Physicist's Legacy Continues Beyond Retirement
November 12, 2009
- "I think work is a very exciting thing to do. It is very gratifying, challenging and intensely interesting. It's fun to be here.
- For a man known for actually building rockets in his kitchen, the word "retirement" just doesn't fit into his lifestyle.
- "Not since Dr. von Braun has one man done more to promote rocket development at Redstone than Dr. McCorkle," said Sen. Richard Shelby.
- "He has been on the forefront of new technology to provide our war fighters with the best equipment and our nation the best defense."
During his 52 years as an Army civilian, Dr. Bill McCorkle has been recognized countless times for his contributions in the fields of aviation and missile technology.
Throughout his career, McCorkle has "had fun" working as a designer, explorer, researcher, developer and manager. He is a scientist, engineer, mathematician, organizer, pilot, teacher, leader and visionary.
He is a charter member of the Army's Senior Executive Service, and an internationally recognized leader in aviation and missile technology. He is the director of the Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center where, with more than 3,100 employees involved in research and development of missiles, aviation and unmanned aerial vehicle technology, he leads the Army's largest research and development center. As the chief of AMRDEC and its forerunner, the Army Missile Laboratory, McCorkle oversees an organization that has been named the Army's best laboratory eight times since it was formed in 1981.
But more than anything else, McCorkle is a physicist.
"I've always believed that people should do what they are interested in," he said, as he sat in an office where the table and desk are overflowing with administrative and research reports, shelf space is filled with numerous awards and accolades, and the white board is covered in scientific equations.
"I think work is a very exciting thing to do. It is very gratifying, challenging and intensely interesting. It's fun to be here. There are lots of things to do. In fact, I think I will keep on working here as a voluntary emeritus."
That last comment - referring to AMRDEC's voluntary emeritus program - shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who knows McCorkle. At 81, he has enough energy and technical know-how to keep up with any young engineer. For a man known for actually building rockets in his kitchen, the word "retirement" just doesn't fit into his lifestyle.
But McCorkle is retiring in official Army terms. His retirement ceremony is set for Nov. 23 at 9 a.m. in Bob Jones Auditorium. Among the dignitaries who will attend will be longtime friend and supporter Sen. Richard Shelby.
"Not since Dr. Wernher von Braun has one man done more to promote rocket development at Redstone than Dr. McCorkle," Shelby said.
"Since he joined the Aviation and Missile Command, Dr. McCorkle has been a pillar in the aviation and missile research and development fields. Dr. McCorkle has been on the forefront of new technology to provide our war fighters with the best equipment and our nation the best defense from those who wish to threaten us. He has been a genuine asset to both the service and the war fighter. His leadership, experience and expertise have advanced our rocket, missile and aviation programs beyond what was ever imagined when he first came to work for the Army."
As AMRDEC's leader, McCorkle has been responsible for major research, exploratory and advanced development, rapid prototyping, production, field engineering, software engineering and product assurance support for more than 35 systems managed by the Program Executive Offices for Aviation, Missiles and Space, and Command, Control and Communications Tactical; the Missile Defense Agency, Aviation and Missile Command, and various programs, product managers and customers.
McCorkle started his career at Redstone in 1957, fresh from obtaining his physics doctorate from the University of Tennessee.
"I thought I would work here for a year and see how I liked it and then find something else to do," he recalled. "One year ran into another and another, and I advanced, and kept finding more opportunities to work."
His first assignment was to work issues pertaining to the Little John missile program, and he never looked back.
"I worked with a simulator of the Little John missile to address its inaccuracies," McCorkle recalled. "It was a free flight rocket designed for a nuclear warhead 10 to 11 inches in diameter.
"But it was terribly inaccurate and no one could explain it. I discovered the cause of the inaccuracies. We changed the launcher to allow the rocket to spin up before it launched. That made it a lot more accurate than it was."
That was the first of many discoveries to McCorkle's credit. He has worked on research and development projects associated with nearly every missile and rocket system managed by the Aviation and Missile Command. After Little John, McCorkle went on to work on guided missiles, including the Lance and Hawk.
"There were so many missiles, air defense missiles, that I got to work on," he said. "We succeeded in developing a lot of new systems.
"One of my favorites was the Hawk. But the Hawk could only engage a single target at a time.
Toward the end of the Hawk's career, I proposed a scheme to allow it to engage multiple targets. No one thought it could be done. I showed them at White Sands (New Mexico) low altitude, simultaneous Hawk engagements. The Hawk was replaced by the Patriot. But it is still in service in parts of the world, and some have multi-engagement capability."
