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Charles F. Willis1

b. 23 July 1918, d. 16 March 1993

Family Elizabeth Chambers Firestone b. 1922, d. 18 October 1989
Marriage* 1954  Principal=Elizabeth Chambers Firestone1,2 
Divorce* 1973  Principal=Elizabeth Chambers Firestone1,2 
Child  1. ELizabeth W. Willis b. 10 Feb 1956

News/Obit   News Item,

SAUSALITO, Calif.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--June 11, 2003

Charles F. Willis, founder, President and CEO of Willis Lease Finance Corporation (Nasdaq:WLFC) was recognized as one of the region's top entrepreneurs in the Northern California Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year(R) competition. Each year Ernst & Young, through this award, seeks to recognize great business achievements around the world. For the 2003 competition, an independent panel of judges selected 35 local entrepreneurs. This year's finalist group includes a number of well-known executives from local companies including Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google, Inc., Dale Fuller of Borland Software Corporation, Gary Sbona of Verity, Inc. and Michael Ramsay, Chairman and CEO, TiVo Inc.

With nearly 40 years of experience in the aviation industry, Willis has demonstrated exceptional entrepreneurial skills -- skills that have served him especially well over the last nineteen dismal months for the aviation industry. During this difficult time Willis Lease Finance remained profitable -- an accomplishment which few in the aviation industry can claim.

Willis' lifetime of aviation experience began in 1965 at Alaska Airlines where he worked his way from baggage handler to ticket agent into positions in marketing, sales and flight operations. In 1972, he moved to Assistant Vice President of Sales for the freight carrier Seaboard World Airlines. In 1975, he launched the Charles F. Willis Company, which purchased, financed and sold commercial aircraft, and was the predecessor to Willis Lease Finance Corporation, which leases aircraft engines.

Since then, he has guided the company through three successful public or private offerings, raising $58 million in capital and generating tremendous growth. During the past ten years, lease revenues have grown from $9 million to $55 million (20% CAGR), and total assets have increased ten-fold from $53 million to $544 million. At the end of 1992, the company's lease portfolio included 26 aircraft engines. Today, with approximately 120 engines in its lease portfolio operating in more than 50 countries, Willis Lease Finance has become an industry leader in engine leasing.

About Willis Lease Finance

Willis Lease Finance Corporation leases spare commercial aircraft engines, rotable parts and aircraft to commercial airlines, aircraft engine manufacturers and overhaul/repair facilities. These leasing activities are integrated with the purchase and resale of used and refurbished commercial aircraft engines. For more information visit

Airplanes in the Wrangells
By Kenny Smith

By 1967 there were nine Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) certificated interstate air carriers in Alaska; these were classed as “Alaska Service” carriers. In the rest of the United States there were eleven “Domestic Trunk” carriers and twelve “Local Service” carriers. In addition there were two Hawaiian carriers and the International carrier “Pan American.”

Today this classification system for air carriers no longer exists nor does the CAB nor do most of these carriers. This was primarily due to the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. Large Trunk and International carriers such as Braniff, Eastern, National, Northeast, Western, Pan American and now TWA have disappeared. All the Local Service carriers, such as Allegheny, Bonanza, Central, Frontier, North Central, Southern, Mohawk, Ozark, Piedmont, TransTexas, and others are also gone. Some of the Local Service carriers combined to form the current US Air which itself may now be merging.

In 1967 the Alaska interstate carriers were: Alaska, Alaska Coastal Ellis, Cordova, Northern Consolidated, Reeve Aleutian, and Wien Alaska. Two smaller Alaska carriers also held CAB authority but were relegated to operate aircraft with gross weights of 12,500 pounds or less, these were: Kodiak Airways and Western Alaska Airlines. Pacific Northern Airlines (PNA), the largest of the Alaska carriers, had just been absorbed into Western Airlines and Alaska Coastal Airlines had acquired Ellis Airlines in 1965.

With the exception of Reeve and PNA all the Alaska carriers were recipients of federal subsidy. The CAB’s 406 Subsidy Program had been in existence since 1938 when Congress stabilized the US air transport system by enacting the Civil Aeronautics Act. All the US Local Service Carriers also received this subsidy as well as one Domestic Trunk, Northeast. This subsidy program had been politically unpopular for some time. By 1967 the handwriting was on the wall, “get off subsidy or close up shop.”

