Genius in the Shadows
"Ted" Gillette, W6HX
March Field, Riverside California, February 10, 1939: Inside a top-secret, guarded hangar, a group of men surround a sleek, twin-boomed aircraft, a silver prototype, bearing the Lockheed and US Army Air Corps insignia. The two counter-rotating Allison 1000 horsepower engines wait on iron stands. Chief Lockheed designer, Hall Hibbard is there, Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson at his side.
"Again," says Hibbard, and several shirt-sleeved engineers push an engine onto mounts projecting from a boom. Johnson hangs his suit jacket on the edge of the wing, rolls up his sleeves, takes a titanium bolt and delicately, pinky-up, fits it into an engine flange. He touches it gently on each side, wiggles it carefully as the congregation watches, holding their collective breath. It doesnít drop into the mount.
Hibbard turns away: "Let me remind you that the acceptance test by the Army Air Corps is tomorrow. Those bolts have to drop in with just a touch of the finger. It is crucial for crews replacing engines under battle conditions. Any ideas?" He looks at each face. These engineers have made every possible calculation and performed every proof. The bolts should slide in, smooth as frogís hair. But they donít.
After several moments of pregnant silence, a throat clears off to the side, in the darkness. As the assembly of suited engineers and designers looks over, a stocky young man in gasoline-stained Lockheed coveralls steps forward.
"Let me give it a try," says the dark, handsome twenty-five year old mechanic.
"No. Overnight. Alone. I guarantee it by morning."
After a few moments, the group files out leaving Frederick "Ted" Gillette alone with the P-38 Lightning.
"Dad never told me how he did it," says Fred Gillette, Tedís son, "but the P-38 passed inspection."
The Lockheed Lightning went on to be the most successful fighter in World War II.
Tedís father, Burt Gillette, moved the family to California in the early 1920ís. Burt was a gifted artist and a director of cartoons. We call them "animated films" today, but in the 1920ís they were "cartoons." As the depression swept the country in 1929, people flocked to the movies for solace and amusement, and Burt directed nearly 100 cartoons for major studios.
Ted played varsity basketball at Belmont High in Los Angeles. He could have attended the University of Southern California on a scholarship, but his love of flying sent him in a different direction. He trained at the Wright-Curtis company. He read enthusiastically and pursued his amateur radio hobby with serious concentration.
The depression meant few opportunities for work. "I spent all but about eight hours at the radio, usually with a book open and tuning up and down the bands," Ted said. In his "free" time, he "hung out" at the Burbank airport, using his mechanical talent to pick up odd jobs. He worked for Charles Lindberg, Amelia Erhardt, Wiley Post, Pancho Barnes, Kingsford Smith and his "Southern Cross." In June, 1928, Kingsford Smith made the first successful crossing of the Pacific, from Oakland to his birthplace, Brisbane, Australia in the "Southern Cross." It took 83 hours, 38 minutes with stops in Hawaii and Fiji.
The sturdy trimotor took him from Ireland to Newfoundland for the first successful crossing of the Atlantic in June of 1930. Following this, Smith flew solo from England to Australia.
In its day, the Southern Cross was as famous as the "Spirit of Saint Louis." It is presently stationed at the Sir Charles Kingsford Smith Memorial at the Brisbane Airport.
"An Army Air Force general owned a small plane," recounts Fred Gillette, "he let Ted use it to learn to fly in exchange for mechanic services."
Ted landed a job at Lockheed where he was known for his electronic and mechanical talents. "He was a Ďone of a kind,í an Ďempirical engineer,í" says Alan Emerald, K6GA. "A dying breed in these days of specialization."
In 1934, Burt Gillette received an Academy Award for the Disney cartoon "Three Little Pigs." Beloved humorist Will Rogers presented the award. The following year, Rogers and Wiley Post were killed when their Lockheed Vega, a ship that Ted had worked on, crashed on takeoff at Point Barrow, Alaska. The Vega had been pieced together from two separate planes and had added pontoons for water takeoffs and landings.
