Posted on Sat, Oct. 02, 2004
Willis M. Hawkins, engineer who designed Hercules transport plane, has died
LOS ANGELES - Willis M. Hawkins, the designer of the military transport aircraft known as the C-130 Hercules and a former top Lockheed executive, has died. He was 90.
Hawkins, a Woodland Hills resident, died Tuesday of natural causes at his home, his son, Willis Jr., said Saturday. The C-130 is one of the few planes in the history of aviation that has stayed in continuous production for 50 years
The engineer, born in Kansas City, Mo., enjoyed telling a story of how he arrived at Lockheed Corporation in California at the height of the Great Depression. As a college graduation present, an uncle gave him a $400 check, which Hawkins used to buy a new Ford coupe. Along with a fellow University of Michigan engineering graduate, he drove from Ann Arbor, Mich., to Burbank, where they were hired by Lockheed's chief engineer. He started work July 1, 1937.
Hawkins spent more than 40 years with the firm, contributing to the design and development of a wide variety of military and commercial aircraft, including the Polaris Missile, the first missile ever to be launched underwater using a submarine as a firing platform and the C-130 plane.
"He was a brilliant thinker," said James Ragsdale, former director of communications for Lockheed, who worked with Hawkins in the late 1970s. "He spent a lot of time promoting the idea that aircraft could be weaned away from petroleum by using liquid hydrogen - that was a pioneering concept in the 1970s. It made other scientists and engineers sneer, but he never paid much attention to that."
During the Korean War, the Air Force held a design competition for a new type of transport plane that could carry cargo and troops off dirt runways. Willis and other Lockheed colleagues came up with an "odd-looking design, very boxy and low to the ground," Ragsdale said Saturday in a telephone interview.
When Hawkins showed the design, which was based on the internal dimensions of a railroad boxcar, to senior management at Lockheed, they said "If you build it, you'll kill the Lockheed Company," Ragsdale said.
"Willis was a great one for ignoring naysayers," Ragsdale said. "He talked his bosses into letting him submit it, and sure enough, it won the competition. It first flew in 1954, and it is still in production ... No other airplane comes close."
The C-130 is flown by military services of more than 60 countries and is a cargo- and troop-carrying airplane used in combat zones in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to Ragsdale.
Hawkins became senior vice president of Lockheed Corporation and served on its board of directors.
He is survived by two sons, James of Lomita, and Willis Jr. of Menlo Park, and a daughter, Nancy Hawkins Bostick of Menlo Park.