U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-east Cobb) said he will be missed.
“Robert Ormsby was a giant at Lockheed, a giant in the U.S. defense system and a giant from Cobb County,” Isakson said. “His leadership at Lockheed, but more importantly his leadership throughout our community, will be missed by all.”
Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens of east Cobb, the former chairman of the Cobb Board of Commissioners, echoed Isakson’s sentiments.
“Bob was a tremendous asset to our community, with great love for Lockheed, the military and the city of Marietta,” Olens said.
The family will receive friends from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday at Mayes Ward-Dobbins Funeral Home in Marietta.
A funeral service will be at 4 p.m. Wednesday, also at the funeral home, with a reception to follow at The Marlow House.
“Cobb County has lost not just an endless font of knowledge about the history of Lockheed and the history of its plant here, but of aviation history in general,” said MDJ Editorial Page Editor Joe Kirby, author of “The Lockheed Plant.”
“His passing is a great loss for Cobb and for the Marietta Museum of History’s Aviation Wing.”
Inspiring a future president
Born in Winston-Salem, N.C., Ormsby told the Journal in a 2010 interview that he knew he wanted to devote his life to aviation as early as 9 years old. When he sought an aeronautical engineering degree at Georgia Tech, he roomed with Jimmy Carter, describing the future president as a bookworm.
“I spent a lot of time outside the room learning about liquor and women and dancing, and he was always there. When I came back, he was always working hard,” Ormsby said at the time.
The two differed in their musical tastes. Carter initially ridiculed Ormsby’s love for classical music until the day he caught Carter red-handed.
“He kept running it down,” Ormsby said. “He liked country music. And then one day, I had to leave the room and go to a lab which runs about three hours. I got down the hall and then I suddenly remembered I forgot my slide rule. So I came back in, and Jimmy is standing in the middle of the room with a pencil directing the music.”
The former president praised Ormsby in an email Friday.
“Bob Ormsby was my roommate at Georgia Tech, and superior to me in our studies there,” Carter wrote. “He introduced me to classical music, and later became a great engineer at Lockheed while I served in the submarine force and later became governor of Georgia. I met him again during those days at the first demonstration flights of the enormous C-5 Galaxy airplane, and after that we enjoyed sharing ideas about our government’s defense projects and also some political issues. I will miss his good humor and incisive analysis of current events.”
Following his graduation from Georgia Tech, Ormsby worked for the Glenn Martin Company in Maryland, now the “Martin” in Lockheed Martin. He followed that job with a stint in the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics in Washington, D.C., working on a supersonic wind tunnel facility. In the process, he invented and patented the “strain gage balance” to measure the forces on missiles and aircraft being tested at supersonic speeds.
Designing the Galaxy
It was the C-130 Hercules cargolifter that brought Ormsby to Marietta in 1954. Lockheed reopened Marietta’s Bell Bomber plant in 1951, invited by the government to refurbish B-29 bombers that were used during World War II to be used again in Korea.
When the government awarded Lockheed the contract to build the C-130, it generated a need for additional engineers, which is how Ormsby came to join Lockheed’s Operations Research Department.
In an interview with the MDJ, Ormsby spoke of how the C-130 was the first modern-era tactical airlifter in the U.S. Prior to that, airlifters were all conversions of passenger airplanes. The C-130 was followed by the much larger and jet-powered C-141 StarLifter and then the even bigger C-5 Galaxy. Ormsby headed up the initial design team for the Galaxy.
“So you drive a jeep into it, and the guys go with the airplane. Same with a tank. The tank crews go with their airplane,” he said.
Prior to the C-5, the heavy equipment and its crews would have shipped separately. The C-141 and C-4 are strategic airlifters and can fly from continent to continent without having to touch down.
Lockheed won the C-5 contract in 1965, but it was a process not without growing pains.
“All airplanes grow in weight no matter how big or small,” Ormsby said.
An inquiry was made to General Electric, which was building the C-5’s engines, to ask for more thrust to compensate for the weight. GE said that was possible for another $5 million, a proposal the Air Force nixed, he said.
“Well, then we had to go into an incredible weight-reducing effort night and day to get every ounce of weight out of it,” Ormsby said. “I won’t go into details, but one part of the airplane had to be chemically dipped 32 times to get the last ounce of weight off.”
Winning a key contract
When Ormsby served as president of Lockheed-Georgia in 1979, he recalled trying to convince Congress to approve the contract for a later version of the C-5, the C-5B.
“Boeing came in and said, ‘Well, we can give you one that’s a lot less expensive than that,’” Ormsby said.