"Someone forgot to close the carburetor inspection doors. The carbs froze in that arctic weather," Ted said later.
When Amelia Erhardt asked Ted to fly with her, he politely refused. Later, he confided: "Amelia was a good friend, but she wasnít much of a pilot compared to Pancho Barnes." "Pancho" was the granddaughter of balloonist Thaddeus Lowe and a fierce air race competitor. "She was a good as any man," said Ted in those non-politically-correct days.
Ted married Opal, and they built a ranch in Van Nuys, California. In his shop and radio room, Ted, W6HX, meticulously constructed transmitters and amplifiers. His skill was displayed on the pages of books and magazines. By the time amateur radio was shut down for the duration of the Second World War, he had confirmed 123 countries, including the first California contacts with western Europe, Greece and Siberia. An amazing feat for those early days of amateur radio.
Tedís perfectionism and skill won him trophies in the model airplane world where in many ways, aerodynamics were much less forgiving than in full scale.
Athletic and lithe, Ted was in demand as a tower and antenna rigger. Some of his weekend "flying" was at the top of towers he installed for serious "DXíing" amateurs. In 1965, Ted had been working on the Falcon Missile Project, When it was moved to Arizona, he decided to devote his time to his tower and antenna business. Ted scoured the surplus stores for prop-pitch motors. (These powerful electric brutes turned on the end of the propeller shaft, mainly in the P-51 "Mustang" and the Lockheed "Electra." With the "prop" breaking the sound barrier, the "pitch" or angle of the blade could be changed in flight.) He was especially knowledgeable about them. He and son, Fred grunted and groaned under the load of dozens of the greasy, lead-weight motors that could turn a large antenna array on a dime. Tedís custom control boxes were so meticulously built that they could be easily mistaken for commercial or military units.
Fred signed to play professional football for the Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers and owned a powerful racing car. "The mirrors vibrated so badly at high speed, they were useless." Fred recalled, "Dad thought it over, went out to the shop and came back with rock-stable mirrors." It was done in silence and without much discussion.
Practically every amateur radio tower installation in Southern California was carefully engineered by W6HX. In 1972, Ted was called to work on a tower installed on a wooden roof. The twenty foot section was guyed to points on the roof and seemed quite sturdy. Any one who has gone through termite inspection these days knows that the outward integrity of a wooden structure may belie a decayed core. It was a bad and a good thing, in a way. As son, Fred, watched in horror amid spine-chilling cracking sounds and the "spang" of guy wires pulling out of the rotted wood, Ted rode the tower down.
The infested roof rafters broke Tedís fall and spared his life.
As the energetic, stubborn, perfectionist Ted Gillette recovered painfully from a broken back, he knew he would never climb a tower again.
In 1985, Opal, the beautiful young woman who took care of the family and raised Chow dogs, died. Ted concentrated on radio and reached the all-time top of the Honor Roll with 380 countries confirmed. He attacked DXíing with his usual fervor. One did not "lock horns" with W6HX in a pile-up. Ted traveled to Dayton and Germany for conventions and "Hamfests," but he became restless and impatient and as he turned eighty-one in 1995, he abandoned his construction projects. His eyesight was failing and it was just too painful. He sold his ranch and moved out to the desert, to Hisperia, not far from the neglected hangar at March Field in Riverside. "Iím through with radio," Ted said.
But somehow, a small tower "grew" in Tedís back yard, and a new transceiver on his table. Ted discovered friends he had overlooked in the myopia of his life-long obsessions. Tedís considerable contributions to the aircraft, defense and electronics industry were silent and underrated. His special abilities a rare gift that we must try to nurture in our young. Still waiting modestly in the shadows, Ted died on July 14, 1998.
(Thanks to Alan Emerald, K6GA, Ester Imsande, KB6HW, Gene Real, K6OJ, "Skip" Bolnick, KJ6Y and Fred Gillette for their assistance in compiling this article.)
Read comments by Ken Beals, who worked for Ted!
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