This article is about airplanes in the Wrangell Mountains. As I discussed in the previous series, Cordova Air Service/Airlines was the first organized flying operation in the Wrangells, if we consider Harold Gillam to be the founding father of that company. Therefore, it just so happens that Cordova Airlines was the catalyst that led to a national parade of subsidized carrier mergers that culminated in economic deregulation of all airlines in 1978. This story concerns those events and as Vice President of Cordova Airlines, I was there to witness it.

In February 1967 Northern Consolidated Airline’s (NCA) Chief Financial Officer, Stuart Fitzugh (Fitz) and long time friend of Merle K. “Mudhole” Smith, paid him a visit. NCA was unquestionably financially strongest of the subsidized Alaska carriers. Fitz said his boss and CEO of NCA, Ray Peterson, was more frustrated than he had ever seen him. Like Mudhole, Peterson was an early Alaska bush pilot and the two were long time friends. Peterson was also an excellent businessperson. In my opinion he was the shrewdest and perhaps smartest of all the Alaska carrier CEOs. Fitz explained that Ray’s anxiety came from his belief that the infrastructure of Alaska aviation was about to drastically change and Ray did not want NCA to be secluded. He said Ray had considered all possible options and earnestly wanted to explore merger with Cordova Airlines (COA).

Business the winter of 1966/67 was slower than usual for carriers in Alaska and that made it even more difficult to scratch up payroll funds. On top of that, Mudhole had, for some time, shared Ray’s uneasiness. It was definitely time to talk. In order to prevent rumor from circulating among the employee groups it was decided to hold discussions in Washington D.C. where both carriers had legal council and CAB specialists.

Within a few days Mudhole and I met Fitz in Washington. Strangely, Ray had suddenly come up with a reason to temporarily stay behind. Fitz said Ray was obligated to show a visiting politician around and would join us in a few days. Along with our legal councils we spent the better part of a week listening to NCA rhetoric involving virtually everything but merger.

Finally Ray arrived. Ray also put on a good show, expounding upon NCA’s corporate history for hours but never once did we get down to considering consolidation. It was obvious that both Ray and Fitz lacked enthusiasm for the merger that Fitz had seemingly promoted just days before. They had suddenly gotten cold feet. After another day, the four of us had a final lunch together after which Ray planned to catch a flight to Colorado in order to visit his son in college. The lunch was like a wake. It appeared to me that Ray and Fitz might wanted to sweat COA a little longer in hopes the financial stress might make negotiations a little more favorable for NCA.

Mudhole was not a happy camper. We went back to our hotel and discussed COA’s options. It just so happened that the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Alaska Airlines (ASA) had a residence in Washington D.C. and he was home at the time.

His name was Charles F. Willis Jr.; Charlie was married to Elizabeth Firestone, (an heir to the famous Firestone Tire Company fortune) and he had quite a reputation. He was a World War ll hero, a navy pilot who had earned, among his many attributes, three separate Distinguished Flying Crosses in addition to the purple heart he received after being wounded during the Pearl Harbor attack. He once served on President Eisenhower’s White House staff of aviation advisors. He ran his airline like he fought the war, taking such extreme risks that he was continually driving company directors and stockholders nuts.

Willis had suggested merger to Mudhole on a number of occasions. Alaska Airlines desperately wanted to gain a foothold in the southeast Alaska market and a jet airport at Sitka was just about to be completed. Alaska Coastal’s CAB route authority confined it exclusively to southeast. PNA, which was just completing a merger with Western Airlines, had the only authority between southeast and Seattle and they shared authority with COA between Juneau and Anchorage. Willis believed that an ASA/COA merger would give the CAB grounds to grant ASA authority from southeast on into Seattle (ASA already had AnchorageSeattle authority). But Mudhole had been afraid of Willis’s eccentricities. Besides, they didn’t call him “Whiskey” Willis without reason.

As we sat in the hotel room discussing COA’s plight, Mudhole suddenly reached for the phone and called Willis at home. Willis was ecstatic. In those days Willis had ASA ticket offices everywhere, he even had them in Tokyo and Paris. Of course he had one in Washington D.C., which was located up on Connecticut Avenue. Willis wanted us to meet him there in thirty minutes. We did. Within forty five minutes we had a deal, much better than what Mudhole had ever dreamed he would get out of a NCA/COA merger. Mudhole would own 14% of the merged carrier. That night Mudhole did not suffer from insomnia.

Willis wanted to meet with the CAB the next morning so that a press release could be issued as soon as possible. It seemed like every member of the CAB was at the meeting. They were extremely enthusiastic. Normally a stolid bunch, this time they were all but slapping us on the back. This was the first break they had after many years of trying to persuade the subsidized carriers to consolidate. Mudhole made a speech in which he suggested to the CAB that they not screw the merger up this time. Nobody including Willis knew what he was talking about. Remember, in 1942, when Mudhole was off working on the war effort, the stockholders of Cordova Air Service had agreed to merge with Alaska Star Airline. The CAB had turned that one down but was so slow in doing it both companies pretty much went broke.

