Willis Hawkins And The Genesis Of The Hercules

“If this design is really as terrible as Kelly Johnson says it is, the Air Force will think that, too, and they’ll give the contract to somebody else. I think we ought to submit the proposal.” With those words, Willis Hawkins convinced his boss, Hall Hibbard, then the vice president and chief engineer of Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, to submit the proposal for the aircraft that would become the C-130 Hercules. It was 10 April 1951.

Hawkins was thirty-seven years old at the time and in charge of the Advanced Design department for Lockheed. He led the team that in a little over two months had come up with the design for what was being called the Model 82 in response to a US Air Force request for proposal for a new transport.

The idea for this new transport came at the end of a hastily called budget meeting a week after the Korean War broke out in June 1950. Participants at the meeting formulated ideas for spending additional research and development money. An Air Force colonel, whose name is lost to history, remarked that the service needed an extremely rugged medium transport that could land on unprepared airstrips. The aircraft, to be used primarily for freight transport, needed to carry about 30,000 pounds to a range of 1,500 miles. It also needed the capability to carry troops.

The additional funds stayed in the budget, as did most of that colonel’s proposed requirements. The Air Force issued a general operational requirement on 2 February 1951 to Boeing, Douglas, Fairchild, and Lockheed for a transport able to: (1) carry ninety-two infantrymen or sixty-four paratroopers on a mission with a combat radius of 1,100 nautical miles or, alternatively, a 30,000-pound cargo more than 960 miles; (2) operate from short, unprepared airstrips of clay, sand, or humus soil; (3) slow down to 125 knots for paradrops and even slower for assault landings; (4) have both a rear ramp operable in flight for heavy equipment drops and side doors for paratroop drops; (5) handle bulky and heavy equipment including bulldozers, artillery pieces, and trucks; and (6) fly with one engine out.

Hawkins, ninety years old and still mentally sharp and physically active at the time of this interview in 2004, recalls that the Air Force’s request for proposal contained only seven pages. “We got the RFP and set up teams to look at performance, develop a description of the aircraft, and determine weight. We also had to estimate development cost.

A Short Meeting
“Our proposal was bigger than the Air Force’s seven-page RFP, but still only about 130 pages and maybe three-quarters of an inch thick. We took it to Hibbard so he could sign a letter that committed the company to our estimates. We also brought a design model, which had a wingspan of about fifteen inches. Hall looked at the model, thumbed through the proposal, and asked a few questions. Then he asked, ‘Has Kelly seen this?’ We said, no, we haven’t seen Johnson for a couple of months. He’s working on something secret [which turned out to be the F-104] and hasn’t been around. Hibbard said, ‘Well, Kelly ought to look at it.’

“Hibbard was Johnson’s boss. So when Hall called, Kelly had to come. Kelly looked at the model and thumbed through the performance part of the proposal. He then said, ‘Hibbard, if you sign that letter, you will destroy the Lockheed Company.’ And with that he walked out of the office.

“Kelly wasn’t much interested in the transport. It didn’t carry bombs, didn’t have machine guns, and didn’t fly Mach 3. After an awkward pause, Hibbard finally said, ‘Well, Willy, that model has a lovely finish.’ I went back to work on Hibbard. I said, look, the Air Force expects us to submit a proposal. We told them we would, and we have to get it in the mail today.”

Hibbard signed the letter and Johnson did, in the end, sign off on the proposal. Lockheed was informed that the company had won the competition on 2 July 1951. Nine days later, the Air Force awarded the formal contract for two prototypes to be designated YC-130.

A Long Association
That encounter in Hall Hibbard’s office was probably the biggest disagreement between Willis Hawkins and Kelly Johnson. But it was not the first time the two engineering geniuses hadn’t quite seen eye to eye.

“In the late 1930s, Kelly knew that the P-38 needed counter-rotating propellers,” Hawkins recalls. “But he was convinced they needed to rotate toward the pilot with the blades coming over the top. Several of us had to convince him they needed to rotate away from the pilot with the blades coming up from the bottom. We tried it both ways in flight test and our choice better counteracted the torque and was a little safer for the pilot. The P-38 became a more docile, pilot-friendly flying machine after that.”

The two men first met in 1933, when Johnson, then assistant to Hibbard, brought the Lockheed Model 10 to the wind tunnel at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Hawkins, then an undergraduate, ran the wind tunnel.

“The original Electra design had a single vertical tail, which didn’t have enough area. So the aircraft had stability and dead engine control problems,” Hawkins notes. “Kelly came up with the idea of putting endplates on the horizontal tail. The plates not only provided enough area, they put the tails into the slipstream behind the engine, which made for better control.” Johnson and Hawkins fabricated the new verticals for the model in the tunnel shop and the design change worked. The Electra was a huge success; 148 aircraft were built. The Electra became a direct ancestor to the storied Hudson patrol bomber in World War II.

