Location: North American, El Segundo, Calif.
Date: January 19, 1989
TAPE 1, SIDE 1
MR. COLLINS: To begin our discussion, I'd like to get abrief family background, who your parents were, where you grew up, when you were born, and then the beginnings of your education.
MR. ATWOOD: I was born October 26, 1904, in Walton,Kentucky a suburb of Cincinnati the home of my grandfather, my mother's father, who was Dr. D.M. Bagby, a physician. My father was born in Clinton, Kentucky. He married my mother in Walton in 1902. His father was a civil servant and surveyor in western Kentucky, the town of Clinton. His name was E.B. Atwood. He received a doctor's degree in theology from Georgetown University in Louisville, Kentucky. My mother received a master's degree in music from Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. My brother and I were the children of that couple. My brother, E. Bagby Atwood, received a doctor's degree in philology from the University of Virginia. He became a professor of linguistics and philology. He taught at Stanford University, and at the end of his life he was a full professor at the University of Texas, in Austin. He died rather early, at the age of 57.
COLLINS: Was he older or younger than you?
ATWOOD: He was a year and a half younger than I. Myfirst memory is in the town of Yoakum, Texas, between Houston and San Antonio, where my father was a Baptist preacher. He moved the family shortly thereafter to Alpine, Texas, where he was also a Baptist preacher. When I was about seven, he moved to El Paso, where he was pastor of a church. About two years later he became secretary of the Baptist organization in New Mexico. We moved to Albuqerque, lived there until 1919, when we moved to Plainview, Texas, where my father became president of Wayland Baptist College, where he served for eight or ten years. We finally moved to Abilene, Texas, where he became a teacher in Hardin Simmons University. He retired from that and died in the early fifties at the age of 83. I went to school at various public schools where my parents lived, and also at Wayland Baptist College, where I finished two years of college. I finished two years of schooling at Hardin Simmons University in Abilene, where I tried to specialize in physics and mathematics.
COLLINS: Was Hardin Simmons a religious school?
ATWOOD: It was a Baptist college also. After graduating at Hardin Simmons, I was able fortunately to learn something more useful. I went to the University of Texas at Austin, studied engineering. In two years I received a BS degree to go with my AB from Hardin Simmons, and that was the end of my formal schooling. I took a civil service examination at the end of the school year in 1928. It was a two day exam, one for engineering and one for math. I made 93 in each exam, and I was offered a couple of jobs in the government, but I was pretty sure I wanted to work for a construction company in Texas, and I did have a job. I had a position available, but I received a letter from a man named Earl Alley who was the personnel director at the Army Air Corps Materiel Center in Dayton, Ohio, saying that they had tried to employ three graduate aeronautical engineers that year and they could only find two who were qualified and after reviewing my papers, they thought I might be qualified for the job, and I was offered a position there.
COLLINS: When you took the civil service examination, did you have some idea of where you wanted to be in the government?
ATWOOD: No, it was more or less a--I guess you'd call it a pair of suspenders to go with the belt. It was good to have a rating, you know. And some of my classmates were taking the exams. So I thought I'd better do it. I accepted the job at Wright Field, having just been married, and I fortunately had a small car, which I drove back to Dayton, and went to work. My immediate superior was a senior engineer named Jean Roche, who was one of the bright minds of the airplane branch of the Air Materiel organization. They called it a division, a regular Army element. They had about a thousand people in the place. Hangars, airflight test, an engine lab, materials lab, an airplane branch which I was in and an instrument laboratory.
My contemporaries consisted of three or four young engineers who were working in the airplane branch, I'm talking now about the airplane branch of the Division. We did various things. Mostly at our level of expertise we made minor stress analyses, we reviewed and checked contractors' analyses and reports, and sometimes designed changes or modifications in airplanes that were being tested, and of course we had access to the library, which was probably as good as any in the aeronautical field at the time. I was able to get up to speed on contemporary aerodynamics and propeller theory through such study.
I was really by education, at least, a structural engineer, and the structures were getting most of the attention in those days, because then, along with the legislation that produced the Federal Aviation Administration, (at that time it was called the Civil Aviation Authority,) they required stress analyses on any aircraft that was sold and certificated. The Air Corps had, of course, been using stress analyses on their aircraft for quite a long time, but the interest in it was high because there had been many structural failures, and the knowledge of both the strength of the structures and the applied loads was not good. It was, let's say, somewhat arbitrary and incomplete. So I had anopportunity to work on a lot of projects from that point of view.
Of course, I also learned some aerodynamics and aerodynamic analysis. Just as an example, they asked me to make an analysis, a study as to whether one of their airplanes could break the altitude record or not. I made the study and concluded that it might need a new landing gear, because it needed a bigger propeller and the propeller would hit the ground. And strangely enough, the chief engineer, Major Howard, came by one day and started to read a citation to me for my good work on that report. I was really embarrassed. But as Kipling said, I learned about the Army from that.
COLLINS: Did you have any aeronautics courses while you were at the University of Texas?
COLLINS: So your engineering knowledge was general, in a sense. You were bringing general principles to bear on this particular area.
ATWOOD: Math and structures and physics. But of course, I was able with a little extra study to get up to speed on the current aerodynamics theory pretty well.
COLLINS: Did you have a reasonably strong mathematical background? Was that an interest of yours?
ATWOOD: I considered it good for the time. I was quite handy with first and second order differential equations, such things, and I think my expertise in structures and math was superior to that of some people who had taken aeronautical engineering, and the need for such capability was kind of focussing at the time. It probably enabled me compete successfully.
