Dale Atkinson (1935–2023): Mission Accomplished

by Eric Edwards

U.S. Air Force Photo by SrA Chris Drzazgowski

U.S. Air Force Photo by SrA Chris Drzazgowski

Throughout the long history of the Aircraft Survivability journal (ASJ) (and its predecessor publication), a name has consistently appeared among its pages. And that name is Dale Atkinson. An author, editor, and then editor-in-chief, Dale—who passed away in November at the age of 88— was effectively the “face” of the ASJ for many years. And he, along with his longstanding dedication to both the journal and the community it serves, will be greatly missed.

But Dale’s service to, and influence on, the aircraft survivability discipline were much more far-reaching than just the journal. In fact, there might not even be a discipline if he and a small group of other visionaries hadn’t recognized the need, beginning in the mid-1960s, to prioritize survivability and then work together to make it a formal part of the combat aircraft design and development process. Moreover, Dale would continue to help guide the discipline from its infancy all the way to the mature, stable field it is today. And he did it with a signature midwestern humility, optimism, and charm that endeared him to pretty much every colleague he had. And over 60+ years, he had a lot of them.

In some ways, the history and legacy of Dale’s 6-decade career in survivability can be likened to those of the iconic A-10 Warthog—a plane he proudly helped make one of the most survivable aircraft ever built. After all, both the A-10 and Dale’s career were born out of a wartime recognition of the need to better protect Warfighters. Both embodied unprecedented survivability innovation. Both connected personal success to the success of others. And both never seemed to know the meaning of quit.

A CALL TO SURVIVABILITY

Born in Sabetha, KS, on 23 July 1935, Dale began studying engineering at New Mexico State University after his high school graduation and became a co-op student at the (then) White Sands Proving Ground near Las Cruces, NM. He then enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, serving as an aircraft mechanic (primarily for the B-47 bomber) with the 306th Bomb Wing of the Strategic Air Command at MacDill AFB in Tampa, FL (see Figure 1). These early work experiences provided him with a first-person perspective not only of military aviation operations and testing but also with the inner workings of combat aircraft.

Young Airman Atkinson.

Figure 1. Young Airman Atkinson.

In 1961, Dale graduated with a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Kansas and accepted a job at the Air Force Flight Dynamics Laboratory (AFFDL) (which later became part of the Air Force Research Laboratory) at Wright-Patterson AFB. Here, he gained experience in laboratory operations and scientific research, with his first assignments involving the study of electromagnetic influences on hot gases in propulsion systems, as well as the design and construction of a wind and hot-gas tunnel.

Dale then moved to AFFDL’s Structures Division, where he helped develop techniques to protect spacecraft from meteoroid impacts. It was during this time, however, that the Air Force approached him with a more pressing mission. His experience with, and knowledge of, impact physics were needed to help study the causes of the high number of Air Force aircraft and crews being lost in Vietnam.

So, in 1966 he and a team of other analysts traveled to Southeast Asia (SEA) to study the issue. Upon their return, Dale briefed the team’s results to senior Air Force leaders and others, and their recommendations were made action items for further vulnerability analyses and modifications of several fielded aircraft, including the F-105 Thunderchief and the F-4 Phantom.

Based on these successes, Dale was appointed Chief of what became the AFFDL’s Survivability Branch, and he established the Air Force Survivability Research and Development (R&D) Program, as well as what was later called the Air Force Aircraft Survivability Research Facility. This facility included the first ever vertical firing range with airflow, which was crucial for performing realistic testing and analysis to understand the complex physical phenomena that occur when a warhead impacts an aircraft.

Dale also supported numerous aircraft programs during this time and helped develop many new techniques and technologies for reducing aircraft vulnerabilities. Most notably, he was instrumental in establishing survivability programs for the notoriously survivable A-10 Warthog and F-15 Eagle. The A-10 would be the first aircraft built from the ground up specifically with survivability in mind, and the F-15 would likewise achieve a perfect lifetime record of 100 dogfighting victories to 0 confirmed losses. Furthermore, the fact that both aircraft continue to keep aircrews safe and successful after more than 50 years of service is an ongoing testament to Dale’s efforts.

In 1967, Dale led a forensic team back to SEA to perform additional field studies. Among the team’s recommendations this time was the establishment of a long-term data collection effort, as well as a permanent repository for combat data and survivability information. Dale and his group would take the lead in helping develop collection techniques used by the Air Force Battle Damage Team, which was formed as part of the tri-Service Battle Damage Assessment and Reporting Program established by the Joint Technical Coordinating Group for Munitions Effectiveness (JTCG/ME). Likewise, the Combat Data Information Center (CDIC)—the predecessor to the Survivability/Vulnerability Information Analysis Center (SURVIAC) and, now, the Defense Systems Information Analysis Center (DSIAC)—was created to be the permanent repository that Dale’s team had proposed.

