Alvin R. Eaton, missile systems pioneer, dead at 91

Alvin Ralph Eaton, a pioneer in modern guided missile systems and the longest-serving employee at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, died of cancer Oct. 20. He was 91 and lived in Clarksville.

Mr. Eaton's 66-year career coincided with — and he contributed to — historic developments in U.S. missile defense. He corrected flight problems in the first supersonic surface-to-air missiles, developed a widely used tail-control system for supersonic interceptor missiles, and helped shepherd the Patriot anti-missile program in the 1980s.


"You can look at almost every guided missile we have today, and when you look at the tail fin control, you can attribute that to him," said Conrad Grant, head of APL's air and missile defense department. "Many countries copied it from him."

In 1972, Mr. Eaton also developed the concept of "force coordination" — connecting disparate sensor and weapons systems so they were able to operate together. The concept remains in use today in complex weapons systems.


The native of Toledo, Ohio, was in graduate school at the California Institute of Technology when the Hopkins laboratory recruited him. After finishing his master's degree, Mr. Eaton came to the Laurel lab in September 1945.

The first project Mr. Eaton worked on at APL was code-named "Bumblebee." He helped develop supersonic, long-range, anti-aircraft missiles for Navy vessels. In 1957, the Navy awarded him a Meritorious Public Service Citation.

One of the projects Mr. Eaton managed during his career was known as the Typhon Weapon System, the first to use a 360-degree "phased array radar" to detect multiple targets. The system itself never made it out of the lab, but its technology served as the precursor to the Aegis weapon system, which is used in all Navy cruisers and destroyers today.

Mr. Eaton worked as a researcher aboard Navy ships during the Vietnam War, helping pilots develop countermeasures and techniques, such as radar jamming, that still remain in use.

His work helped reduce aircraft loss rates over the course of the war from 20 percent to 2 percent, according to APL. For that effort Mr. Eaton was awarded the U.S. Navy Distinguished Public Service Award.

In 1980, Mr. Eaton chaired an independent review panel for the Army-run Patriot missile program, and helped keep the program from being canceled. Today, Patriot surface-to-air missile technology is used by the United States and several of its allies as an anti-ballistic missile weapon.

Mr. Grant, who said that much of Mr. Eaton's work was classified, spent the years after Mr. Eaton's retirement in 2002 picking his brain about his work.

"Alvin held my job 30 years ago," Mr. Grant said. "Over the last few years, I spent time with him to try to understand how the lab got to where it was."

Mr. Eaton and his wife, Ellen — who met through mutual friends — were married for 41 years.

"We just fell in love and we remained in love," said Mrs. Eaton, 89.

She described her husband as an empathetic person with a keen interest in others.

"He would draw people out who felt they weren't worth drawing out," she said. "I really admired that in him."


Her husband put in considerable time at the lab but still made time for his family, she said.

"He did work long hours, but he was doing something important," Mrs. Eaton said. "I never felt he was married to the job. He was dedicated to it and I understood that."

Mr. Eaton regularly talked about his work — except for the parts that were classified, she said.

"He was interested and dedicated to the country," Mrs. Eaton said. "Anything that would prevent harm to the country was something he was interested in."

Mr. Eaton is survived by two sons from a previous marriage, Eric Eaton and Alan Eaton; three grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.


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