COLLINS: Now, was the Air Corps branch a laboratory comparable to the other laboratories, or was it more of an over-arching structure under which there were several laboratories?
ATWOOD: It was a branch of the materiel division, the airplane branch. It consisted of mostly just people with drawing boards, desks, what you might laughingly call computers. They were glorified adding machines. There were shops connected to it, for certain experimental work, not anything great, but I have to point out that at the time, they were also building the first experimental pressurized cabin, probably in this world, for tests. That was in 1928-29. They also had supervision of flight tests, at least in the technical end, mechanical sense, although not necessarily the aviators themselves. They were Air Force officers. I mean, they were really Army officers, Air Corps. Now, the instrument lab had other testing facilities, and the airplane branch had static testing facilities, where they'd load on sand bags and use hydraulic cylinders and test the strength ofaircraft. That was commonplace for any airplane accepted by the Army Air Corps, for production to be static tested by the airplane branch.
COLLINS: So would this typically be an environment in which one examined the capabilities of airplanes that had already been produced? Or was it to begin to help address some of these questions about requirements and specifications and that kind of thing?
ATWOOD: Even then it was pretty well structured. The first thing they handed me was a book about an inch thick, HANDBOOK OF INSTRUCTIONS, for airplane designers. That included pertinent specifications, specification trees, and then, actual descriptions of the parameters or limits that you had to meet, for instance, the strength of wings for various forms of aircraft. They had acceleration factors. Landing gear, the drop rate, the height at which the drop had to be endured, fabric and metal specifications, rivet specifications.
COLLINS: These were things to pass along to the aircraft manufacturers?
ATWOOD: Yes, they also had copies of these specifications, naturally. Army and Navy standards were included. And methods by which analysis had to be done, various factors of strength and balance and aerodynamic performance estimation, all those things. But they were not actually building any airplanes or designing any airplanes, if that's what you mean.
COLLINS: I guess what I'm reaching for is precisely what their role was within the Air Corps.
ATWOOD: Well, it was really a kind of a gate--go, no-go--for technical performance of contractors in the airplane industry. That as much as anything, plus guidance as well as distributiion of guidance and help, really, assistance and of course as a technical center and clearing house.
COLLINS: Right. Did you have close contacts with NACA at this point? They served a similar kind of role.
ATWOOD: At my level, then, we did not, although some of the upper level aerodynamicists, senior engineers did. I never went to Langley Field or NACA during my work at Wright Field. I was at a lower level. But about a year later, why, I was offered a job to leave Wright Field and go with a commercial company. Of course, being completely ignorant of most everything, I thought it was a great idea.
I wanted to get into the airplane design and creative part, and I felt that--in those days, at least, there was every indication that promotion came slowly and was limited for civil service personnel, in that kind of work. The heads of thebranches, the heads of the groups, were all Army Air Corps officers who were rotated in and out. They'd all been through some kind of engineering training, but the civilians stayed and the Air Corps came and went. They were promoted and went on. The hierarchy of the organization did not seem that attractive to me as a civilian. I took this job.
I left Wright Field with a senior engineer named Fred Herman, who had a good reputation. He'd been a flier during World War I, and was educated at California University at Berkeley, and was at Wright Field as an engineer, a senior engineer. We went to Wichita, Kansas, to join the company, poorly financed, objectives were not very sharp; we were to build airplanes. To sum it up, after only six months, our venture went flat, and I lost my job.
Fred Herman got a job out here in California, on his reputation, with a company here on this airport, and the building was not far from here. We came out here toward the end of '29, took that job and it wasn't two months before it folded up. The stock market crash had affected everyone and everything was shrinking at a rate that I didn't appreciate, of course, having no real background in those things. But Fred again got us, got me a job with him at Douglas in Santa Monica. We went to work there the first of 1930. Fred became a project engineer, and later during the war he was the general manager of Douglas Long Beach plant. He died later on. He had been in poor health for some long time. Nothing disabling, but annoying. I don't know what he died of.
I got a job as a draftsman designer, and of course they put me to work on stress analysis very shortly, and that became my specialty for a while. There were some 50 people in the Douglas engineering department in 1929-30. I did some original things at that time, and they were considered creditable by the customers as well as by Douglas, and before I left Douglas in 1934--of course, I'd worked under Dutch Kindleberger, who was chief engineer, and Arthur Raymond, who was assistant chief engineer, and sort of supervised the work in detail. Dutch did an awful lot of customer contact and he was a very clever guy on mechanical things, too. We had about 250 people in the whole Douglas engineering when I left there, but that was quite a lot. I was kind of a section chief by then.
COLLINS: You mentioned that you thought in terms of design, that you had done several original things. I wonder if you might just comment on what those things were.
ATWOOD: Well, they're trivial by today's standards, I guess. I had a part in the DC-1, DC-2 design. I designed many of the junctions and fittings and did the stress analysis of the wing and fuselage and things like that. I guess a more technical type of work was the two analyses I made, one for a plane called the YO A 5. It was designed in a rather crude way. The wing had twometal beams, tip to tip, but it was also covered with metal, which kept it from twisting, didn't let the beams deflect normally. Actually the rear beam would have deflected much more than the front because it was thinner. I worked out an original method for that analysis, taking into account the torsion strength of the skin covering and it was rational, not just one safety device on top of another.
