Born: United States of America
Primarily active in: United States of America
Robert R. Williams held many “firsts” in Army Aviation, from the Air Force Green Instrument Card to forming and commanding the U.S. Constabulary Flight Detachment (1946-1949). The first Chief of the Army Aviation Branch, G-3, DA (1952-1955) and the first President of the U.S. Army Aviation Board (1955-1958), he earned the first Master Army Aviator wings on 10 September 1957 (minimum 15 years and 3,000 hours as an aviator).
The Army Aviation Association of America (AAAA) and its membership refer to General Robert R. Williams as the “Father of Army Aviation,” but he soared above that accolade. The quintessence of Army Aviation, Bob was more than the patriarch: he was its spirit—and his absence echoes throughout all of aviation.
After working for months on a paper about the history of Army Aviation (presented in May 2009 at the AHS conference in Fort Worth), Bob declined to attend because he wouldn’t leave his ailing wife. When I learned of his death from General Carl McNair (first U.S. Army Aviation Branch Chief) just weeks before the conference, I was stunned by the unfairness of life—until I realized that perhaps Bob simply willed himself to live until his last mission was complete: the creation of a written record of Army Aviation’s history—dictated by the only source who truly knew it well—its father.
Born in Evanston, Wyoming on 30 June 1918, Williams was a civilian pilot even before his admission to USMA on 1 July 1936. Intending to enter the Air Force after West Point, he was rejected and called a “poor investment” because of his less than perfect eyesight. Instead, he joined the 18th Field Artillery Regiment at Fort Sill, OK. Two years later when one of his fellow pioneer aviators was accidentally shot down by NAVY ships during World War II—U.S. Navy ships—Bob often chided afterward that his eyesight was better than most.
At Ft. Sill, then LT Williams met Major William Wallace Ford, a fellow staunch advocate for the benefit of using light aircraft to adjust artillery fire. Williams secured the 20 necessary aircraft, and with Ford and others conducted tests proving its feasibility. Bob was one of 20 of the 39 students who passed the rigorous testing, a group which would later become known as the “Class Before One.” Williams stated in 2009 that he was its last surviving member.
On 6 June 1942, a War Department directive officially established “organic air observation for Field Artillery.” Army Aviation was born!
While serving as Chief of the Army Aviation Branch, G-3, DA (1952–1955), a memorandum of understanding between the Air Force and the Army expanded Army Aviation’s presence from five companies to twelve battalions in 1952. The Warrant Officer program and flight training for West Pointers were also initiated, and the Aviation School moved from Fort Sill to Camp Rucker.
Under his guidance, the Army Aviation Board established several world speed and distance records (1955 to 1958), including the first in-flight refueling of a helicopter, as well as the first cross-country, non-stop flight of an H-21 helicopter (from San Diego, CA to the Pentagon).
Williams served as Deputy Director, Tactical Warfare Systems Office, OSD, from 1961-1962 and with Colonel Edwin Powell ’41 drafted two key memoranda for Sec. of Defense Robert McNamara, intended to “stir up” the Army. They did just that. And in April of 1962, McNamara approved both and ordered the Army to take a “bold new look” at land warfare mobility and “seriously consider fresh, new concepts and give unorthodox ideas a hearing.” This resulted in the formation of the famous Howze Board—and the true beginning of modern Army air mobility.
In Vietnam from 1967-1969, Bob commanded the 1st Aviation Brigade, which grew to its maximum strength of over 2,000 assigned aircraft and was further charged with the logistical support of over 2,000 additional aircraft belonging to other Army units. Bob accumulated over 1,000 flying hours in the UH-1, OH-6, AH-1, CH-47, CH-54, OV-1, U-21, F-4, and F-100.
Williams earned countless awards, including the highest tribute of the American Helicopter Society (AHS)—the Dr. Alexander Klemin Award—for “notable achievement in the advancement of rotary-wing aeronautics.”
Bestselling author and long-time close friend, Bill Butterworth (a.k.a. W.E.B. Griffin—The Brotherhood of War series) said it best. “The thread that dragged Army Aviation from a handful of aircraft…to an entirely new functioning concept of mobility on the battlefield that has changed the face of warfare is General Robert R. Williams.” The Brotherhood of War character, William Roberts, is based on the real-life Robert Williams.
The Army Aviation Association of America (AAAA) held its first induction ceremony into the Army Aviation Hall of Fame in June of 1974. Bob Williams was one of seven original members that today total 128.
Retiring from the Army in 1974 as a Lieutenant General, Williams accepted the presidency of Bell Helicopter International (BHI) in 1975. Together with Robert Mackinnon, he helped organize the successful extraction of all Bell employees from Iran during the Christmas holidays of 1978, just days before the Shah was deposed.
Written by Paul J. Fardink