After the session with the CAB I was sent to Seattle to meet with other ASA executives. After that I was to head for Anchorage with a nice fat ASA check that was certainly going to help with future payroll problems. In Seattle I was greeted by a headline and story in the local newspaper expounding on the big merger between Alaskan air carriers. That evening, while in my Seattle hotel room, Mudhole called. He said Peterson had just called from Colorado and doubled the ASA offer. Mudhole had to tell him “he was a day late and a dollar short.”

Within two weeks Willis had organized a special flight using one of ASA’s brand new Boeing 727s (complete with plush “Gay Nineties” decor and Robert Service rhyme flight announcements) so that a bunch of us from COA and ASA could travel down the coast and make the first ever large turbo jet transport landings at Cordova and Yakutat. At the time, the runway in Cordova was much shorter than it is today. A local FAA employee was said to have lost a wager that day, in which he bet that no jet would ever land in Cordova.

After Yakutat we stopped briefly at Juneau en route to Seattle. In Juneau we picked up Alaska Coastal Ellis’s Chief Financial Officer and Vice President, O.F. “Ben” Benecke. On the way into Seattle, Willis and I, while sipping liberally from Whiskey’s store of fine whiskey, worked on Ben in an attempt to convince him that Alaska Coastal’s best interest would be served by merging with COA and ASA and not NCA or Wien Alaska. Even through my boozy haze I could see in Ben’s prudent eyes that he harbored the same concerns about Willis that Mudhole had.

Nevertheless, three months later, Alaska Coastal decided to join us in our merger with ASA. The marriage turned out to be a good one for all. A few years later the CAB removed Western Airlines from southeast Alaska giving ASA exclusive authority there, a move that undoubtedly saved ASA from aviation’s economic hard times in the 1970s. Alaska then went on to become the large and financially successful carrier it is today.

Willis didn’t survive past 1972, as he was fired during a nasty board of director’s coup orchestrated in part by O.F. Benecke, who then became ASA’s CEO. Even though Willis often played fast and loose with the airline, even bordering it on bankruptcy, he contributed much to the carrier and was instrumental in its positive evolution over the long haul. Although Willis sometimes gave him fits, Mudhole remained loyal to Willis until the end. Mudhole was an ASA director and said that he always believed Willis to be a man true to his word except that Willis frequently over committed to the point it was simply financially impossible to keep all his promises.

NCA ended up merging with Wien Alaska Airlines, NCA being the surviving corporation and the merged airline was named Wien Consolidated Airline. When Ray ran the merged carrier it enjoyed a stretch of profitable years, but it ended up bankrupt. That occurred after Ray had retired and sold out. The two CAB carriers which operated only small aircraft, Kodiak and Western Alaska, also merged, but they too ended up selling their assets and getting out of business. Recently, Reeve Aleutian Airways announced that they were closing down all scheduled passenger and freight operations and terminating most of their work force. So, of all these early Alaska carriers, only ASA remains solvent today, therefore we can say, Harold Gillam’s legacy still continues.

Birth* 23 July 1918  1 
Marriage* 1954  Principal=Elizabeth Chambers Firestone1,2 
Divorce* 1973  Principal=Elizabeth Chambers Firestone2 
SSN* 16 March 1993  Charles F WILLIS
Birth Date: 23 Jul 1918
Death Date: 16 Mar 1993
Social Security Number: 213-14-3481
State or Territory Where Number Was Issued: Maryland
Death Residence Localities
ZIP Code: 20007
Localities: Washington, Washington, District of Columbia3 
Death* 16 March 1993  Washington Hospital Center, Washington, Washington, DC2 
News/Obit* 21 March 1993  Obituary,
Charles Willis, Innovator in Aviation, Dies at 74

Charles F. Willis Jr., a pilot hailed as a hero in World War II and an aviation industry pioneer who was instrumental in persuading Dwight D. Eisenhower to run for President, died Tuesday at a hospital in Washington. He was 74 and lived in Washington.

He died of lung cancer, his family said.

Mr. Willis was the co-founder and manager of Citizens for Eisenhower. The organization popularized the "I Like Ike" slogan and gathered support that helped push Eisenhower into the Presidential race.