Secondly, we'd designed for the Navy a dive bomber, single seater, called the XF D 1, and it was right in the middle of a period of Navy trauma, when they'd lost several planes by having the wings come off diving in to drop bombs. Their technique was to dive vertically over a battleship, as close as they could, drop the bomb, pull out, barely clearing the water or terrain, and they wanted that drop to be as late as possible for accuracy. So their requirement was for a 9G pullout which was pretty high, and very few people were maneuvering in those brackets in those days, or even today.
I didn't know exactly what caused some of these failures. Great Lakes Airplane Company and Curtiss had wings pull off, fail. And I tried to rationally design the wing structure for that. It had four redundancies, that is, the deflection of the wings, the deflection of the flying wires, which were all commonly attached to the same fuselage, and I finally worked it out in my analysis and there was a calculus differentiation, covering about three pages of manuscript. The people at the Bureau of Aeronautics got it and asked the company to send me back to review it with them. That was then almost unheard of. We were 2500 miles away.
So Harry Wetzel, the general manager at Douglas--(he wasn't an engineer or technical man but Doug had brought him in to operate as a manager)--he said, "I've got an idea. There's an Air Corps plane going to fly back to Washington tomorrow, and we'll just put Atwood on that and send him." Well, there was an officer named Malloy, Vince Malloy, a major who was head of the Air Division of the Militia Bureau of the National Guard. Malloy had a helmet and a flying suit while I had a muffler and overcoat. It was an unheated Douglas O-2. It had a canopy but it had no heat and it was January. I flew back to Dayton with him, took us four days, but finally I got to Washington. The Navy was very complimentary of my work, so went back on the train, fortunately. Later I was privileged to watch my friend, Eddie Allen, a noted test pilot, make 9g pullouts offshore from Santa Monica. There were a couple more things I did, but they weren't anything that made any mark on the future or anything else, unless the background for the DC-3 was of some value.
Anyway, when Dutch left Douglas in 1934 to take the presidency of North American, he invited me to come along as chief engineer, which of course was a big promotion for me, although North American wasn't very much at the time. It was sort of the remnants of several organizations. It did have somemoney. North American had been created in 1928 by a man named C.M. Keyes, who visualized it as a holding company for aviation securities. And he sold some 35 million dollars worth of stock, and used the proceeds to buy into all sorts of aviation interests, airlines, manufacturing, one thing and another.
In 1934, Mr. Farley was Postmaster General, Roosevelt was President, and Farley decided there was some terrible scandal in that airmail contractors could buy their airplanes from the same company they belonged to, and then receive air mail subsidies at the same time which was theoretically possible. Boeing was building mail planes, and they were part of United Aircraft at the time which was also receiving airmail subsidies flying these planes. And so that link was broken, and North American had to start over.
They had some money, but they distributed their stocks pretty much to their stockholders. So when we got all through, there was only about five or six million dollars in the kitty. There was an old plant in Baltimore, and about 20 engineers and about oh, maybe a couple of hundred shop people. That's all North American was. So my position wasn't so high and mighty as chief engineer. Nevertheless, we started to work, and shortly built a trainer called the BT-9, on speculation with our own money. And I'll make that part short. We entered a competition and got a contract to build eventually 120 of them or so. We didn't like the facilities back there or even the surroundings, so Kindleberger got the board to move us out here. We started a little factory right over here on the corner of what's now International Airport in Los Angeles. It was then Mines Field. And we of course executed that contract, and things went on from there.
COLLINS: Who was your principal customer for the BT-9?
ATWOOD: For the BT-9?
COLLINS: No, for the T-6, I believe you said.
ATWOOD: I should correct myself. That is a story in itself, the first plane was the BT-9, Basic Trainer 9. It became, after a series of evolutions and increased power, it became the AT-6 eventually, and we produced some 15,000 of them during the war. But that was the derivation.
COLLINS: What was North American's ambition in the aviation industry at this time? What was it they wanted to do?
ATWOOD: Our ambition was quite low, at the moment. We wanted to become a viable engineering and manufacturing company. And the only way we could see to do it was getting the Army and Navy work. We competed for and got a contract for pontoons for a Navy airplane. There were 100 and some of them. It was not very profitable work, but it was something. And in those days, you'llhave to realize that standards, financial standards and all that were very, very low. I was making $55 a week at Douglas, and was a top engineer. Douglas's turnover those years, I doubt, was over a couple or three million dollars. Our ambition was to become viable, and the trainer business was the first thing we found we could handle. Now, I'll add something to that, because Dutch Kindleberger--he was a very pragmatic man--said he was looking for an opening, and he decided that the way we were going to be able to make it was to build aircraft somehow cheaper than the competitors. And he took a number of initiatives to accomplish that. Of course, this gets to involve some anecdotes, but I've got to give them to you--
ATWOOD: We opened the planes up so they were easier to work on. Our assembly time was much much lower than our competitors'. Alex de Seversky, the famous Russian flier, came over here, started the Seversky Airplane Company. He built and sold to the Air Force a plane called the BT-8. Absolutely beautiful, all metal, like burnished silver, and it was to be the trainer for the monoplanes which the services were beginning to shift to. The Air Corps bought eight of them, put them in service, but they never really got into the training command. One officer told me he couldn't fly that airplane and light a cigarette at the same time, to illustrate to me how tricky and unstable it was. So we had an opportunity there to improve and certainly we could improve on his costs, because installing things in that airplane, people had to be sort of groundhogs. And we did, we greatly reduced the costs.