“We faced a similar stability problem with the Constellation a decade later,” Hawkins adds. “The original design had two tails, but they didn’t provide enough stability for the big airliner. We couldn’t make the twin tails taller because then the design wouldn’t fit in TWA’s hangars. We couldn’t extend them from the bottom of the stabilizer, because they would scrape the runway when it landed. I came up with the idea of the third vertical.” The triple tail became the Constellation’s most notable design feature.

Hail To The Victors
Hawkins, the only child of a divorced mother, attended an experimental high school established by the head of a summer camp where he had worked. “Five of us were in the school’s first graduating class,” Hawkins recalls. “Unfortunately, the school was not accredited anywhere in the world.

“I decided to go to the University of Michigan, but I was told I had to take fifteen exams and then I still might not get in. Well, I didn’t want to do that. I enrolled in a little college in Illinois that had about 1,200 students. I took all the math and physics courses there I could. Then I transferred to Michigan.

“I had taken years of advanced physics courses at Michigan and passed them all. But I hadn’t taken one particular transfer student physics course. The physics department wasn’t going to let me graduate because I hadn’t taken the course. I left and took a job in industry. After a year, I came to my senses, went back to school, and took some graduate courses. Only then did I get special dispensation to finally get my degree.” Decades later, Hawkins received an honorary doctorate, but only after the university chancellor had smoothed things over with the physics department about that Physics 101 course missing from his transcript.

Hawkins, his college roommate, and a mutual friend all received telegrams from Lockheed Aircraft in 1937. “I was probably hired on the basis of Kelly’s recommendation,” Hawkins says. “That telegram noted my starting salary of $1,500 a year. All three of us lived out our professional lives at Lockheed, and we were all quite successful.”

Coincidentally, after Hawkins moved to California, he would later buy a house from Allan Lockheed, one of the brothers who had started the company in 1913. After Lockheed Aircraft had gone into receivership for a week in 1932, Allan became so disgusted with the airplane business, he took up real estate as a career.

Designing The Hercules
A number of Lockheed legacy aircraft carry Hawkins’ fingerprints. He was a structural component designer on the P-38, the Hudson, and Lodestar. In 1947, he organized and headed the team that developed the X-7 ramjet test vehicle. He was the head of the preliminary design group that produced the Constellation, P-80, XF-90, F-94, and F-104. Then came the C-130.

“Doing things for the US government is always little bit complicated,” Hawkins observes. “The C-130 program was a little simpler. The RFP had a list of payloads the Air Force needed to carry in the new plane. That set the height and weight of the cargo compartment. It is a great compliment to the Air Force that the people who wrote the requirement did it right the first time. They had no predisposition to what the aircraft should look like. The Tactical Air Command guys who were going to get the airplane knew what the requirements were, and how it looked was up to us.

“We basically took the dimensions of the biggest piece of equipment the Air Force had specified, drew a circle around its cross section, and turned the circle into a tube about the length of a railroad boxcar. We put wings, a nose and a tail on it, and we had the design,” Hawkins adds. “We put the aircraft low to the ground so we could use the ramp to get cargo on and off easily.”

The design team recognized that this was the first tactical cargo aircraft the Air Force had designed from scratch. “Even though Kelly didn’t agree, we thought the C-130 might have a good span of production for the Air Force,” Hawkins notes. “As soon as the Air Force started flying the aircraft, other air forces came to us and started asking questions about it.”

Lockheed built a full-scale mockup of the complete fuselage, one engine, and a section of wing. The government held its first mockup board review session in the mockup itself. “We put the tables and projectors on the cargo floor,” Hawkins says. “After the review, the Air Force didn’t change much with the design aside from some detail changes in the cockpit. We didn’t mind making those changes since we had not built the prototypes.”

In the days when the C-130 was conceived, all the commercial transports — DC 4, DC 5, Stratoliner, and Constellation — had a flight engineer. “Pilots thought the aircraft had too many engines to keep track of, so the planes couldn’t have a two-pilot operation,” observes Hawkins. “The copilot and the flight engineer ran the aircraft, and the pilot flew it. The C-130 came at a transition time. Nobody was used to turbine engines, and the Allison T56 engine was complicated for its day. No one was certain how much equipment to put in the flight engineer’s station to keep those engines running.”

Dick Pulver, who had been a project engineer on the P-38 and Constellation, was chosen to be the lead engineer on the C-130. “We set up a separate organization for those two prototypes and set aside a piece of the factory for production. Dick Pulver did a beautiful job of running it,” Hawkins adds. “The two aircraft were delivered on schedule and on cost. The test pilots gave the aircraft a good wringing out. The performance matched our estimates.”

Into The Air; Into Production
The first flight of the YC-130, which was actually the second aircraft built, came on 23 August 1954 with company test pilots Stan Beltz, who was later killed in an F-94 mishap, and Roy Wimmer at the controls. Dick Stanton was the flight engineer, and Jack Real was the flight test engineer. During the sixty-one minute flight, the aircraft was flown from Burbank to the Air Force Flight Test Station at nearby Edwards AFB. Johnson, whose thinking on the C-130 had changed dramatically as the aircraft was being built, flew in the chase aircraft, a P2V Neptune.

