Aviation for Bill Stowe’s family is a way of life. For 38 years he worked as a civilian employee for U.S. Air Force Systems Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio overseeing the testing and development of some of this nation’s most important military and civilian airplanes.
His wife, Marilyn, held a number of important posts on the civilian side of the military’s aviation program over 32 1/2 years. She retired as Division Reconnaissance Contracting Supervisor and a GS-14.
His son, Bill Stowe, III, is a lieutenant colonel and commander of a KC-135 tanker squadron at McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kan. Coincidentally the KC-135 is the first airplane Bill’s father worked on as project engineer for the Boeing built tanker plane 50 years ago fresh out of Georgia Tech’s aeronautical engineering school.
Bill is proud of his son’s military accomplishments.
“He went to war in Bosnia and Afghanistan flying a KC-135 refueling tanker. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for refueling gun ships over enemy territory and getting shot at,” his father said.
Bill’s grandson, Lt. Patrick O’Neill, an Air Force Academy graduate, took his first flight in a T-6 “Texan II” during pilot training a few weeks ago. His grandfather was director of engineering for the Air Force that oversaw Beech-Raytheon’s program that built the joint trainer used today by the Air Force and Navy to teach student pilots to fly.
Over the decades Bill worked for the Air Force on the development of the:
* KC-135 refueling tanker.
* AWACS warning and control systems airplane
* A-10 “Warthog” tactical fighter-bomber
* F-20 fighter that died a political death in Washington
* Air Force One–Boeing 747 for the President
* T-1 “Jayhawk” trainer
* T-6 “Texan II” trainer
Bill spent a couple of years working on the redesign of the two Boeing 747s that became “Air Force One.”
“I was the chief engineer for the Air Force on ‘Air Force One,'” he said. “I oversaw the Air Force engineers who were monitoring the contract for the President’s plane.”
“Air Force One,” Bill explained, is an upgraded Boeing 747 that was completely remodeled inside to fit the President’s specifications. It has sophisticated avionics aboard that do all kinds of things he can’t talk about publicly that are not found in the standard 747 jet passenger liner.
“The President’s 747s were built in Boeing’s plant in Everett, Wash., north of Seattle. They were flown to Boeing’s plant in Wichita, where the B-52 bombers are made, to be converted into Presidential aircraft,” Bill said.
“Air Force One” was greatly influenced by what the White House wanted. When they were being redesigned for presidential use, President Ronald Reagan was running the country..
Along the way some quirky things happened.
“Nancy Reagan wanted a certain kind of china for “Air Force One,” he said. “We had to replace the dishwasher in the airplane because the Presidential china she wanted wouldn’t fit in the dishwasher.”
Among the other trivial things Bill had to contend with while overseeing the redesign of “Air Force One” was the seat patterns in the Presidential quarters on the airplane. What the President wants in material patterns for the seats on his airplane the President gets.
“Ironically, although Reagan was President when the work on the Presidential 747 was taking place, he never flew on the airplane as chief of state. It became President George W. Bush’s airplane to begin with.
What thrills Bill the most about his career in aviation is that his son learned to fly in a Beech-Raytheon. T-1 “Jayhawk” trainer he oversaw the development of for the Air Force.
“I was the chief engineer for the Air Force on the T-1 trainer. This is the trainer used by pilots who are going to fly multi-engine refueling tankers and transports like the KC-135 which is what my son is flying today,” Bill said.
The plane he spent the most time developing was the Fairchild A-10 “Warthog.” The twin-engine fighter-bomber flew low and slow and could inflict maximum damage on the enemy’s armored units.
“It was designed to take on Soviet tanks. It had a big 30 millimeter Gatling gun on the front and could trade shots with the enemy and be able to fly home,” he said. “An A-10 pilot sits in a 1,200 pound titanium bathtub designed to take a hit from a Russian 23 millimeter shell. The A-10 has duel everything–duel engines, duel flight controls.”
Over a 15 year period Bill worked on the A-10 at Wright-Patterson. About the only thing they had to change during this period was they beefed up the plane’s wings.
The A-10 played a major roll in the tactical air support of our ground troops in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.
It’s a far cry from the design the Air Force thought it wanted. It was looking for a tactical fighter-bomber with swept wings that was fast. What it got was a fighter-bomber that was slow and ugly that may be the best tactical air support aircraft ever built.
Undoubtedly the strangest program Bill was associated with was the F-20 “Tigershark” fighter program.
“During President (Jimmy) Carter’s tenure he didn’t want to sell our front line F-16 fighter to third world countries. A policy was devised in Washington to sell these countries something a little less lethal. That something was the F-20 designed by Northrop.
“I worked on this project for two years. When Carter didn’t get reelected, the F-20 program was dead. Reagan came into the White House and third world countries told the new President they wanted the F-16 not the F-20 fighters. The new President said okay.”
After almost four decades as aeronautical engineer working for the Air Force Systems Command Bill decided to retire on Jan. 1, 1999. He and Marilyn moved to their Riverwood home near Port Charlotte a short while later.
His second passion after airplanes is sports cars. Since he was a kid growing up in Riviera Beach, just north of West Palm Beach, Bill has been a sports car nut.
He turned race car photography into a hobby that is still his passion at 73. Back in the 1960s he photographed the races at Sebring. Today his vintage car pictures are the stuff that expensive coffee table books on sports car racing from yesteryear are made of.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, June 6, 2011 and is republished with permission.
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