Aviation Legend: Lee Atwood 1904 – 1999

John Leland Atwood: Engineer at Heart & Aerospace Legend

Aviation legend Lee Atwood — who was instrumental in designing the P-51 Mustang; the F-100, world’s first operational supersonic jet fighter; the X-15 rocket plane; and the Apollo Command Module that took astronauts to the moon — died on March 5, 1999, at the age of 94.

Mr. Atwood began his career at Douglas Aircraft Company, and served as president and chief executive officer of North American Aviation. Both are now part of The Boeing Company.

Lee Atwood
Lee Atwood, shortly before his 94th birthday.

The following article, profiling Mr. Atwood’s contribution to aerospace, was published in the Boeing News on Oct. 2, 1998.

As one of the founding members of the team that formed North American Aviation, Inc. in 1934, Lee Atwood became a living legend in the aerospace community. Atwood began his career when wood, fabric, and the slide rule were the building blocks for producing airplanes.

During a 1997 speech in Los Angeles, Boeing Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Phil Condit aptly described him. “Lee Atwood was born about 10 months after the Wright Brothers first flew — and he’s seen it all happen, from wood to wire, from cloth to aluminum, to people walking on the moon. It has been a magnificent journey.”

A journey indeed — with a great many significant milestones. Atwood’s schooling centered on the discipline of engineering and very early in his career his talents were quickly noticed by James “Dutch” Kindelberger, then vice president of engineering at Douglas Aircraft Company. Having gained engineering experience helping to design the TBD-1 Devastator torpedo bomber for the Navy, and the DC-1/DC-2 commercial airplanes, Kindelberger (who was leaving Douglas Aircraft in 1934), asked Atwood to join him at what was to become North American Aviation.

Lee Atwood – recognition and significant awards:

  • 1948 — Presidential Certificate of Merit given by President Truman for contributions during WWII
  • 1965 — Honorary Fellow, AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics)
  • 1970 — AFA (Air Force Association) Hap Arnold Trophy
  • 1970 — NAA (National Aeronautic Association) Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy
  • 1974 — Member, National Academy of Engineering
  • 1976 — NAA (National Aeronautic Association) elected Elder Statesman of Aviation
  • 1984 — International Aerospace Hall of Fame
  • 1986 — Aerospace Historical Preservation Committee of the California Museum Foundation, Award of Excellence
  • 1987 — International Academy of Astronautics
  • 1994 — Howard Hughes Memorial Award

Holder of the unofficial world speed record of Mach 6.7 (4,520 mph), and altitude record of 354,200 feet, the X-15 is shown being dropped from a B-52. Eight X-15 pilots earned astronaut wings by flying above 50 miles.

Exuding an aura of intellectual leadership and meticulous perfection, Atwood quickly rose through the ranks, becoming vice president in 1934, assistant general manager in 1938 and “first” vice president in 1941. He became president in 1948, CEO in 1960 and chairman of the board in 1962. Atwood led the1967 North American merger with Rockwell Standard, and became president and CEO of North American Rockwell. He remained in that position until his retirement in 1971.

From an original group of uniquely talented individuals at North American, a proud heritage had evolved. Under Atwood’s leadership, new and unique aerodynamic shapes that would greatly influence history were designed and built. The T-6 Texan, B-25 Mitchell, P-51 Mustang; and on to the jet and space age, with the F-86 Sabre, F-100 Super Sabre, rocket propulsion/guidance systems, X-15, trisonic XB-70, Apollo and the B-1 bomber.

F-100 Super Sabre
The F-100 Super Sabre was the first operational supersonic jet fighter.

Recognized for his contributions to the Apollo program, Atwood was portrayed in the recent HBO Miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon.” His career paralleled many of the most significant events in aerospace history — and his leadership helped to shape them.

The journey continued

P-51 Mustang
The legendary P-51 Mustang showing its unique air scoop under the fuselage.

Atwood maintained an active “retirement” schedule, corresponding with members of industry and authors, writing technical papers and attending as many aerospace-related events as possible. In July 1998, having just returned from a second trip in two years to England to lecture on the aerodynamic virtues of the P-51, Atwood was eager to discuss history as well as a few more recent events in aerospace.

During World War II, everyone was trying to figure out how the P-51 Mustang was out-performing German fighters as well as the British Spitfire, which had more horsepower and was 1,000 pounds lighter. The German aircraft manufacturer, Messerschmitt, was also researching the Mustang’s performance to no avail.

Lee Atwood
Lee Atwood, left, with North American founder Dutch Kindelberger in the mid-1950s. During this time North American began to diversify into new technologies, such as missiles, rocket propulsion and guidance systems.

Atwood explained, “Both the British and German engineers at the time thought you could test a scale model in a wind tunnel. But the wind tunnel models didn’t generate the engine-heat factor, which we successfully controlled within the air scoop to create positive thrust. They were all looking at Mustang’s laminar flow wing, which was noted for reducing air friction over the surface of aircraft wings.”

Pointing to several mathematical equations, Atwood continued, “The laminar flow wing is great for jet airplanes or in a high-speed dive but had little effect on the P-51’s overall performance envelope. You have to attribute the speed increase to the radiator energy recovery (positive thrust), not the characteristic of the wing itself. The wing did help in a dive — not in level flight. I never mentioned this to anyone during the war.”

Atwood credited F.W. Meredith of the RAE Farnborough, U.K., whose August 1935 report known as the Meredith Effect greatly influenced his work on the P-51 cooling radiator.

F-86 SabreThe F-86 Sabre Jet achieved a 10-to-1 kill ratio against the MiG-15 during the Korean War.

Referring to the incorporation of a swept-wing into the XP-86 Sabre Jet design, Atwood stressed, “I was very anxious to have good ‘momentum recovery’ and pushed very hard for a through-intake. The swept-wing had a structural weight penalty but it was worth it when we saw the data — it produced a maximum delay in sonic-shock drag. We did what Boeing did — they adopted a swept-wing to their B-47 design. We had a contract with the Air Force for a straight-wing XP-86 and we got them to agree to the change,” Atwood said.

And as history recorded, the F-86 Sabre Jet emerged to become a true classic, as did the Navy and Marine FJ Fury versions.

Capable of flying at Mach 3 plus (2,000 mph +) at 70,000 feet, the XB-70 Valkyrie would have been virtually unstoppable as a bomber weapons system.

In a statement that might surprise some aviation historians, Atwood downplayed the significance of the “compression lift” (ability to ride its own shockwave) phenomenon on the XB-70, and credited the intake design which allowed the engines to operate as ramjets at altitude.

“On the XB-70 we were getting 6,000 miles range at Mach 3, and we got better fuel consumption the faster we went as a result of the ‘momentum recovery.’ The only limiting factor was the heat generated on the airplane’s skin. ‘Compression lift’ was like the laminar flow wing on the Mustang — it was there, but did little.”

Discussing the recent acquisitions and mergers, Atwood stated, “It seems to me that Boeing is a very good home for the Rockwell people. It’s a combination that seemed inevitable. There isn’t enough defense work and you need depth in so many technologies — altogether I can’t see anything unhealthy about it.”

On the subject of the Boeing and McDonnell Douglas merger, Atwood continued. “Boeing seems to have a broad-gauge management and, as far as I can tell, they are as fair to the acquisition people as they are to their own. And I think the distinction will be gone very soon, the way they’re working. I’m pretty happy about it.”

Courtesy, Boeing News