1941 that the Army Air Forces ordered the plane into production as the P-51 Mustang. Eventually engineered into a long-range escort fighter, P-51s first appeared over Berlin in March 1944. Later, the Mustang earned a warm place in the hearts of thousands of Allied bomber crews, who called them “Little Friends” as they escorted them to and from their bombing targets deep inside Nazi Germany.
After the war, Lee Atwood became President of North American in 1948. Under his leadership, the company continued its role as an outstanding producer of aircraft vital to the nation’s military needs. Among these were the F-86 Sabrejet fighter, which established air supremacy for the U.S. in the Korean Conflict. It scored a fifteen-to-one kill ratio over the Soviet built MIG-15 jet fighter. This following accomplishment was the F-100 Super Sabre, the world’s first operational supersonic fighter. Next came the B-45, America’s first four-engine jet bomber. Another was the RA-5C Vigilante, which was a carrier-based tactical reconnaissance aircraft that saw extensive duty with the U.S. Navy. Then came the X-15 hypersonic research aircraft. It was the most successful rocket-powered aircraft in history and served as a vital transitional link between manned aircraft and manned spacecraft.
In 1960 Lee Atwood became Chief Executive Officer of North American Aviation and two years later he was elected Chairman of its Board of Directors. Meanwhile, with the coming of the Space Age, he led its efforts into the field of aerospace activities. Among the programs that the company conceived and executed under his direction were the Apollo command and service modules which carried men to the moon and back nine times in the Apollo lunar landing program, the building of the S-II second stage of the Saturn V lunar launch vehicle, and the F-1 and J-2 rocket engines that powered the three main stages of the Saturn V and the engine that lifted the Apollo lunar module ascent stage from the surface of the moon.
Other developments vital to the nation’s security conceived under Atwood’s leadership included the guidance and control systems for the Minuteman nuclear missile deterrent force, including the Minuteman III; and the Ships Inertial Navigation and Control Systems for the Polaris/Poseidon ballistic missile submarine fleet.
When North American Aviation merged with Rockwell-Standard Corporation in 1967, Atwood became President and Chief Executive Officer of the newly-formed North American Rockwell Corporation. He retired from this post in 1970. However, prior to his retirement he was responsible for the early stages of the development of the B-1 bomber and NASA’s Space Shuttle manned space vehicle and its main engines.
Lee Atwood remained as a member of the Board of Directors of North American Rockwell Corporation until 1977. Following this, he became a senior consultant in 1978 and continued to serve the company known as Rockwell International.
Throughout the more than five decades of his active contributions to aerospace progress, John Leland “Lee” Atwood earned a reputation as a brilliant, creative engineer and astute business leader. Though he was always the central figure in the major technical decisions that were the keystones of his company’s contributions to major advances in aeronautics, he preferred to emphasize the team approach to the developments that followed. Technical integrity and good stewardship of the nation’s investments in defense were the hallmarks of his leadership.
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