Dale and others also saw the need to improve the coordination and communication among Air Force organizations involved in survivability to avoid duplication of effort and optimize scarce resources. In 1968, he conceived and helped establish the Air Force’s Non-nuclear Survivability Technology Working Group, which included all the Air Force laboratories and organizations involved in survivability. He also served on numerous ad hoc inter-Service committees to similarly promote the coordination of survivability efforts.

Arguably the most significant result of the Atkinson team’s studies in SEA came in 1969 with the presentation and publication of a technical paper, for which Dale served as the lead author. The paper—which was titled “Design of Fighter Aircraft for Combat Survivability” and published in SAE Transactions—was perhaps the first formal/public call for survivability to be integrated into the beginning (and really every part) of the combat aircraft design and development process (see inset box). After all, what sense did it make to analyze and address an aircraft’s survivability issues only after that aircraft (and often its crew) experienced catastrophic outcomes in combat?

A LANDMARK PROPOSITION

Abstract from “Design of Fighter Aircraft for Combat Survivability,” authored by Dale B. Atkinson, Paul Blatt, Levelle Mahood, and Don W. Voyls and published in vol. 78 of SAE Transactions in 1969.

Aircraft survivability must be considered during preliminary design and during every succeeding phase of airplane subsystem and airframe construction. To enhance survivability, a minimization of vulnerability of critical systems and components must be designed and engineered into the aircraft system. Some areas wherein design application can reduce vulnerability of aircraft are crew protection as well as structural and fuel system components. Experience in southeast Asia indicates that many aircraft losses occur due to vulnerability of flight control systems to ground fire. This paper reviews in detail design parameters for hydraulic logic isolation elements, emergency flight control techniques, less flammable fluids, and integrated actuator packages which, together with redundancy and dispersion techniques, will increase the survivability potential of flight control systems. In conclusion, a systematic design procedure must be developed for all critical systems in the aircraft to assure that survivability is given prime consideration during the complete design cycle.

Dale and other survivability leaders also soon recognized the need for a permanent organization with the high-level authority to accomplish survivability coordination, communication, and collaboration across the three combat Services. Accordingly, a Survivability Committee was formed under the JTCG/ME, which led to the establishment in 1971 of the Joint Technical Coordinating Group on Aircraft Survivability (JTCG/AS)—the predecessor to today’s Joint Aircraft Survivability Program (JASP). Not surprisingly, Dale served on the committee that wrote the JTCG/AS charter, and he’d later become the JTCG/AS’s longest-serving Chairman.

In 1972, Dale moved his family west, first to New Mexico and then California, where he was hired to lead the Naval Weapons Center’s (NWC) Survivability Technology and Test Area at China Lake. The test area was soon thereafter designated an NWC branch, and Dale was named Branch Head. Then he and fellow survivability pioneer Hugh Drake, who headed the companion Warhead Analysis Branch, successfully lobbied to have their branches merged into a single Survivability and Lethality Division, where Dale served as Associate Division Head and helped to manage all the division’s survivability technology, analysis, and test functions.

In 1975, the Atkinsons moved back East to be closer to family, and Dale continued his survivability work at the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) in Washington, DC. The next 15 years here were spent helping to establish and then head NAVAIR’s Combat Survivability Office, continuing to promote the establishment and growth of the combat survivability design discipline, and serving as the Advanced Development Project Officer for the Naval Air Combat Survivability R&D Program. He also supported numerous aircraft survivability programs. Most notably, he was the original survivability project engineer on the F/A-18 Hornet (which would later prove its superior damage-tolerance design during the 1991 Gulf War), and he worked extensively on the V-22 Osprey program.

Dale (third from left) and Other Survivability Leaders Visiting NWC’s Aircraft Survivability Range (Circa 1970).

Figure 2. Dale (third from left) and Other Survivability Leaders Visiting NWC’s Aircraft Survivability Range (Circa 1970).

Dale’s last assignment as a Government employee came in 1990, when he was selected to be the first Staff Specialist for Survivability and Battle Damage Repair for Tactical Systems in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition. In this role, he oversaw numerous aircraft survivability programs (including that for the F-22 Raptor) and provided formal survivability evaluations of weapon systems to the Conventional Systems Committee.