One of the things we tried to do was leave structures in halves, leave them open, put in plumbing, wiring, brackets, equipment, fittings, fuel tanks, and other items, and then close them up with a minimal amount of labor. And this worked so well that we really used that as a primary tool in gaining the position we gained during the war. Consistently during the war, they have records of it, consistently North American was 20 percent below the industry average in labor hours per pound, on all airplanes, B-25, P-51, AT-6, consistently.
During the war, a guy named Swirbul, Jake, they called him, was president of Grumman Aircraft. He was reading these records as well as others were, and he was quite a shop supervisor, a bull of the woods type, and it was bothering his sense of propriety for people to be beating him on labor hours per pound. He came out here during the war, thumbed his way out here somehow, went to Dutch's office and said, "Dutch, I've got a damned good production outfit, and I just can't understand how you're beating us on labor hours per pound. What's the trick?" He thought it was a method of accounting or some such thing. Dutch says, "There isn't any trick. Jake, you go out and see our whole plant, see everything you want." Jake spent two days doing that, and he came back into Dutch's office, and here's what hesaid. He said, "Well, you don't have any better machinery than we do. Your workers are certainly no better than ours. Your plant's no better. It can't have anything to do with your climate. But," he said, "how in the hell do you get people to design airplanes so you can build them?" Well, that was it.
COLLINS: I guess what you were suggesting earlier, this question of opening up as a manufacturing, production technique--
ATWOOD: It's not that without an engineering design to go with it. What comes first? Well, iteration of initial designs of course, but the engineering people were really coordinated into this kind of thought to begin with, and we had an excellent feedback system from the shop to the engineering. It got to be a matter of pride to adapt the tooling, adapt the changes, and make them the minimum labor effort, and that's the way it worked.
COLLINS: Your approach to the design process was to develop a craft that had the necessary performance characteristics, but also would result in efficient production.
ATWOOD: Yes. Now, I want to add something to that. That was more adaptable to a time period than anything else. We were using nothing but sheet metal and rivets, very few other things except extrusions, a few forgings and castings, and we took advantage of that in opening our planes up. For instance, the wing on the AT-6 had one spar, and the rest was a shell. We had a nose piece and a tail piece that were open and easy to work on, and we had a strip along the bottom where we could reach behind it to buck the rivets to do the close-out. Well, Seversky's wing, you had to have double joints to really work on it, in some places. These were bottlenecks, and then people in fuselages were bottlenecks, if you had to have 15 or 20 systems, machine guns, ammunition, hydraulic system, electrical system, instruments, other armament, radios, all that installed after the fuselage was done and closed up, you had people burrowing in and waiting their turn. If it could be done on the half shell, which we did, and then connected up, certain points for wire connections and certain points for hydraulic connections, fuel connections, cable connections and all that, it made the difference. Well, of course, that sounds pretty simple, but it was ahead of contemporary practice.
TAPE 1, SIDE 2
COLLINS: Being a novice about the construction of airplanes during this period--were you separating systems that were normally considered as wholes, like electrical or the hydraulic systems? Was it a novelty to split them in half as you're suggesting? Was that something that was different about your approach?
ATWOOD: That's exactly what I'm suggesting. It was, as far as the general practice was concerned, quite novel at the time. Andyou had a hard time backing up. When you had designed something else and put it in production, you had an awfully hard time backing up to break it down on a wholesale scale. A lot of improvements were made, but the other thing that I think contributed to our success during the war much as anything else was--of course, cost is cost, and during the war, nobody's counting--but the effectiveness of our airplanes was what really counted.
And here again, we'd worked out and tried to perfect a bit of philosophy, that of making changes to improve the aircraft in service, in combat effectiveness, in the maneuvering control, range and all those things. This was not resisted or resented by the factory personnel who had the production quotas to meet because this had been accepted by them as part of the game. And we had a consistent method of doing it.
One man, Ben Kelsey, was an Air Corps colonel engineering officer, had a kind of a shuttle route between England, Wright Field and our factory. He would bring back on the quickest possible basis--of course we had our own service people out in England and other places, but he'd bring these change suggestions. We'd assess the changes he wanted, engineer them, get parts, send them out, and the record of the P-51 was good, exceptional, and I think the speed of response and the ability to make those changes accounted for much of that; I think the next closest airplane in cost was quite a lot more. We sold the last 5,000 P-51s for $17,000 each, not counting engine, guns and ammunition, propeller, but everything else, we put them over the fence for that. Closest comparative price I think was about $30,000. For a Curtiss P-40. I think you can find that in government records if you care to look. But anyway, you asked our objectives. Well, they were probably narrow but they were practical.
COLLINS: To follow on some of that discussion, how did the improvements that were required or desired by pilots come back to you? How did you gain that knowledge?
ATWOOD: Well, Ben Kelsey would go there and talk to them. He'd fly combat missions himself and come back. Then we had our own field service people there. Of course, we couldn't take care of every pilot's wish, after all. We didn't necessarily try, but we'd work for patterns, things that were truly improvements--range, combat capability, gun functioning, gunsight, communication, visibility, stability, all those things.
And just as another part of the anecdote, during the war, about 1943 or '44, the production czar for that period was Charles E. Wilson, who'd been president of General Electric. He was called Electric Charlie. He would tour the country on, you know, "do better" tours, and he came to North American. He came to the engineering department, and I was privileged to participate in the meeting. He started his standard lecture abouthow badly planes were needed, what the needs of the country and all that stuff, you know.
