NASA Pioneer Walter C. Williams Dies
October 10, 1995
Release: 95-30Quick Look: Walter C. Williams, first director of what later became the Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif., passed away at his home in Tarzana, Calif., on Oct. 7. In September 1946, he headed a team of five engineers who arrived at Muroc Army Air Base (now Edwards AFB) to prepare for X-1 supersonic research flights in a joint NACA-Army Air Corps program. This established the first NACA-NASA presence at the Mojave Desert site where Capt. Charles E. Yeager made the first piloted supersonic flight on October 14, 1947.
Walter C. Williams, a NASA pioneer whose career spanned more than a half century at the leading edge of developments in air and space, died in his sleep on Oct. 7 at age 76.
Williams was the first director of what later became the Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif., and later served as NASA's Chief Engineer at Headquarters in Washington, DC. A memorial service is planned for early November.
"Walt Williams was an American aerospace pioneer of the highest order," said NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin. "He began serving his country during the era of piston-driven aircraft, and for the next 50 years he was at the center of events as the U.S. moved into the Jet Age and then into the Space Age. Our country owes him and his generation a debt of gratitude for all that they accomplished."
Williams began his government aerospace career with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics -- NASA's predecessor agency -- in August 1940. During World War II, he was project engineer in highly successful efforts to improve the handling qualities, maneuverability, and high-speed characteristics of fighters such as the P-47, P-51, and F6F.
In 1946, Williams became project engineer for the rocket-powered X-1 research aircraft. In September 1946, he headed a team of five engineers who arrived at Muroc Army Air Base (now Edwards AFB) from NACA's Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, Hampton, Va., (now the Langley Research Center) to prepare for X-1 supersonic research flights in a joint NACA-Army Air Corps program. This established the first NACA-NASA presence at the Mojave Desert site where Capt. Charles E. Yeager carried out the first piloted supersonic flight on October 14, 1947.
Williams then became the founding director of the NACA High Speed Flight Station that in 1976 became the Dryden Center. In this assignment, he directed a great variety of flight research programs, including the D-558-2, which achieved the first flight at twice the speed of sound, and the beginnings of the X-15 project, which set world altitude and speed records, was the world's first hypersonic aircraft, and was the most successful research aircraft to date. During those years, Dryden became the premier flight research installation in the United States.
In September 1959, Williams returned to Langley to become Associate Director of the newly formed Space Task Group, which was created to carry out Project Mercury. Williams served as Director of Operations for the Project and supervised all of the Mercury missions.
He next became Associate Director of NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center, Houston, Tex. (now the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center). In this position, Williams was responsible for Mercury factory check-out, pre-launch preparations, launch and inflight activities, recovery operations and post-flight analysis as well as future flight planning.
Williams left Houston in January 1963 to become Deputy Associate Administrator in the Office of Manned Space Flight at NASA Headquarters. He left NASA in April 1964 to become Vice President and General Manager of the Vehicle Systems Division, Aerospace Corp., where he was responsible for systems engineering and technical direction of the Gemini launch and target vehicles, Titan III space launch vehicles, Manned Orbiting Laboratory, and Aerospace's activities at both the Eastern and Western Test Ranges.
He left Aerospace Corp. in 1975 to return to NASA Headquarters as Chief Engineer. He retired from that position in July 1982 and became an aerospace consultant residing in Tarzana, Calif. He periodically served on NASA task forces in his later years.
During his career, he twice received the NASA Distinguished Service Medal and was nominated both to the Meritorious Rank and Distinguished Rank in the Federal Senior Executive Service. His other honors and awards include the 1981 Federal Engineer of the Year Award by the National Society of Professional Engineers, and the American Astronautical Society Space Flight Award in 1978. He also received several awards from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics -- in 1964, the Haley Astronautics Award for his contributions to the advancement of space flight and in 1962, the Sylvanus Albert Reed Award for his contributions to supersonic and space flight.
He was born in New Orleans on July 30, 1919, and graduated with a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering from Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, in 1939. In 1963 he was awarded an honorary doctorate of engineering degree by LSU.
He is survived by his wife, Helen M. Williams; his sons Charles M. Williams of Houston, Tex., and Howard L. Williams of Phoenix, Ariz.; and his daughter Elizabeth Ann Powell of Redmond, Wash.
--nasa--Note to Editors: Still photography is available to support this release. Photos are also available on the Internet under "NASA Dryden Research Aircraft PHOTO ARCHIVE, Dryden News and Feature Photos, /centers/dfrc/Gallery/Photo/index.html
Photos in support of this release: E 1364, E95 43116-5, and E95 43116-7.
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