When Thomas V. Jones took control of Northrop Corp. in 1960, it was a secondary aerospace company whose future was uncertain, but the legendary gambles Jones made over the next 30 years swept the company to the top ranks of the defense industry during the Cold War.
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 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. 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, Jones 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.
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 in the 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 his vineyard on his 16-acre Los Angeles estate.
One of the last great titans of the U.S. arms business, Jones died there Tuesday of pulmonary fibrosis, said his son Peter. He was 93.
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. When he stepped down in 1990, 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 Jones until the end.
In an era when the Defense Department increasingly controlled its suppliers and their products, 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’s factory in Hawthorne had trouble producing the basketball-size device that was crammed with 11,000 parts.
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.
But the Jones strategy hit the jackpot when Northrop won a secret contract to develop the B-2 stealth bomber, after 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 holds 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 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 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 the buy the weapon and 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.
Jones’ global sales forays took him away from home for long stretches, but he focused intensively on his family when he stayed home, said his son, Peter.
“When he was there, he was 100% there,” he said. “He taught me that all noes are future yeses.”
A visitor to Northrop’s headquarters in the 1980s could see the imprint of Jones’ travels. A large Persian carpet hung in the lobby, a gift of the shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Every year, the shah would send Jones a kilogram of caviar, recalled his son. Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands was another close friend and sailing companion on Jones’ 70-foot boat docked in Marina del Rey. The Jones family stayed at the royal palace in the Netherlands as guests.
Thomas Victor Jones was born July 21, 1920, in Pomona. 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, Jones appeared on the cover of Time magazine as the new guard of 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.”
Hicks recalled that Jones approved a secret operation to help smuggle two Iranian air force officers out of the country when the Islamic militants overthrew the shah. They eventually ended up in Los Angeles, working for Northrop.
“Jones is a very sophisticated guy, despite the fact that he grew up in an orange grove in Pomona,” Hicks added. “He charms everybody.”
But he also managed to find himself in legal trouble with alarming frequency. In 1975, Jones signed a consent agreement with the Securities and Exchange Commission in which he promised not to bribe any foreign officials. That was after the company had allegedly paid $30 million to foreign officials in connection with international arms deals.
Jones also pleaded guilty to a federal felony count during the Watergate scandal in which he admitted to falsifying documents involving political contributions that were linked to a Richard Nixon slush fund.
In the aftermath, Jones agreed to form a board of directors that was constituted almost entirely of outsiders. But that board eventually became a source of support for him. By the time he retired in 1990, however, the company was facing serious criticism for its performance on the MX missile guidance system and ethical lapses that led to its indictment.
Jones retired from one career and bounded into his love of winemaking, creating Moraga Vineyards. It marketed its pricey wines to fine restaurants and wine connoisseurs. In August, he sold his estate to media titan Rupert Murdoch for $28.8 million but remained in the 8,000-square-foot home. His wife of 67 years, Ruth, died last year.
Besides his son, Peter, a documentary filmmaker in Los Angeles, Jones is survived by a daughter, Ruth Marilyn Jones; brother, George Jones; sister, Margaret Whyte; and two grandchildren.