The second YC-130 prototype, the first aircraft off the line, was used in the ground-based static test program, and was finally flown for the first time on 21 January 1955.

With production of the T-33, Constellation, and Neptune in full swing, Burbank facilities had no space for an additional production line. Shortly after Lockheed won the contract for the YC-130s, officials decided to move the program to the company’s new factory in Georgia if the C-130 went into production.In To The Air; Into Production

“We had just reopened Air Force Plant 6 in Marietta, mainly for license production of the B-47 Stratojet,” notes Hawkins. “Lockheed and Douglas had won the right to be the second-source producers for the bomber. We were already cleaning up the Marietta plant and decided it had plenty of room for C-130 production.

“We sent the whole design team to Georgia, as they were in charge of working up the production proposal to the Air Force,” recalls Hawkins. “Most of them went kicking and screaming, because they didn’t want to have anything to do with Georgia. Two years later, we tried to bring them back to California and they were kicking and screaming again because they liked Georgia so much that they didn’t want to come back. The Hercules has been in Georgia ever since.

“The design team changed some things to make the C-130 cheaper to produce, but not too much. The visual differences between the production aircraft and the prototypes are not noticeable,” Hawkins notes. “What has happened with the C-130 since those early days has been absolutely remarkable.”

On To Other Things
After working on the XFV experimental vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, Hawkins was tapped to start the new Lockheed Missiles and Space Division in Sunnyvale, California, near San Francisco.

“I was one of the founders of Missiles and Space and eventually ended up running the space half,” Hawkins recalls. Among other things, he headed the X-17 reentry test vehicle and the UGM-27 Polaris sea-launched ballistic missile program — the US Navy’s first SLBM — for which he was awarded the Navy’s Distinguished Public Service Medal.

“One of my projects while at Missiles and Space was declassified around 2001,” Hawkins notes. “We were taking pictures of Russia from space, and if you don’t think the Corona satellite program had some adventures….” Some of those adventures included having one entire satellite crash in Antarctica and another one lost in Finland.

The first successful Corona mission came on the thirteenth try, but the canister containing the film that was ejected was lost when it came down 1,200 miles from where it was expected.

After the fourteenth launch, the film canister, known as a bucket, was recovered. “A presidential aide mentioned to Eisenhower that it was the first object to have ever been recovered from space. The president picked up on that and insisted that the bucket be presented to the Smithsonian,” Hawkins recalls. “So there was Eisenhower, Gen. Bernard Schriever [the architect of the Air Force’s ballistic missile program], and half a dozen Washington big wheels at the Smithsonian for a formal ceremony. I have never figured out what story they told to explain how that bucket got to the museum."

A JC-130, a Hercules modified for testing, was used for midair recovery of the photographic buckets from later Corona missions.

Hawkins served as assistant secretary for research and development for the Army from 1962 to 1965, where he was instrumental in starting development of the M1 Abrams main battle tank. He then returned to Lockheed and took Hibbard’s spot on the board of directors, and retired from day-to-day activity in the early 1980s. Lockheed chairman Roy Anderson brought Hawkins back to run the Lockheed California Company on an interim basis in the 1980s. Hawkins retired for good in 1986.

Back To Lockheed
Even in retirement, Hawkins was called on as a consultant. During flight test on the C-130J, test crews got the aircraft down to what should have been the stall speed, but it kept on flying. “At that point, the crew started wondering what the actual stall speed was,” notes Hawkins. “They slowed down and slowed down some more and nothing. Suddenly, at a very slow speed, the C-130 did a snap roll and it scared the hell out of the crew. It looked like we had a problem. The aircraft wouldn’t stall.

Engineers determined that the new six-bladed propellers on the C-130J cleaned the boundary layer of air off the root of the wing. I spent a couple of months in Georgia helping them work that out. A better boundary layer control system could not be designed intentionally,” Hawkins adds. “We tried vortex generators, rakes, fences, and leading edge stall strips, but could not get it to stall. We ended up installing a stick pusher, just like in a fighter, that takes over and pushes the nose down. You still can’t stall that aircraft.”

He views the C-130 as one of his greatest successes: “The C-130 is not exactly an attractive aircraft. It is still in production and still doing the job it was designed for. Originally, some questioned who would want to buy such an aircraft. Irv Culver, one of our engineers, said that if we make it right the first time, we could sell it to anybody. I think we must have done it exactly right.”

Willis Hawkins died at his home in Woodland Hills, California, on 28 September 2004, at age ninety, shortly after this interview was first published in the Volume 19, Number 3 issue of Code One.

At the time, Hawkins owned Hawkins Airport, a grass strip in northern Michigan where he had never landed, and he drove to the Van Nuys Airport every day to work on his latest project—a kitplane he was building “out of habit,” he said.

Jeff Rhodes is the associate editor of Code One.
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