Sam Iacobellis, who rose from Fresno State engineering student to become an aviation industry leader known as the “Father of the B1-B bomber,” has died. He was 87.
Mr. Iacobellis died Saturday at a San Luis Obispo hospital from complications of a stroke, his son, Sam Iacobellis Jr., told the Los Angeles Times.
“Sam Iacobellis was a proud alumnus of Fresno State who personified what it means to be a Bulldog for life,” said Fresno State President Joseph I. Castro. “He had a big heart for students — especially those like him who come from humble backgrounds — and he repeatedly returned to Fresno State to offer his time and expertise to help engineering students succeed. His long and very successful engineering career is inspirational to all of us.”
In 1982, Fresno State named him Top Dog — recognition of an outstanding alumnus — and the university gave him an honorary doctorate in 2006. UCLA — where he earned a master’s degree — also honored him as its alumnus of the year in 1980.
Never miss a local story.
Mr. Iacobellis’ son told The Bee Wednesday, “The thought that kept coming to me today is how he was comfortable talking to people from all walks of life. He just loved to talk to people.”
Mr. Iacobellis was the son of Italian immigrants whose father sold tomatoes to earn extra cash. Co-captain of the football team at Edison High School, Mr. Iacobellis received a scholarship to play football for Fresno State. He graduated in 1952 with a degree in mechanical engineering and was quickly hired by North American Aviation.
He signed up with North American Aviation when it was recruiting on the Fresno State campus. He reported to work in Los Angeles the day after graduation to the company that was later bought by Rockwell International Corp. and eventually the Boeing Co.
Mr. Iacobellis started on a drafting board for $1.62 an hour, but he didn’t remain there for long.
Early in his career, he was an engineering supervisor at the Fresno Air Terminal, where company-built Sabre jet fighters were modified.
Playing a major management role in the development and operation of the space shuttle and its main rocket engines, Mr. Iacobellis retired in 1995 as deputy chairman of Rockwell after a 43-year career.
But he was best known as the “Father of the B1-B bomber.”
In an interview with The Fresno Bee in 1981, he said that “although the original B-1 production was canceled in 1977, Rockwell never really stopped working on the airplane to refine its design and enhance its capabilities.”
In the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan revived the project. The government ordered 100 B-1 bombers and wanted them built as fast as possible to challenge the Soviet Union. Mr. Iacobellis was in charge of the effort, creating an entire assembly plant in Palmdale, a supply network and a trained workforce of 40,000 in less than two years, according to an account in the Los Angeles Times. The company delivered the 100 planes ahead of schedule and under budget.
“That airplane had more to do with the cessation of the Cold War than most people appreciate,” he told the Times in 1994, days after announcing his plan to retire. “The Russians said it prevented them from having a first-strike capability.”
In 2007, Mr. Iacobellis was at Bulldog Stadium as two B-1B Lancers performed a rare collegiate flyover prior to Fresno State’s football game against Utah State.
Mr. Iacobellis was also instrumental in developing a relationship between Fresno State and Boeing, the world’s leading aerospace company and the largest manufacturer of commercial jetliners and military aircraft combined.
That relationship led to the Husband-Boeing Honors Scholarships, which were established using the $2 million gift from Boeing to honor the late Col. Rick Husband, a Fresno State alumnus who had served as commander of the ill-fated Columbia Shuttle and died when Columbia broke apart during re-entry after a 16-day mission, the university said.
Iacobellis was invited back to Fresno State in May to be the keynote speaker for the Dean’s Medalist Luncheon for Fresno State’s Lyles College of Engineering, where the college’s top student for the year is honored with the Dr. Sam Iacobellis Award, the university said.
The college’s news site had a story about Mr. Iacobellis’ meeting with the college’s 2016 Dean’s Medalist, Alan Suarez, also a mechanical engineer and Lyles College alumnus.
“Meeting Mr. Iacobellis was pretty unreal,” Suarez told the news site. “You always read about people like him; individuals that have had a huge impact on history and possess unreal amounts of knowledge. I really enjoyed our conversations, and he gave me so much advice in just a short time.”
Upon learning of his passing, Suarez said, “Sam was an incredible individual who leaves a legacy that will last centuries. I feel extremely proud to have met him and even more humbled to have received his award. My deepest condolences go out to his family and friends.”
At the May luncheon, Mr. Iacobellis said his work was one of the most rewarding experiences one could have.
“I was taught to never take shortcuts, because the life of a pilot or an astronaut or a crew member is in your hands,” he said for the news site. “I never went to work a day without looking forward to it. I know I was lucky, but I’d like to know that I made some of that luck.”
Castro said he and the Fresno State community will miss Mr. Iacobellis.
“I will miss his kind and gracious manner and his extraordinary stories about being part of America’s engineering and space history. The entire Fresno State community offers its condolences to Sam’s family and friends,” Castro said.
Born: Aug. 17, 1929
Died: Sept. 3, 2016
Occupation: Aviation industry leader, aerospace engineer
Survivors: Wife, Helene; son, Sam Iacobellis Jr.; daughter, Lee Ann Schantz; sister, Anna Saladino; grandsons Otto and Maximilian Schantz