Most people couldn't help but try to do that, even though it insults your intelligence, you know, during the war, but it's what they do, like St. Crispin's Day, my God, people have to be inspired, I guess, but he got through and he's talking about production, production, production. I said, "Mr. Wilson," (of course I was quite junior to him in those days), if we just crank them out we won't be doing our best for the war effort." He said, "What do you mean?" I said, "What we have here," I should have had an exhibit, I didn't, I wasn't thinking of that, I said, "We've got a basket full of changes that engineers are trying to make to improve these planes, so they'll perform better, plane by plane, rather than just go on with the same old efficiencies we had when we first started in production, and that necessarily means that some planes don't go out exactly as early as they might. We try to schedule them that way, but we can't always do it. Some we have to haul back and put different parts in."
And he kind of did a double take, and I must have gotten to him that day though because along with the temper of the times, they had a meeting for him downtown that evening at the Chamber of Commerce, where he could speak to the industry people in Los Angeles. We went down there, and he gave his production speech but then he said, "I realize that some of our products have to be improved, and we are looking forward to your doing your best to expedite the process of getting these things better as you go along, because that's just as important as the numbers." So I apparently got to him, not that it made any particular point. They weren't going to pay any attention to his specific words anyway, since he was really preaching to the choir.
One more thing, since I'm reminiscing. These days, nearly every part on a major airplane is machined and especially fitted and connected, and there's a limit to the opening up planes for assembly. As a matter of fact, the assembly time is a much smaller fraction of the cost these days, much smaller than it was in those days. The planes are so much more highly engineered now for each bracket, each hole, each little thing, you can't modify parts that have been forged, machined, fitted, drilled, polished, so I just want to add that, as a corollary to what I said about the change process being almost unique to the time and the contemporary design practices.
COLLINS: Just to follow that remark, what are the key factors now in cost of production?
ATWOOD: Technical factors. You don't see much difference between various companies any more, unless they make a gross error and have to back up and start over on something--but when the engineering process is completed now, it's much more elaborate, complete, more detailed, than it could possibly have been with wartime planes with the missiles and the rockets andthe guidance systems now, among other things, radar, radar gear, all that. And I don't notice much difference in cost these days. I've got no data to begin with, but if there were a radical difference, you'd hear a lot more than just general whines about the cost of weapons like the Stealth and the B-1 and everything else, so they're just bleats, but--they're anxiety and disappointment and anguish because of the facts of life, which is, the complication and capability of the aircraft. People make mistakes. I'm not pointing at any, certainly, I don't know of any really, these days. I'm out of touch.
COLLINS: What was the evolving nature of your working relationship with Dutch Kindleberger?
ATWOOD: We were very compatible people. He was my boss at Douglas, and I didn't know him too well, although pretty well. He was a practical down to earth man, he was much more outgoing and self-confident person than I have been. Very high intelligence, smart, a very compelling way of talking, good exponent of his point of view. He had a presence and a voice that were compatible with that and always made a very favorable impression. In fact, we were kind of almost closer than, you know, a couple of hardworking cooperative people. We used to travel together a lot. He depended on me for a variety of things, but he always took the lead. He was very good at that. And I enjoyed my association with him very much. In fact, I was exceedingly sorry to see him fade out. He turned over the chairmanship, I mean the chief executiveship of the company to me before he died. Actually he could have kept it. It wouldn't have made any difference to us. We weren't working on that basis anyhow. But he did, and I regretted very much to see the way he went. He began to get depressed, which is unfortunate. I think it's because of his failing physical condition. He had some serious ulcers at the end of the war, and had to have his vegas nerve cut after two operations, and it interfered with his digestion but it stopped his ulcers from killing him. He used to be very vigorous but his durability seemed to diminish. Eventually he died in his sleep in 1962 at the age of 67.
COLLINS: This period of poor health you're referring to was toward the end of the fifties, early sixties?
ATWOOD: Well, his ulcer laid him low in about 1947. But he recovered from that, and was very active. He was in the forefront, you know, but he didn't come to work till 10 o'clock, say, and things like that. But he headed the company very effectively, until I would say the time when he quit really looking into what was going on, in any depth, would have been about--well, he had heart trouble, of course--would have been about '57, '58.
COLLINS: What was the North American organization like during its peak, during the war?
ATWOOD: During the war, we had a functional organization that was geographically divided. We worked here in Inglewood, the home office, and enlarged the plant all we could at the time of the war, and we were employing twenty, thirty thousand people here, two shifts and three shifts. We were asked to manage a couple of satellite plants. They picked Dallas, a town called Grand Prairie between Dallas and Fort Worth, I don't know whether they still call it that or not. The Defense Plant Corporation built a plant for us there. We produced AT-6s and Mustangs during the war, and started to produce something else when the war ended. That is a supplementary production of B-24s. They asked us to build a plant in Kansas City, Kansas. The Corps of Engineers built that for us, and we managed it and produced B-25s there. That was approximately all we did in Kansas City. We had support from a General Motors plant, the Fisher Body plant, in Memphis, Tennessee made some parts and components for us, but here's the way the organization was.
In the home plant, there was the president, Dutch Kindleberger. I was first vice president. Under me was--there as an assistant attached to Dutch on the chart, but we were working together, we had no fences or lines that meant anything at all. We had an engineering department, chief engineer, vice president. We had a factory and production department, vice president. We had a financial manager, vice president, he was the treasurer and vice president. We had a--I guess by then we'd separated out a quality control department, which reported to me. We had a personnel department, and I believe at that time we had material procurement and subcontracting separate. That covers the principal elements of the company. Now, the way we set it up, there were almost shadow organizations at the geographically remote plants. They had a general manager who had under him a chief engineer, a factory man, a financial man, a quality man, a materials procurement man and so forth. The relationship was a dotted line one to the equivalent box at the home office. We had to make it work and it did work. The policy, the methods, the plans, the integration and all that were done by liaison with the home office, but the functions were carried out in the divisions, on a parallel basis, depending on the job being done. I guess you wouldn't call it a divisional organization entirely, although as time went on it became three-fourths that, probably.
