Atkins’ invention made aviation safer for everyone

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 22, 2001

Whenever I see a blinking light was up in the sky on a dark night, I know it isn’t one of those elusive unidentified flying objects.

Friday, June 22, 2001

Whenever I see a blinking light was up in the sky on a dark night, I know it isn’t one of those elusive unidentified flying objects. It’s just another aircraft using a safety device invented and promoted by a man who grew up in Freeborn County.

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That man’s name was Harold W. &uot;Bill&uot; Atkins who died at his home in Edina on June 4.

Bill came to Freeborn County at the age of 10, lived in Hollandale and Maple Island, and graduated from Albert Lea High School in 1938. And as I emphasized in last week’s column, Bill was very versatile with interests and accomplishments in sports, photography. astronomy, and especially aviation.

He took flight training at the Albert Lea Airport in 1940 and 1941, then served during World War II as a U.S. Army Air Corps officer and flight instructor.

After the war he became a part-time pilot with Northwest Orient Airlines and lived in Hollandale, which was also the hometown of his wife, Grace Kleinpaste.

A few years later Bill worked with his father, who had retired and started an ice cream store in Pensacola, Fla. It was during this time that he invented the valve which made possible the twist two-flavor soft-serve ice cream cone.

About 1956 Bill went full-time with the airline and started to promote another invention – the Atkins Relative Danger Light. This concept was based on a distinctive blue-white flashing strobe light mounted on the wingtips of a plane which would indicate to nearby pilots the aircraft’s exact bank angle, attitude and location, thus avoiding collisions.

The airline and other pilots quickly endorsed the safety device, but it took the Federal Aviation Administration four years to give its approval. Honeywell manufactured the units, which were first used on the DC-10. Today, the Atkins Light is used by most aircraft manufacturers, the military, and nearly all major airline fleets.

He said the anti-collision light &uot;quadrupled&uot; the distance a pilot can see in an airplane to thus avoid problems. He told me that the concept came as the result of a near collision with another aircraft using a red light on a wingtip.

Aircraft up to that time were using as their illuminated markings red and green lights on the wingtips, a system which had actually evolved from the era of sailing ships.

In 1980, Atkins retired from the airline as a pilot and became a flight engineer. Then in 1992, he retired fully from flying duties with Northwest Airlines.

At the time of his retirement in 1992, Bill was rated as the number-one senior pilot out of the 5,556 pilots then employed by the airline. He had spent most of his airline service flying as both a pilot and flight engineer out of Northwest’s Seattle base on a route that included Alaska, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Singapore.

His aviation logbook shows a total of 33,197 hours of flying time, 546 ocean crossings (mostly over the Pacific Ocean), and 24,276 landings and takeoffs.

Also in his logbooks are entries for pilot training with Air Vietnam, based in Saigon during 1970, and training Greek pilots in Athens on the Boeing B-720B aircraft during 1972.

After 1992, Bill served as a consultant and tour guide with the Northwest Aerospace Training Corp. facility in Eagan, a part of Northwest Airlines, about two days a week. In fact, my wife and I were his guests at the Eagan facility for an afternoon in the spring of 1997.

Also, in early 1997, he was inducted into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame, an honor he deserved and one he accepted with pride.

H. W. &uot;Bill&uot; Atkins stands out as one of the most interesting and outstanding persons I’ve ever known. And I’ll always think of his contributions to American life whenever I eat a twist cone or see the safety wing light flashing on an aircraft up in the sky on a dark night.

Feature writer Ed Shannon’s column appears Fridays in the Tribune.