Dale (left) Taking Part in Helicopter Flight Operations as Part of JTCG/AS Duties (Circa 1987).

Figure 3. Dale (left) Taking Part in Helicopter Flight Operations as Part of JTCG/AS Duties (Circa 1987).

In 1992, after 34 years of working for Uncle Sam, Dale retired from Government service. However, his distinguished survivability career was far from over. He would continue working for another 3 decades to improve and influence the survivability discipline by serving in numerous consultative roles with JASP, the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), and the SURVICE Engineering Company.

Perhaps most notably, he undertook numerous efforts to spread the survivability message throughout the community and beyond. As mentioned, he served in numerous roles for the ASJ (the follow-on publication to the JTCG/AS quarterly newsletter, which Dale helped establish in the late 1970s). He wrote many articles on relevant survivability programs, technologies, and people; he helped plan issue themes and content; he identified and lined up authors from his wide network of subject-matter experts (SMEs); and, most importantly, he helped ensure the journal remained timely, relevant, and valuable across the community.

In addition, he continued his long tradition of sending out his now-legendary “Dale Mail” communications. In these communications, which started as postal mailings and then grew to regular mass email distributions, Dale would collect and share survivability-related news stories and other information that he felt might be of interest and/or help to community members. He would continue to send these communications until just a few weeks before his passing.

A LEGACY OF INNOVATION, COLLABORATION, AND FAITHFULNESS

As mentioned previously, when looking back over Dale’s long career, one cannot help but notice several recurring themes, themes that could similarly be attributed to the A-10. One is innovation. The collection of survivability “firsts” in which Dale was involved is truly remarkable. Much like the A-10’s 100+ survivability-enhancing features (many of which were unprecedented when introduced), Dale was clearly never one to fear venturing into uncharted territory, especially when that territory promised to improve the safety and effectiveness of U.S. aircrews and/or help the community’s support of those crews. So, whenever a new tool, technology, organization, repository, model, or initiative seemed to be needed in this regard, Dale was usually eager to help plan, fund, lead, and/or otherwise support it.

Another recurring theme in Dale’s career is collaboration. Like the A-10—whose primary mission and specialty are to provide close air support to help ensure the success of ground troops—Dale clearly understood that his primary mission was likewise to support Warfighters. And the best way to do that, he knew, was by leveraging the combined experience and talent of SMEs across the community. Thus, Dale was the ultimate survivability team player, always eager to involve and collaborate with talented practitioners wherever they could be found, to entertain new and different ideas and proposals, and to selflessly share the spotlight and credit for whatever accomplishments might be made.

Dale also recognized that a key to a truly strong, sustainable, and effective community was by investing in its members. He was therefore an early and strong supporter of regular national survivability conferences and symposia, was a sponsor of the development of the first graduate aircraft survivability courses at NPS, and was a co-developer of the first Navy-JTCG/AS Survivability Short Course.

Dale (left) Receiving the AIAA Survivability Award From Hughes Aircraft CEO Malcolm Currie in 1994.

Figure 4. Dale (left) Receiving the AIAA Survivability Award From Hughes Aircraft CEO Malcolm Currie in 1994.

He also strongly supported Dr. Robert Ball’s development of the industry’s foundational survivability textbook (which is soon to enter its third edition).

A final, and perhaps the greatest, theme of Dale’s career is faithfulness. Just as the A-10 has continued to fly despite repeated attempts—by both bullets and budgets—to ground it, Dale will likely be remembered by many for his remarkable persistence and never-ending commitment to the field. Simply put, his survivability history began long before many of today’s practitioners were born and continued long after other industry leaders (along with a dozen U.S. Presidents) had retired.

Dale (center) with Wife, Caroll Atkinson, and ADM Gormley Receiving the NDIA Survivability Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999.

Figure 5. Dale (center) with Wife, Caroll Atkinson, and ADM Gormley Receiving the NDIA Survivability Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999.

And the community certainly noticed. Among Dale’s many awards and honors during his career were his selection to receive the first-ever AIAA Survivability Award in 1994 (see Figure 4), the NDIA Survivability Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999 (see Figure 5), the ASJ Pioneer of Survivability recognition in 2000, and the NDIA Arthur Stein Award for Outstanding Contributions in LFT&E in 2011.