COLLINS: At what point did you move from chief engineer to vice presidency?
ATWOOD: It was about 1941. Dutch had--I was really kind of helping him all the time, you know, as chief engineer, and if you wanted to put words with it, I'd say chief engineer and assistant general manager would have been my function. I was working so closely with Dutch, and I guess you'd say that there were no barriers. When he was gone, I would call the shots anyway, on things that were within my purview, such as design and engineering, there wasn't any question on the things that weren't, they took my word for, pretty much. But the date Ithink you'd have to say was about 1941. I became first vice president, that was my title during the war.
In 1948, General Motors, who owned 30 percent of our stock, sold their interest on the open market. There's an anecdote, if you want it. They had some serious differences of opinion with us in 1941 when we had a major strike. The strike was over union control, really, and G.M. president, Charles Wilson, Engine Charlie, wanted us to--well, first the government seized the plant, under Roosevelt. He just seized it, sent in a colonel with a regiment of troops. We were continuing to operate it, but there was Roosevelt's response to a strike in those days. That was the middle of 1941. After Lend Lease and all that, you know, and it was a real emergency.
The National Defense Mediation Board was a creature of Roosevelt's, and they wanted us to settle with the union on some basis that involved maintenance of membership, which may be a new term to you, but it involved sort of a freeze of membership during the emergency and nobody could drop out of the union but you didn't have to include all the other people that weren't union members. Well, Charlie Wilson didn't like that, and he said, "Look, you're the tail wagging the dog," in effect he said that, "either that and, you're under General Motors general control, why, what will happen to the rest of us?"
But oh, Dutch was ill there and was in a hospital in Washington, and Bill Knudsen, former G.M. president, had been removed from his responsibility over the labor element by Roosevelt, and he was the production czar, but Sidney Hillman was the co-czar, and so I went to talk to Mr. Knudsen one night at his home in Washington. I said, "Between General Motors and the government we don't know what to do." And you know, he'd been president of General Motors. And so I said further, "Well, I guess I'm just whining about it, but"--He didn't say a word. "Look," he finally said, "I don't blame you." (For taking the government mediation ruling.) At any rate, we settled with the government on maintenance of membership and got the plant back. Wilson kind of walked away and didn't say anything. But I believe that rankled him, and after the war he was determined, I think and they did, they got rid of their two partially-owned subsidiaries, North American Aviation and Bendix Aviation. They owned 30 percent of each. I think that's why they sold out their 30 percent. That's when I became president, at Dutch's suggestion to the board. He became chairman of the board, 1948.
COLLINS: When you became first vice president, did this signal a taking on of greater managerial responsibilities and removing yourself from the engineering sphere?
ATWOOD: Yes. Raymond Rice had been my assistant chief engineer. He became vice president and chief engineer. And his jurisdiction extended over the whole line of products we had, of course. He sent his representatives to Dallas and to Kansas City. And the same with the manufacturing chief, Stan Smithson, and so forth. But my position was not necessarily broadened at a stroke. As I said, I'd been pretty much assistant general manager, but I became first vice president and assistant general manager, assistant chairman, assistant anything you like--I was his deputy.
COLLINS: What was North American's thinking as the war began to wind down about what was going to happen after the war? What would it do? Where would business come from?
ATWOOD: Well, our thoughts were of pretty lean times, of course, as far as aircraft were concerned, except that when the atomic bomb exploded, and the obvious connection with the possible missiles work and all that became fairly apparent to us, we began to realize that there was going to be a need for a considerable national defense and the measures we took right immediately after the end of the war were to bring back everybody we had sent to these inland plants, offer them return jobs, general foremen, engineers, other people, accountants, and turn the plants back to the government, and to push some things we'd started in engineering. One was the F-86. That was before the war ended. Another was the B-45. That was a jet bomber. We eventually built 140 of them. Another was FJ-1, a Navy carrier-based fighter, which we started. The jet engines of course were another new aspect of defense, and we were getting into that as fast as we could.
Well, when we finished our contract, we had not much over 5000 people here in the Los Angeles area, and we had those projects started and we had some cleanup work to do, and so we were keeping them busy. One of the interesting aspects of that was, we built three B-45s called experimental bombers, they were jet bombers. Later we built some in production. But three were built by people who had been as high as general foremen, actually worked on them. The average labor cost for the first item of an experimental airplane was generally bracketed around 25 hours per pound. That would work pretty well in anybody's shop. Of course, it came down as you built more, on a learning curve. The first B-45 was built in that experimental fashion for 10 hours per pound. Of course, that was because of the caliber of the people. They knew they had to get something going if they wanted to have jobs in the future. By 1948 I think we had 18,000 people. We were going to missile work. That brings us to the first phase of our transformation into missile and space capability.
COLLINS: There was obviously a general expectation that this technology would be developed, but where did the impetus come from within the corporation to pursue this? Is this something that you and Dutch sat down and talked about, or you brought in some of your key engineers, somebody from outside came to you and said "This looks like an opportunity"--Do you recall how that aspect went?
