many airlines worldwide for two decades after the war. His exceptional competence was evident to Lockheed management, including Robert E. Gross, chairman of the board from 1932 to 1961.
Besides designing airplanes, Willis was an eager flying student. After instruction in several small airplanes, he received his pilot’s license in 1939. Over the years, he owned a long series of airplanes, his favorite being a Bonanza. He flew often for more than 50 years.
In 1949, Willis became chief preliminary design engineer, a position of enormous responsibility and influence. In this position, he led the design of the C-130 Hercules four-engine turboprop transport aircraft, which became one of the most versatile, successful, widely used aircraft of the century. In 2004, it was still in production and being operated in many countries. He also led the development of supersonic jet aircraft and pioneering hypersonic test vehicles. During his long career, he nurtured a group of notable engineers.
In 1954, Lockheed formed a Missile Systems Division, later Lockheed Missiles and Space Company, with Willis as director of engineering; he became vice president in 1960. For his major contributions to the development of the Polaris fleet ballistic missile system, which went into operation aboard U.S. Navy submarines in 1960, he was awarded the Navy Distinguished Service Medal in 1961.
From 1963 to 1966, Willis served as assistant secretary of the Army for research and development. He liked the Army, and the Army liked him, particularly the senior generals. Willis developed a close relationship with General Creighton (Abe) Abrams (1914–1974), the legendary World War II tank commander. After Abrams returned from Europe in 1964 to become vice chief of staff, he and Willis made many productive field trips together, neither being content to carry out endless bureaucratic work in the Pentagon. Willis was involved in many major projects, including the development of a new main battle tank, later known as the Abrams tank, which became the most capable tank in the world and was still operational in 2004. Willis received the Army’s Distinguished Civilian Service Award in both 1965 and 1966.