LOS ANGELES — When Thomas V. Jones took control of Northrop in 1960, it was a secondary aerospace company whose future was uncertain, but the legendary gambles he made over the next 30 years swept the company to the top ranks of the defense industry during the Cold War.
Mr. Jones came from an era when the chiefs of U.S. aerospace companies laid huge bets on future projects, and over an extraordinary three-decade tenure as Northrop’s chief executive he made some of the biggest gambles of any company, winning big and losing big in the process.
Early in his career, he championed the modest T-38 trainer jet and transformed it into a low-cost fighter that Northrop exported to U.S. allies. It became the Volkswagen Beetle of jet fighters, with 3,789 of them used by countries far and wide, from Norway to Turkey and from Chile to Sudan. The early jets cost only $750,000, and their simplicity made them the weapon of choice for nations that wanted an air force but could not afford front-line weapons.
In the process, he hobnobbed with European royalty, befriended the shah of Iran and was close to air-force chiefs from West Germany to Argentina. On many weekends, he hosted elaborate parties with a long list of foreign dignitaries at his Bel-Air mansion. He courted the politically powerful, including his friend President Reagan and the influential widow of Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese general who lost the civil war against the Communists.
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Mr. Jones’ aristocratic tastes — he was a lover of fine wines and German-built sailing boats — were unusual for an aerospace engineer. He so appreciated cigars that humidors were standard equipment for executive conference rooms at the company’s former headquarters in Century City.
After stepping down as chief executive of Northrop Grumman in 1990, he became a highly respected maker of fine wines from a vineyard on his 16-acre Los Angeles estate.
A last great titan of the U.S. arms business, Mr. Jones died there last week of pulmonary fibrosis, said his son, Peter. He was 93.
Mr. Jones somehow survived an astonishing succession of personal controversies that accompanied his long tenure, including a felony conviction for illegal campaign contributions to President Nixon, a securities consent decree that stemmed from allegations that he paid foreign bribes to sell jet fighters, and even a censure from his own board of directors for concocting an unusual hotel investment in South Korea that backfired into a political scandal.
At the time he stepped down, the company was under a federal indictment for falsifying testing of a nuclear-armed cruise missile.
“Tom Jones brings to mind the statement from Adm. Arleigh Burke, who said, ‘Give me a strong ship for I intend to sail into harm’s way.’ Well, that was Tom,” recalled Donald Hicks, a former Northrop executive and senior Pentagon official who remained close friends with Mr. Jones until the end.
In an era when the Defense Department increasingly controlled its suppliers and their products, Mr. Jones attempted to exercise the vision of earlier aerospace pioneers, who would develop their own technology and then try to interest the military in it.
Northrop invested heavily in exotic guidance systems, pioneering the concept of a gyroscopic ball that could float inside a fluid-filled sphere.
When Reagan pushed through his plans for the MX missile, carrying 10 hydrogen bombs that could be sent to separate targets, Northrop won a multibillion-dollar contract to supply the guidance with its floating-ball system. It ended a monopoly on nuclear-missile-guidance systems long held by Rockwell International.
But the contract became a nightmare when the company had trouble producing the basketball-size device that was crammed with 11,000 parts.
Mr. Jones also was a visionary in seeing the potential of drone jets, buying a small radio-controlled-airplane maker that largely served the movie industry. Today, Northrop ranks as one of the largest suppliers of drones to the military.
The Jones strategy hit the jackpot when Northrop won a secret contract to develop the B-2 stealth bomber, after Mr. Jones had decided to invest company money in the technology that would allow U.S. attack jets to fly undetected by enemy radar.
“He built a lot of expensive research facilities on Northrop money,” said John Cashen, one of the three Northrop engineers who hold the B-2 patent. “We couldn’t have built the B-2 without it. He was willing to gamble. It didn’t faze Tom a bit. When you posed the question, ‘Will you play?,’ he said sure.”
Cashen recalled that he was in a secret conference room when Mr. Jones asked Boeing Chief Executive Thornton “T” Wilson if he would become a subcontractor and build the outer wing of the B-2, a brash proposal to the Seattle company that had previously built all the U.S. bombers since World War II.
“Tom leaned over the table and said, ‘T, are you with us?’ Wilson said sure, and they shook hands on the deal,” Cashen remembered.
But Mr. Jones also made a stunning miscalculation when he invested more than $1 billion in developing the F-20 jet fighter, which he attempted to sell to the Air Force and foreign nations.
Taiwan wanted to buy the weapon, and Mr. Jones depended on his friendship with Madame Chiang Kai-shek, but the fighter sale was blocked as U.S. relations with mainland China warmed.
Eventually, two F-20s crashed during flight demonstrations and training. The company was forced to cancel the program without a single sale.
Thomas Victor Jones was born July 21, 1920, in Pomona, Calif., east of Los Angeles. Trained as an aerospace engineer at Stanford University, he was regarded as a highly capable judge of technology but did not spend much, if any, of his career in research labs.
In 1961, Mr. Jones appeared on the cover of Time magazine as a “new guard” leader in the aerospace industry.
“He was a brilliant thinker,” said Hicks, his former colleague. “He took Northrop from nothing and made it into a viable corporation. Then, through a lot of effort, it moved to the top tier of the industry.”