Topping McCorkle's list of favorites is the FOG-M, the revolutionary fiber-optic guided missile system that he developed on his kitchen table and yet was not able to launch into an active military system during his time at AMRDEC.
"My wife Nancy didn't really object to my work," McCorkle said. "But she was always funny about making sure it was all cleaned up."
While missile systems such as the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System were gratifying to work on because of their extremely capable, effective and accurate reputation in the war fight, McCorkle said FOG-M "has represented new technology from the beginning. Its fiber optic cable gives beautiful pictures of the battlefield. The fiber optic data links represent the most capable technology we've ever had. It makes its operator a virtual kamikaze. It relies on a pilot on the ground, but it gives a visual picture that makes that Soldier a pilot in the air."
Under his leadership, AMRDEC has had a major role in arming the unmanned aerial vehicle Predator with Hellfire missiles, establishing an Advanced Simulation Center that provides virtual battlefield exercises and enables concurrent engineering to reduce development time and cost on new systems, and developing its Life Cycle Software Engineering Center into one of DoD's most successful centers. McCorkle is especially proud of AMRDEC's $1.2 billion Prototype Integration Facility, where employees are often working in real time to make upgrades and improvements on systems in support of the rapid response requirements of the Research Development and Engineering Command, DoD and, ultimately, the Soldier.
"The PIF has been very effective in its support of Soldiers during the war in Iraq," he said. "There were many times when we were literally in constant communication with Soldiers in the field. That gives everybody a sense of purpose. And now everyone in the Army wants a PIF."
Except for a two-year stint in a rotational assignment at the Pentagon as a science adviser to the director of Weapons Systems, McCorkle's career has been entirely in support of the missile and aviation programs managed at Redstone Arsenal. In 1980, he was selected for the dual role as the technical director for the then Missile Command and as director of the Army's Missile Laboratory (later AMRDEC). In 1997, McCorkle became head of the newly formed AMRDEC, which merged the Arsenal's aviation and missile research into one organization.
"Most were opposed to the merger. They thought it would be better if they were kept separated," he said, adding that much of the opposition was based on the fear that aviation concerns would override future development of missile systems, which has not been the case.
Yet, he said, "aviation is a much bigger business, twice to three times the investment value of missiles. The trouble with the aviation business is rotocrafts are developing to a level which is close to the limit of what you can do with the technology. They are very expensive to make, but very necessary because they are the only aircraft that can take off and land in a very limited space. They are invaluable to the war fight."
AMRDEC is constantly pushing technology to support the Army's helicopter fleet.
"The necessity for more improved rotocraft like the Chinook, Black Hawk and Apache is top priority. These advanced war fighting machines will make the difference in places like Afghanistan where extremely rugged territory and the lack of roads makes our Soldiers very dependent on helicopters for quick and safe transportation and protection," McCorkle said.
"We are working hard to improve and develop new technology in emerging airframes, rotoblades and all parts that go into a helicopter and, at the same time, trying to make them less complex and less experimental. It is a high challenge, but indispensible work."
McCorkle admits it will be difficult to give up a job that he has enjoyed for so long. But, he said, it's time to let others continue AMRDEC's role as one of the Army's leading laboratories.
"Retirement is always a hard decision to make. But I recognize there are other people who are quite capable and who can lead this organization," he said. "This organization and the whole environment have certainly changed while I've been here, and those changes haven't always been for the better.
"The most challenging change is the cost of new technologies. They have gotten so very high. We want to make technological improvements, but at the same time, we have to cut down on the cost and expense. We want to make aircraft more safe and flexible, and missiles more lethal and capable in support of the war fighter. But we also must face the reality of high costs."
Yet McCorkle has a lot of confidence in the next generation of AMRDEC leaders.
"Their enthusiasm is so great," he said. "We bring a lot of kids in here as young engineers and co-ops and interns, and we often can't believe their enthusiasm and how sharp they are. They have a strong desire to make contributions and to see progress. They are extremely gifted, and the environment here inspires them to be achievers."
In retirement, McCorkle hopes to spend more time developing FOG-M and other advanced technologies with the help of scientist Dr. Tom Bahder. He also wants to travel in "our old motor home" with his wife. As an AMRDEC volunteer, he hopes to mentor and assist younger generation engineers. He plans to pass on his research papers to the Redstone Scientific Information Center.
"There are a lot of hard and difficult challenges here. But there's also a lot opportunities and gratifying challenges, and I want to be part of that for as long as I can," McCorkle said. "I've enjoyed leading people and leading change, communicating and working with people, and building coalitions. I hope to still contribute in this environment."