ATWOOD: Pretty well. It was more an overall sense of necessity. I think we moved much faster and much stronger than other companies who had more conventional work lined up. What we did, and I think you'd have to say Dutch was a strong motivator of this, I mean, he authorized it and he didn't see the end point of it, none of us did, but what he did was to get our Washington office to start casting around for people who had some standing in the scientific aspects of the Pentagon and the Navy, and try to have them, bring them out here. And we did.
We hired quite a number of scientists. This was started as early as 1946-47. Dr. Bill Bollay was hired, he was the leader. He was a European but he'd worked very strongly for the government during the war in the scientific work, in the Navy as a matter of fact. We set him up with a department, not much of a facility, and he along with our Washington people began to get others. It wasn't long until we had established what we called an Aerophysics Department, and that was given a kind of a license to go out and look in science, and we immediately got several people interested in rocket engines. Tom Dixon was one of them, rocket propulsion. We had Niels Edlefsen in electronics. It wasn't too long until we had quite a stable, if you want to call it that, of well qualified scientific people, most of them with PhDs in their sciences. This began to grow because nobody else who was placed in the airplane business was looking at things quite that way. Now, Si Ramo, who went with Hughes from General Electric, was playing that same game very strongly. In fact, he, in the electronics business, he outdid us, but we had our start, and we have much to show for it today, as you know.
COLLINS: During this time, prior to the war and prior to the sense of new opportunities after the war, was there a strong research component within North American? Was this a departure or just building on a tradition?
ATWOOD: It was a departure. The research that we had was confined pretty much to aerodynamics, structures and materials, and we had really nobody qualified in particle physics, radiation, electronics, or any of the technologies on which the information age has grown. We had essentially none. That all began with Bollay--he started the inertial guidance program at that time. We bought our first rocket test land in 1946-47 up in Simi Valley of California, about 20 miles from here. During the war, the Corps of Engineers had come in and built some bomb shelters in our parking lot at the main plant, a gesture, unnecessary, of course. We started using them for rocket test work in 1946-47. Tom Dixon was one of the people and we seriously took that up.
COLLINS: What was the expectation of this group? Was there a sense that they would provide short term prototypes that would lead to production, or was it more fundamental than that?
ATWOOD: Essentially the only expectation that was apparent orreally viable was long range missiles, ability to make strategic missiles. Our first major contract was for something called the Navaho. In those days, the idealized atomic bomb weighed some 15,000 pounds, at least the one they wanted to use, and the Navaho had to carry it 5500 miles. Well, we were pretty well along on our design. It required rocket boosting, as any Cruise missile requires some kind of a start. What we concentrated on was the Navaho booster to start with, built on von Braun's work, of course. You can go to Goddard or the Chinese or anybody you like, but this was the basis for it. And of course, we began to hear about the ballistic missile about that time--of course things were very secret then--and we didn't know about the hydrogen bomb, the lightweight bomb, although we'd begun to suspect, naturally, when the ballistic missile, Schriever's work and all that, began to jell, and Convair was given a contract for the Atlas with our engines. So the Navaho was on a blind trail, but we didn't know that, definitely, and it's hard to say, but when the H bomb got down to the few hundred pound bracket, which it must have, the ballistic missile became a reality.
When it became a reality, why, of course, thinking of space was so automatic, warheads went out five or six hundred miles into space, so space itself was not a surprise to me as a person. Not being a scientist, I was wondering, curious as to how these warheads were going to come back to the atmosphere without distortion, burn-up, erratic tracking and all that. In fact, I thought for a while, that looks pretty much out of the question. That was my first reaction. Later on, I began to get some idea of the technology of re-entry, primarily in conversations with Dr, Artur Kautrowitz, a scientist who was with AVCO at the time.
Of course we were working on the guidance already in connection with the Navaho. We had one in mind, had one in hand, really. It was going to give an accuracy of one mile in 5500. It was being tested on a old C-97. It was bigger than that desk, and of course had a long way to go in development.
COLLINS: Your guidance system.
ATWOOD: The guidance system. But the re-entry they had pretty well figured out, and so of course, our rocket engine work was pretty much in the middle of the whole thing.
COLLINS: Early on, right after the war, the Air Force formulated Project RAND at Douglas. Did you have any early awareness and contact with them?
ATWOOD: Dutch and I were both aware of it. In fact, we were kind of consulted in a way, not in a deep way, but we were invited over to Douglas's office. Hap Arnold was there, and a series of people from the industry like Bob Gross and a few others, talked about it and asked for any ideas and so forth and so on. We knew Frank Collbohm, who was the first director of RAND, and was a contemporary of mine in the Douglas engineeringdepartment. We had worked in association on a number of projects and I knew him very well. He was not a scientist by education, but he was pretty active mentally, and he was gung-ho for the idea of course, and he did very well.
TAPE 2, SIDE 1
COLLINS: One of RAND's first studies was this question of a satellite in space, and I think North American did contribute some technical talent to that study. Do you recall that?
ATWOOD: We could have--frankly, I reviewed my thinking on that. I didn't think of satellites as anything very unusual, extraordinary or even very useful. I could see how, in reconnaissance, they would be of value, but knowing that ballistic missiles were approaching orbital condition anyway, it seemed to me that if you took a few pounds out of a warhead or put a few more pounds of propellant in, you had your satellite. It never occurred to me, and I was never so amazed as at the uproar over the Sputnik. It just absolutely left me talking to myself. So I can't claim long dreams of satellites and space travel or anything else. Naturally, I read the science fiction and all that stuff, and remember when I was an engineer at Douglas thinking, trying to estimate just how much it would take to get a rocket that would take us to the moon, and I came to the wild opinion that maybe a billion dollars might do it. But you see, you can't claim any ambition to be a spacecraft producer or anything like that. I guess it didn't hit me that way.