Accepting the Republican nomination in 1952, Eisenhower said, "I would not have been here as a candidate if it had not been for Charlie Willis and Stan Rumbough," the group's other co-founder.

White House Assistant

After the election, Mr. Willis served as a special White House assistant in charge of appointments, patronage and aviation and was also chairman of the United States Committee for the United Nations.

After the war he founded Willis Air Service, using $13,000 in military pay he had saved and loans from friends. The company rapidly grew into an international freight line, shipping Seventh Avenue dresses to Dallas, picking up shrimp in New Orleans and even carrying American cattle in straw-padded planes to Bogota, Columbia. But regulators closed the airline for unauthorized operations.

In 1957 he became head of Alaska Airlines, expanding what was a small company into a central service in Alaskan development. The company airlifted equipment for oil exploration in Prudhoe Bay, helped introduce in-flight music and movies, and in 1970 won the first agreement from the Soviet Union to fly tourists from Anchorage to Moscow and Siberia.

He helped develop pilot training for Japan Air Lines and, on a trade mission to South Korea for President John F. Kennedy, guided the creation of Korean Air Lines.

Repeatedly Defied Death.

Mr. Willis enlisted in the Navy in 1940 to become a pilot. He was one of the first American casualties of the war. He and his roommate were running to their planes at Kaneohe Field in Hawaii as Japanese planes headed for Pearl Harbor shot at them. His roommate was killed.

He flew 250 combat missions in the Pacific and 35 in Europe. His 23 major decorations included three Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Air Medals, eight battle stars and a Presidential unit citation.

His marriages to Grace Boardman Eddy, Elizabeth Firestone, Valerie Craig and Marion Henderson ended in divorces.

His survivors include his companion, Christine Bell; two daughters, Post W. Scharnberger of Duxbury, Mass., and Elizabeth W. Leatherman of Boston; three sons, Charles 3d and R. Reese, both of San Francisco, and Brigham C., of Half Moon Bay, Calif.; two sisters, Margaret W. Sparrow of Baltimore and Dorothy W. McDonald of Leesburg Va., and four grandchildren.

Appeared in the New York Times, (NY) - March 21, 1993

News/Obit 22 March 1993  Obituary,
Charles Willis Jr., airline president

Charles Fountain Willis Jr., a highly decorated World War II aviator and successful airline executive who grew up in Baltimore, died of cancer Tuesday at the Washington Hospital Center. He was 74.

Born in Beaumont, Texas, Mr. Willis was reared here and attended Baltimore Polytechnic Institute for a period before his family moved to Mobile, Ala., where he completed high school.

Mr. Willis received his undergraduate degree from the University of Florida in 1940 and later enlisted in the Navy, graduating from flight school in Jacksonville. He was stationed at Kaneohe Field at Pearl Harbor, where on Dec. 7, 1941, he was wounded by the Japanese surprise attack.

Over the next two years, Mr. Willis flew 250 missions in the Pacific, flying escort, patrols, torpedo and bombing runs. In news accounts of his exploits, he was called the "Fabulous Character" -- the name that he gave his aircraft, which he meant to honor his grandmother.

He shot down a four-engine Japanese bomber, spent three days in a raft without food or water after his own plane was shot down, and rescued the crew of a B-17 shot down 400 miles behind enemy lines. He also devised ways to use the slow Catalina patrol plane as a dive bomber, torpedo plane and fighter, and flew into the eye of a typhoon to help track its course for Navy officers planning the invasion of Okinawa.

After returning home, Mr. Willis volunteered for another tour of duty in Europe and flew Navy planes attacking German submarines and surface ships off Great Britain. He was credited with sinking a German submarine with an experimental torpedo. Hit with anti-aircraft fire during one mission, he landed his crippled craft on one wheel in a potato field in Scotland.

Among his decorations were three Distinguished Flying Crosses and three Air Medals.

After the war, Mr. Willis launched several aviation-related businesses and, with a friend, organized Citizens for Eisenhower in 1951, raising $3 million. After the election, he spent two years in the White House as President Eisenhower's special assistant in charge of presidential appointments.

Mr. Willis later worked with an advertising firm, and then became president of Alaska Airlines, at the time a struggling carrier with three obsolete aircraft and a large debt. By the time he retired, as chairman, in 1972, the airline was a multimillion-dollar carrier with routes extending into the former Soviet Union and lower 48 states.

Mr. Willis was married twice -- to the former Grace Boardman Eddy and the former Elizabeth Chambers Firestone, both of whom are deceased.

