Allen Atkins, TTU alumnus and retired vice president of technology for Boeing's Phantom Works, spoke to about 770 graduates at commencement ceremonies held at TTU's Hooper Eblen Center.
Atkins is considered a pioneer of stealth technology and the driving force behind the development of low observable technology and weapons systems. His contributions made possible such aircraft as the F-22 Raptor and the F/A18 Hornet fighter jets.
Atkins grew up in Western Kentucky and said he had a natural fascination for mathematics and science. He earned his bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering in 1970, followed by a master of science degree in systems engineering in 1971 and a doctorate in engineering in 1975 – all from TTU. He was among the first people to earn a doctorate in engineering from TTU. He later received a master's of business administration degree from San Diego State University in 1995.
Atkins reflected on what he believes is the most important lesson graduates have acquired with their degree by telling a story about his work developing stealth technology systems for the United States military.
"The data was so significant that I was asked...to brief the program results to the Deputy Secretary of Defense," he said. "At the conclusion of the briefing, he asked, 'Dr. Atkins, Can you make a manned aircraft with similar characteristics?' ...I without thinking too much answered, 'Yes sir, we CAN, you just need to provide us with a pilot about 8 inches tall.' Lucky for me, he had a sense of humor and started to laugh...
"He repeated his question by adding qualifiers of a fighter-sized manned aircraft. My answer was, 'YES sir, I believe that we can.'...The real lesson to the story is when you are given a degree, and 'I can' attitude is expected to go along....Your boss will come to you asking, 'Can we, can you, can I?' He or she wants an approach, a path, a belief that the question can be answered in a positive manner," Atkins said.
"Continue to hone the belief that you can. I believe you would not be here today if you didn't have this success-oriented attitude already," he said.
Atkins began his career as a civilian in the U.S. Air Force's Aeronautical Division at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, from 1973 to 1980, rising to the rank of chief engineer. He then served the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, commonly called DARPA, from 1980 to 1987, rising to the position of Director of the AeroSpace Technology Office.
While at Wright-Patterson, Atkins worked on the Mini-Remotely Piloted Vehicles. Among them was the first electric vehicle, the first solar-powered version, the smallest RPV and the first RPV that was considered truly stealthy. Success of RPVs lead to other low observable technologies and stealth vehicles, such as the Have Blue Stealth Demonstrator which became the F-117 Stealth Fighter, Tacit Blue, second generation of Stealth Demonstrator, and the B-2 Stealth Bomber.
Atkins' work also included watercraft. He was the first chief engineer on the Sea Shadow, a first-generation stealth ship.
In recognition of his work, Atkins received the 1981 Secretary of Defense Meritorious Civilian Award, the second-highest civilian award given by the Department of Defense.
Atkins' work in the private sector included serving as vice president and general manager with the McDonnell Aircraft Co. in St. Louis from 1987 to 1990 and McDonnell Douglas Technologies Inc. from 1990 to 1995, and as vice president, Product Application Technology, with the McDonnell Douglas Aerospace Co. from 1995 to 1997. After the merger of McDonnell Douglas with Boeing in 1997, he became vice president, Technology and Define Process, for Boeing Corp. at Phantom Works in St. Louis.
Atkins is the 2002 recipient of the Engineer of Distinction Award, the highest recognition given by TTU's College of Engineering. In 2006, Atkins became recipient of the Distinguished Alumnus Award from Tennessee Tech, the highest honor bestowed by the university's alumni association.
Following this commencement, TTU has granted almost 69,000 degrees. Students graduating from TTU this fall hail from 30 states including Tennessee, 74 Tennessee counties and 13 countries. They represent 39 undergraduate fields of study and 22 graduate fields. The oldest graduate was born in 1937 and the youngest in 1990.