Robert E. Hails

Innovative Design and Flight Performance Engineer

Inducted in 2001

Robert E. Hails, Lieutenant General USAF Retired, calls Montgomery, Alabama, his hometown. His family settled there in the early 19th century, and he is the great- grandson of Thomas H. Watts who served as Alabama governor from 1863 to 1865. General Hails graduated from Sidney Lanier High School in 1941 and entered Auburn University. In 1942, he joined the Army Air Corps and served as airplane commander of a B-24 Liberator in the Pacific theater (26 missions, 271 combat hours). Returning to Auburn after WWII, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering, and later earned a master’s degree in industrial engineering at Columbia University. After receiving a regular commission in the U.S. Air Force, he was stationed briefly at Montgomery’s Maxwell Field, attending the Air Command and Staff College as a major.

General Hails served in the Air Force for 35 years, including service during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He flew 44 different types of aircraft and earned the Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Air Medal, and Air Force Commendation Medal. His
responsibilities were various: from engineering test pilot, to American Embassy attaché in Paris, serving as project manager of the initial French Jet Fighter Aircraft Development (financed under the U.S. Marshall Plan). He served as deputy chief of staff with responsibility for procurement, overhaul, and repair of all USAF aircraft and missiles and was weapons advisor to the Secretary of the Air Force. He dispatched all these responsibilities with managerial finesse and technological vision.

History will likely rule that General Hails’s greatest engineering contribution is the incorporation of the “Head-Up Display” (HUD), first used in the A-7D Corsair. Under General Hails’s initiative and guidance, the USAF A-7D aircraft became the military’s first aircraft to incorporate three significant engineering innovations. These discrete engineering developments included the first ever Head-Up Display (HUD); the utilization of an inertial platform for automatic navigation and guidance of both aircraft and bomb launch orientation; and the first use of a digital computer to control and integrate use of the HUD and gyro platform.

These innovations provided a breakthrough in methodology and technique for achieving quantum improvement in bombing accuracy. The pilot now was afforded all aircraft performance data, i.e., instantaneous attitude, airspeed, altitude, and flight path vectors through a combining glass in his direct line of sight. This HUD data also enhanced performance in restricted visibility landings. Subsequently, the U.S. Navy adopted all of Hails’s innovations for its version of the A-7 Corsair.

Variants of General Hails’s windscreen HUD are used today in most military aircraft. In 1994, Southwest Airlines applied the technology in its 737 fleets, and Delta Airlines followed suit in 1997. With HUD, commercial pilots can take off and land in marginal weather with greater safety.

To launch the Head-Up Display, General Hails had to overcome initial reluctance to use other than American technology in U.S. aircraft. The HUD had earlier been under development in Britain, where Hails participated in the first evaluations of its potential. The successful integration of HUD (not to mention other new technologies) as conceived by General Hails and achieved through his initiatives, and this imaginative engineering led to the very reshaping of our military capabilities.

Following his military retirement, General Hails joined LTV Corporation in Dallas for four years as senior vice president, international. Subsequently, he established Hails Associates Aerospace Management Consultants, which served most of the major U.S. aerospace manufacturers. He has been honored with Auburn University’s Engineering Achievement Award and serves on the college’s Alumni Engineering Council. He is a management graduate of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Business, and a charter member of the National Aviation Hall of Fame. General Hails is married to the former Gerry Gayle of Montgomery. They have four married children.

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