He is survived by two sisters, Margaret Willis Sparrow of Baltimore and Dorothy Willis McDonald of Leesburg, Va.; two daughters, Post Willis Scharnburger and Elizabeth Willis Leatherman of Boston; three sons, Charles F. Willis III, Robinson Reese Willis and Brigham Craig Willis, all of San Francisco; and three grandchildren.

Services will be held at Arlington National Cemetery at 2 p.m. Wednesday.

Donations to the Wings Club Scholarship Fund, 52 Vanderbilt Ave, New York, N.Y. 10017, were suggested.

Appeared in the Sun, The (Baltimore, MD) - March 22, 1993

News/Obit 22 March 1993  Obituary,

Charles F. Willis Jr., 74, a decorated World War II combat veteran who became prominent in both business and politics, died of cancer March 15 at Washington Hospital Center. He lived in Washington.

As a wartime Navy pilot, he flew 250 combat missions in the Pacific and 35 missions in Europe. He flew his PBY into harm's way, participating in some of the great air and amphibious operations of the war, while making escort and reconnaissance flights and bombing runs and rescuing downed personnel, including an admiral and a general. He retired from the reserves as a commander.

Before the 1952 presidential campaign got underway, Mr. Willis and Stanley Rumbough Jr. organized Citizens for Eisenhower to "draft" the five-star Army general as the Republican presidential candidate. The citizens group developed the historic "I Like Ike" slogan. In his acceptance speech at the 1952 Republican convention, Eisenhower mentioned the two organizers by name.

After Eisenhower's victory, Mr. Willis joined the White House staff as a special assistant to the president. He worked at the White House until 1955, on matters dealing with patronage, aviation and appointments, and was an assistant to White House Chief of Staff Sherman Adams.

In 1957, he became president, board chairman and chief executive officer of Alaska Airlines. Before he retired in 1972, it had expanded from a small company to an operation that flew cargo and passengers throughout the state and made passenger flights from Anchorage to Moscow and Siberia.

Other aviation ventures included marketing work for Braniff airlines. He also helped develop pilot training programs for Japan Air Lines and helped organize what became Korean Air Lines. He also helped establish the Teterboro School of Aeronautics.

Mr. Willis, who had maintained a home here since the 1950s, was born in Beaumont, Tex. He graduated from the University of Florida before entering the Navy in 1940. He was a Navy pilot in Hawaii when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941, and was wounded trying to get to his plane.

During the war, he earned three Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and three Air Medals. He participated in the Battle of Midway, the campaign for Guadalcanal and the invasion of Okinawa. He helped sink enemy warships in both the Atlantic and the Pacific.

After the war, he was a test pilot at the Patuxent Naval Air Test Center before retiring from active duty. Later in the 1940s, he started the Willis Air Service, which grew into an international freight line before it closed.

His marriages to the former Grace Boardman Eddy, Elizabeth Firestone, Valerie Craig and Marion Henderson ended in divorce.

Survivors include his companion, Christine Bell of Washington; three children from his first marriage, Post W. Scharnberger of Duxbury, Mass., and Charles Willis III and R. Reese Willis, both of San Francisco; a daughter from his second marriage, Elizabeth W. Leatherman of Boston; a son from his third marriage, Brigham C., of Half Moon Bay, Calif.; two sisters, Margaret W. Sparrow of Baltimore and Dorothy W. McDonald of Leesburg; and four grandchildren.

Appeared in the Washington Post, (DC) - March 22, 1993

News/Obit 2 January 1998  News Item,

Willis Lease Finance Corp President & CEO Interview, Wall Street Corporate Reporter, January 02, 1998

Mr. Charles F. Willis "My dad started Alaska Air lines in the mid-1950s. I started out at Alaska Airlines. I worked in all aspects of the airline business - flight operations, management, finance, maintenance, and sales. I was there until 1972. I started this company in 1974 and I have been with the company ever since." Willis Lease Finance Corporation "Willis Lease Finance Corporation was originally a broker of commercial aircraft. In 1986, the Tax Reform Act came and changed the structure of the marketplace. We decided we were just beginning to be principals in the ownership of aircraft, but with the Tax Reform Act change really negated a lot of the tax benefits. As a result, we decided that we had to get into something else that there wasn' t a tremendous amount of competition in, and that happened to be aircraft engines and spare parts leasing. "Since t..." (full article available for subscription)

Appeared in the Wall Street Corporate Reporter; January 02, 1998


Last Edited 22 May 2005

  1. [S658] Firestone Family of Frederick Co. MD (1993), George Ely Russell.
  2. [S323] News Bank.
  3. [S129] SSDI Death Index,.

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