Obituary: Lee Atwood

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The Independent Culture
NO SINGLE person did more to create aircraft for the Royal Air Force, as well as for the armed forces of the United States, than Lee Atwood, a leader of the United States aircraft industry for 50 years.

Early in the Second World War, in March 1940, the British Purchasing Commission in the US visited North American Aviation (NAA), which was already supplying Harvards to the RAF, and asked whether they would make Curtiss P-40 fighters under licence for them. The classic reply was: "We can build you a better airplane."

Within a few months Atwood, with his assistants Ray Rice and Ed Schmued, had designed the Mustang. It was first flown on 26 October 1940, and its most unusual feature was that the Allison engine was cooled by fluid pumped through a large radiator inside the rear fuselage. The radiator was in a profiled duct according to a scheme proposed in 1935 by the Englishman F.W. Meredith; instead of creating drag, the radiator put out hot air which gave jet-propulsion thrust.

The British found the Mustang the best fighter in the United States, and placed an immediate order for 320. Its only shortcoming was that its performance deteriorated at high altitudes. Army Co-operation Command, which had previously been equipped with the Curtis P-40 and which flew chiefly at low altitudes, responded to them very favourably. In 1942 a Mustang was re-engined with the British Rolls-Royce Merlin made under licence by Packard at Detroit.

The result was what most consider the best fighter of the war. With the same engine, the Spitfire IX reached 405mph and the Mustang 437mph. Not only that, but it was the only fighter with the range to accompany bombers throughout Germany. Hermann Goering said: "When I saw Mustangs over Berlin I knew the war was lost." Mustang production totalled 15,586 during the Second World War. Immediately after the war, Atwood and his colleagues designed the Twin Mustang - essentially two Mustangs riding on a single wing - which performed excellently in Korea.

John Leland Atwood was born in Walton, Kentucky, in 1904. In 1922 he studied at Wayland College, followed by Hardin-Simmons University before receiving a BS degree from the University of Texas. In 1928 he began work as a junior engineer at the Army Aircraft Branch at Wright Field, Ohio. In 1930 he landed the job of chief structures engineer at Douglas Aircraft, at Santa Monica, Los Angeles.

Four years later he was poached by Ernest R. Breech of General Motors to bolster the technical strength of General Aviation at Dundalk, Maryland. At this very time the 1934 Air Mail Act disrupted the industry, and GA was forced to hive off. It called itself North American Aviation, and occupied a small plant at Mines Field, Inglewood. Over the next 10 years this field became LA International Airport, and NAA the most prolific producer of aircraft in the world, with Atwood vice- president and chief engineer.

When it moved to Inglewood NAA had just one order, from the US Army for 42 training aircraft called the BT-9. Under Atwood's direction this proliferated as the standard advanced trainer of the Allies in the Second World War, known to the US forces as the Texan and to the RAF as the Harvard. Most wartime pilots, including myself, trained on this aircraft, which even served Hitler's Luftwaffe (they used aircraft supplied to France in 1938- 40) and was built under licence in Japan. The overall total was 21,342.

In 1938 Atwood began work on a far more powerful aircraft, the B-25 Mitchell bomber. The first time this hit the headlines was in April 1942 when, to show the Japanese they could be bombed, the famed pilot Jimmy Doolittle led 16 off the deck of the carrier Hornet. Never intended for such duty, these large bombers had to line up on deck and make free takeoffs. Each just staggered into the air, but all 16 bombed Tokyo. Total production of the B-25 was 9,817, and they served on every front including the Soviet Union.

Immediately after the war, employment at NAA quickly slumped from the 1944 peak of 91,700, but under Atwood's direction a succession of superior designs went into production. One was the Navy FJ-1, a jet fighter with a Mustang- derived wing. The US Air Force version was the XP-86 Sabre, but Atwood deliberately delayed this while the wings and tail were swept back in arrowhead fashion according to captured German data.

First flown on 1 October 1947, the Sabre soon set world speed records of 670mph, and in Korea was the only Allied jet able to take on the Russian MiG-15 which also had sweptback wings. The RAF had nothing in the same class until it got 431 Sabres made in Canada in the early 1950s. Total production of the Sabre was 8,681.

NAA followed with the F-100 Super Sabre, the first Western fighter able to fly faster than sound in level flight; 2,239 were delivered from 1953. Among other great aircraft came the RA-5C Vigilante, the heaviest and most powerful aircraft ever to operate from carriers (far surpassing the old B-25). At twice the speed of sound it could carry precise radar-mapping equipment. One day the Admirals carefully measured the image brought back of a baseball pitch taken from a slant range of over 30 miles. The size was not quite right. Later it was discovered the error was in the marking out of the pitch.

Even more remarkable was the X-15, a rocket-engined research aircraft which between 1959 and 1968 flew higher (314,750ft) and faster (4,520mph, Mach 6.7) than any other aircraft before or since. NAA became leader in giant missiles and rocket engines, and created the Apollo lunar module which took man to the Moon. In mergers in 1967 and 1973 the company became Rockwell International, and after Atwood's retirement became the prime contractor for the Space Shuttle.

Atwood became president of NAA in 1948, chief executive officer in 1960 and chairman in 1962, and retired in 1970, though remaining a consultant for another eight years. He received honours from many countries. In 1998, at the age of 93, he gave a warmly appreciated talk to an aviation society in Yorkshire.

John Leland Atwood, aeronautic engineer: born Walton, Kentucky 26 October 1904; Vice-President and Chief Engineer, North American Aviation 1934- 48, President 1948-70; married; died Santa Monica, California 5 March 1999.