Likewise, as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the Weapons Systems Laboratory (WSL) in China Lake in 2020, several NAWC survivability leaders recognized Dale for his many contributions to Navy aircraft survivability, announcing that WSL’s newest ballistic range would thereafter be called the Atkinson Test Site (see Figure 6). Finally, in 2023, the NDIA’s Combat Survivability Division renamed its longstanding lifetime achievement award the “Dale B. Atkinson Air Combat Survivability for Lifetime Achievement” (with the first presentation of it made just a few weeks before his passing).

atkinson-figure-6.jpg

Figure 6. Sign at The Atkinson Test Site.

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

In conclusion, JASPO, the ASJ staff, and the entire aircraft survivability community would like to posthumously thank Dale Atkinson for all of his contributions to, and accomplishments in, the industry over so many years. Without a doubt, his work has made a difference; his mission has been accomplished; and his legacy of innovation, collaboration, and faithfulness will surely live on.

Acknowledgments

Note that large portions of this article were excerpted from two previous ASJ articles—“Pioneers of Survivability: Dale B. Atkinson,” authored by Robert Ball and published in the spring 2000 issue, and “The Development of Aircraft Combat Survivability Over the Past Half Century,” authored by Robert Ball, Mark Couch, and Chris Adams and published in the summer 2018 issue. Information was also taken from the 2011 Arthur Stein Award presentation by Jim O’Bryon. The author thanks these individuals as well as the many others who shared relevant stories, pictures, and reflections.

TRIBUTES FROM AROUND THE COMMUNITY

Portrait of DaleDennis Lindell (JASP Director): “Dale was a founding father of modern aircraft combat survivability. Forever a gentleman and scholar, his influence is broad and deep, impacting every aspect of aircraft combat survivability and generations of practitioners in the military, government, industry, and academia. We will miss him dearly and strive to live up to his legacy, providing the very best combat survivable aircraft for our nation’s Warfighter.”

Robert Ball (ASJ Pioneer in Survivability and NPS Survivability Professor): “Dale was the person who introduced me to survivability and was a continual source of inspiration, ideas, information, advice, and support. . . . Working with him these past 50+ years has been a win-win. His impact on those close to him, as well as on the American Warfighter, was life changing.”

Jim O’Bryon (former Deputy Director, Operational Test & Evaluation/Live Fire Testing): “Throughout his career, Dale selflessly advanced the cause of aircraft survivability in the military services, OSD, and industry. Perhaps more than anyone, he ensured that the aircraft survivability community was a true community. He was quick to give credit to others and ensured that colleagues received recognition for their accomplishments. ”

Dave Hall (ASJ Pioneer in Survivability, former Chief Analyst for the NAWC Survivability Division, and chair of the JTCG/AS Methodology Subgroup): “Dale was a great guy who believed strongly in spreading the word about survivability.”

Jim Foulk (ASJ Pioneer in Survivability and founder of the SURVICE Engineering Company): “Dale was one of the most important persons to aircraft survivability. He was also one of the nicest persons in the world and a true friend to so many.”

Richard (Bart) Huffman (Long-time survivability leader and member of the NDIA CSD): “Dale was a continual champion of the aircraft design discipline—countless aviators literally owe their lives to him.”

Ken Goff (former NAVAIR Combat Survivability Division Director): “My career began under Dale in the mid-80s when survivability was in the early stages of maturing as a technical discipline. Dale was instrumental in guiding us on how to instill survivability within the systems engineering discipline. He was a great boss and gave me and others many opportunities to excel and become the survivability professionals we are today.”

Dave Legg (NAVAIR Combat Survivability Division Director): “Dale was the great communicator. And he instilled that on me as a new engineer early in my career. He was also a great educator and taught me everything I know. And if he was one of the fathers of aircraft survivability, he was certainly the grandfather of U.S. Navy aircraft survivability. He was also a great boss who cared about his people.”

Marty Krammer (NAWCWD Aircraft Vulnerability Division Lead): “I always greatly enjoyed my conversations with Dale and hearing his stories on aircraft survivability—including about his time in Vietnam as part of a tiger team investigating shootdowns of F-4s, his efforts in getting the JTCG/AS and the WSL established, his time leading the Aircraft Survivability and Lethality group at China Lake, and his working with Col. Burton (of The Pentagon Wars) to push for realistic live-fire testing and establishment of the Live Fire law.”

Kevin Crosthwaite (former SURVIAC Director): “Dale was not only the prime mover in establishing SURVIAC, the NDIA CSD, and the Survivability Technical Committee, but he also guided and nurtured them, as well as the professional development of the individuals involved. He was always positive and a ready source of calm when disagreements arose. He will be sorely missed.