Capt. George C. Watkins; Navy Test Pilot
Friday, October 7, 2005
Capt. George C. Watkins, a record-setting Navy test pilot in the 1950s who later served as a White House social aide to three presidents, died of a heart attack Sept. 18 at a hospital in Lompoc, Calif., where he lived. He was 84.
Capt. Watkins, who had no intention of becoming an aviator when he entered the Navy during World War II, had a dashing career as a test pilot, setting records for speed, altitude and number of landings on aircraft carriers. Late in his military career, he was an adviser for the World War II movie "Tora! Tora! Tora!" and flew a Japanese plane in the 1970 film.
After graduating from the Naval Academy in 1943, he planned to be a shipboard naval officer, and he served in the Pacific during World War II as a battery turret officer on the battleship Pennsylvania. But when the Navy, finding itself short of pilots, issued a call for aviators, Capt. Watkins quickly volunteered. He received his pilot's wings just after the end of the war.
In 1950, he entered the Navy's test pilot school in Patuxent River, where two of his classmates were future astronauts John Glenn and Alan Shepard. Capt. Watkins served in the Korean War as a fighter pilot before resuming his career as one of the leading test pilots of the fearless and swashbuckling generation chronicled by Tom Wolfe in the book "The Right Stuff." His fellow aviators called him "Gorgeous George."
Capt. Watkins was the first Navy pilot to exceed both 60,000 and 70,000 feet in altitude. On a single day in 1956, he set a speed record of 1,220 mph and an unofficial altitude record of 73,500 feet. In April 1958, he piloted his Grumman F11F-1F Super Tiger to two altitude records in three days, topping out at 76,939 feet and returning the record to American hands after an absence of 14 years.
When Glenn and Shepard were chosen for the new Mercury astronaut program in 1959, Capt. Watkins was left behind because he was an inch taller than the 5-foot-11 height limit. In 1961, according to Capt. Watkins's wife, he was asked to command the Navy's precision flight team, the Blue Angels, but his orders were canceled when the Cuban Missile Crisis heated up.
For much of the 1960s, Capt. Watkins was stationed at the Pentagon in the Strike Warfare Division. Among other duties, he was a social aide at the White House under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. He helped at White House functions, organized reception lines and assisted in other preparations, including plans for Kennedy's funeral in 1963.
In 1965, when Capt. Watkins became commanding officer of a supply ship off the coast of Vietnam, he promptly ordered the helicopter supply drops to be made at night, which soon became common Navy practice. He later worked at the Navy's information office at the Pentagon and resumed his duties in the White House under Johnson and President Richard M. Nixon.
One of Capt. Watkins's more unusual military assignments came in 1969, when he provided technical support for the making of "Tora! Tora! Tora!," which reenacted the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He led efforts to find Navy ships and vintage propeller planes for the movie and recruited Navy pilots to fly the old aircraft. He appeared in the film as a Japanese pilot landing a fighter (actually an American plane refitted in Japanese colors) on an aircraft carrier.
During his 30-year career, Capt. Watkins had an unrivaled record of aviation achievement. In 1962, he became the first Navy pilot to make 1,000 landings on aircraft carriers and eight years later, he was the first to log 10,000 hours behind the controls of Navy aircraft.
By the time in retired in 1973, he had flown more than 200 aircraft models, made 1,418 fixed-wing landings on 37 aircraft carriers and accumulated more than 16,000 hours of flight time. He had to eject only once, when his fighter plane skidded off the edge of a carrier's deck. His decorations included the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Meritorious Service Medal.
George Clinton Watkins was born March 10, 1921, in Alhambra, Calif., and grew up in nearby Pasadena. He attended a military prep school in San Diego and the Citadel in South Carolina before entering the Naval Academy. (He was a member of the class of 1944, but graduated a year earlier in an accelerated wartime program.)
After his Navy career, he operated a landscaping company in Virginia Beach and became drawn to the sport of gliding. In 1982, he returned to Patuxent River to pursue his interest.
He lived in Arizona from 1985 to 1987 before moving to Santa Monica, Calif., where he ran a school for glider pilots. In 1998, he moved to the central California town of Lompoc, where he taught glider aerobatics and flew his custom Fox glider in competitions, once taking second in a national contest.
A heart condition grounded Capt. Watkins in 2003, after he had spent more than 21,000 hours in the air on more than 26,000 flights.
Survivors include his wife of 26 years, Monica Watkins of Lompoc; and two brothers, John Watkins of Pasadena and retired Navy Adm. James D. Watkins of Annapolis, who was chief of naval operations from 1982 to 1986 and secretary of energy under President George H.W. Bush.