Boeing offered to convert a 747 passenger plane to the military’s specifications, but the problem with that offer was that a 747’s cargo floor is 16 feet in the air compared to the C-5, which “kneels” down to truck level.
“And the question is, how the hell are you going to load that way the hell in the boondocks?” Ormsby said. “I spent a year in Washington talking to 220 congressmen trying to explain that to them, and we won the contract,” he said.
The C-5 has since been used throughout the world, Ormsby said, citing the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
“The Israelis were attacked by all their Arab enemies, who had been armed by the Soviet Union. As a result, the Israelis were running out of tanks. They’re getting shot up. The way you stop a tank is with another tank, and they’re running out. (Israeli Premier) Golda Meir called President Nixon and said, ‘Mr. President, if you don’t get some more tanks here we’re through.’ Nixon called in his advisers, and he loaded up C-5s and C-141s and took tanks to Israel within a few hours,” Ormsby said.
“Now, lest you think I’m making this up, go look at Golda Meir’s memoirs, and she said, ‘For generations to come, all will be told of the miracle of the immense planes from the United States bringing in the materiel that meant life to our people.’ So I had a good feeling because that’s one of the things I helped do.”
Micky Blackwell, who succeeded Ormsby as president of the Marietta Lockheed facility in the 1990s, said Ormsby received no small amount of personal abuse from the Air Force for going over its head to Congress to approve the contract rather than allowing it to decide what aircraft to purchase.
“The Air Force was not happy about that,” Blackwell said. “And so for a long time they were very unhappy with Mr. Ormsby. But it was an incredibly lucrative thing for Lockheed. We gave them a great airplane. And so today they love having the airplane. But at the time the Air Force was really put out with Lockheed for going over their head and selling the C-5 to Congress.”
Mentoring a generation
Retired Lockheed Aeronautics COO Terry Graham of Sandy Springs said a quote that applies to Ormsby is “The largest risk you take is not to take any risk at all.”
“Ormsby had that same philosophy that the greatest risk is not to take any risk,” Graham said. “You have to push the envelope, especially in the aerospace business.”
Both Graham and Blackwell spoke of what a mentor Ormsby was to them.
“He was the executive that gave me my big chance because he was president of Marietta when I was just coming along,” Blackwell said.
Blackwell said Ormsby’s legacy will be the body of work on the C-5 program.
“I think that is the major legacy that he’ll leave, and the things that he did to start the F-22 program on the right path. Because the F-22 was getting born during his last years. So he put the first teams together. His legacy will be primarily what he did for an incredible airplane called the C-5,” Blackwell said.
Shan Cooper, vice president of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company and general manager of the company’s Marietta facility, said Ormsby was always there to lean on whenever she needed advice.
“As you can imagine, stepping into a job like this and following Bob and Lee (Rhyant) and Micky, it’s a big task, and they were just giants in the industry, and he was always there for me,” Cooper said.
Cooper said she most admired Ormsby’s honesty.
“You never had to question what he was thinking, and I loved that about him,” she said.
Cooper said Ormsby’s legacy will be his love for his family, as well as being the father of the C-5 program.
Marietta Museum of History founder Dan Cox worked with Ormsby in bringing an aviation wing to the museum.
“Everybody out there, including the union, liked him, and that’s something said, you know?” Cox said. “He was probably one of the most admired people they ever had out there. He not only could talk to the engineers, he could talk to the common man. He could talk that engineer talk now, he could just snow me good, but he had a great gift of communication with everybody.”
Longevity with Lockheed
Ormsby’s nine years as president of Lockheed Georgia from 1975 to 1984 are the longest anyone has held the position.
He was later promoted to Lockheed’s corporate office in California to head all the Lockheed aircraft facilities in 1984, retiring in 1986.
Blackwell estimates Ormsby managed more than 40,000 employees at the peak of his career.
Ormsby served as chairman of the NASA Aeronautics Advisory Committee, as a fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and was the recipient of the NASA Distinguished Public Service Award.
“He was just one of my heroes,” Marietta Mayor Steve Tumlin said. “He was an outstanding businessman, an outstanding citizen. He worked for his job and this community every day that I ever knew him. He was just a very productive person both in civic matters and in business matters.
“Giant. Hero. Those are the words you think about. He was a man of vision and passion, but he rolled up his sleeves and worked.”
Ormsby was preceded in death by his wife, Margarett Williams Ormsby.
He is survived by two daughters, Marka Ormsby and Robin Daniel, grandson, Rick Ormsby and wife Andrea, granddaughter, Kimberly Daniel and great-grandson, Raylan Ormsby, all of Marietta.