COLLINS: One thing that RAND represented, or the people who initiated it thought it represented at the time, was an opportunity for government and industry to kind of collectively think about the future technological developments in the aircraft industry.
ATWOOD: I'm sure it was a good vehicle for that. It seemed to me it was. But of course, you didn't take your immediate problems or competitive projects or anything else to RAND, and it didn't command the attention of most of the hard working people in the industry ballgame, you know.
COLLINS: Speaking about the development of rocket capability at North American, was there some kind of contact with what came to be called the JPL group at Caltech who was working on the problems?
ATWOOD: Well, if there was, it was not very apparent to me. Sam Hoffman is still alive. He took over in 1949. He came to become head of our rocket engine work. We had access to some captured V-2s which were tested down at White Sands, New Mexico, and I think some of our people undoubtedly got the advantage of that background, which was more advanced than anything JPL was working on, and I don't know what JPL really did. They branched off from rocket work into something entirely different.
COLLINS: Yes, that's quite right.
ATWOOD: And I don't think that you can make much of a connection there. I may be wrong but I don't know.
COLLINS: Well, there weren't too many groups at the time working on rocket technology. That's why I asked.
ATWOOD: No, there was a JATO (jet assisted take off) industry which was a solid booster techology. Some of them were used during the war, at the end of the war, for assisted takeoffs for heavily loaded aircraft. And I think the Bell Company came into that boost business at some point, because they built the liquid fueled engine that was used on the X-15.
COLLINS: In addition to this question of thinking about new areas for corporate activity in the postwar world, what other things were occupying you at that period?
ATWOOD: Well, everybody believed, a little bit I guess, that you had to convert more to peace, and they were trying to think of something. Dutch in his characteristic way said he went through a Sears Roebuck Catalogue to see what we could build and he couldn't find anything we could compete on. And we did spend a certain amount of time on that, not large amounts of money, but going back into mundane production items certainly wasn't the answer. We were in no position to start anything that was contemporary in competition. Our only opportunity seemed to be over the horizon, science.
COLLINS: Were you looking towards any commercial aircraft at that time?
ATWOOD: We talked about it some. Fortunately, Dutch Kindleberger was smart enough to say, we just can't afford it. Convair went into it, Consolidated-Vultee. Frank Pace was the big man on that. They went almost bankrupt. They went through a change of management, anyway. The Martin Company nearly went under trying to do it. Boeing invested a tremendous amount, but they started with the prototype of the 707 which was of course successful after a large investment. Douglas had a line of transports going and so did Lockheed, so they were doing very well. To compete head-on with that the way Chet Pearson tried to do with Martin was just suicide. And that's what Convair Consolidated was trying to do, and they paid their price.
COLLINS: So it was the consensus at North American that the route to go was to pursue the various opportunities in the military sphere.
ATWOOD: Advanced aircraft and high tech was all we could see, that we could really put our money on. And we made various intrusions into commercial things. But to tell you the truth, it's been a long time, and the most likely interface is theAlbert Bradley automation, now part of Rockwell with Autonetics and Collins Electronics, and there is quite a bit in common, but it doesn't fit completely. It's not like a glove. I'm afraid it's never going to be. Things are so specialized. You have to make it fit the case and the requirement and the competition with no extra baggage.
COLLINS: You're referring to getting into the commercial market?
ATWOOD: Yes, especially the advanced technology commercial markets. I hope I'm coherent.
COLLINS: You are. Well, was there any sense in your mind--this is kind of a broad question, I'm going to have to break it down a little bit--that there was any change in the nature of the corporation's relationship to working with the government, especially the military services, in this postwar period? Was it different than what you were doing in the thirties?
ATWOOD: On the basic functions, I would think not. The functions are contacts and competition and engineering and manufacturing, service tests. But the depth and complexity of these factors had increased by orders of magnitude. Another complication is the much more intrusive interest of the political element. Naturally Congress is much more interested in these large amounts of money and large employment involved, and the restrictions and the special cases and conditions, politically injected, certainly have made a difference to a lot of people.
COLLINS: Here I'm speaking kind of broadly over the postwar period--what does this mean for managing and planning your business? Does it require special liaisons with the military, special liaisons with Congress? How do you control your situation?
ATWOOD: I am not in a good position to answer for present circumstances but these things all depend so much on conditions of urgency. During the war, urgency was great. Didn't compare to England's, but I'm sure we couldn't afford all the factors that are taken into account now. Anti-discrimination, geographical location, political factors of all kinds, time required for iteration and reiteration, time required for protection, and proof of every bolt and rivet--these things all depend on how badly you need your weapons, when you need them. It's come down now to the point where we--there's still a thought that we don't need near what we have. And naturally, the fabric of the system gets badly tattered and frayed, and I don't see anybody in revolt or writing any Phillipics or damning anybody in particular, but I hear so much of people that, about the planning and the scoping and the gaming they have to do, to begin to do something the way it's been specified in the law, that you know there must be a big drag. If you're looking only at the efficacy of your military or space unit that's coming out. I can't document that. Nobody can, except part of it, at any time.
COLLINS: Maybe this would be a good point to break off for today.
ATWOOD: All right.
COLLINS: Thank you very much.