SEATTLE — You never know who you’ll find in the newspaper obituaries, especially in Seattle.
Last Tuesday, for instance, I happened upon the story of Boeing designer Robert Kiliz, who passed away on April 4 at 74.
Lots of people design amazing things around here. But Kiliz was out of this world, in more ways than one.
Like an aeronautical version of Steve Jobs, Kiliz was a gifted perfectionist with strong opinions on how to do things right, and little patience for those who didn’t.
If he’d been born a generation later, Kiliz might have become rich and famous building computers or phones.
Instead, his skills were put to use on the most incredible, awe-inspiring machines of his era — supersonic jets, intercontinental missiles, defense satellites, the lunar rover, the space shuttle, flying military command centers and the B-1 bomber.
Wealth wasn’t a priority. Kiliz was paid well but lived thrifty and still bought used cars and clothes from sale bins.
Fame was unlikely because most of the projects Kiliz worked on were top secret, some hidden behind armed guards and thick doors at Boeing’s “Black Box” research facility in Kent.
“Most of them, you or I will never find out what they were,” said his brother, Jim Kiliz. “I know he was working on a photon generator at one point — a particle beam generator — that was to be on a satellite above Russia … It was to intercept these incoming missiles.”
At retirement in 1994, Kiliz had the rare title of “spacecraft configuration designer.”
Not many people at Boeing have had such a job, basically making sure all the pieces on a spacecraft come together properly. Even rarer was his ability to design such things at work, then go home and build parts and prototype models in his basement shop, alongside Lake Tapps in Pierce County.
Kiliz would blast music — mostly rock ‘n’ roll — from custom speakers and work for days to finish a project.
“He was just so driven by anything new that he was designing that he would forget to sleep or eat — he was just in another world,” said Jim, a home designer and builder living in rural Mason County.
Four Kiliz boys and two girls grew up in a house built in the 1890s in Montesano, to a father who maintained a cemetery in the lumber town between Aberdeen and Olympia. The boys slept and worked on projects — chemistry sets, Erector sets and drawings — in an uninsulated attic that froze during the winter.
“If it was really dry powdery snow, it would blow underneath the shingles and we’d wake up with a little dusting of snow on us,” Jim recalled.
The boys contributed by mowing lawns around town, coaxing ancient mowers along until they had no more compression.
Another brother, Ken, joined the Navy and then worked on ship-wiring systems at the shipyard in Bremerton. He died April 3, the day before Bob Kiliz, who died after going to the hospital for a burn injury. A third brother, Richie, died earlier in an accident at a NASA facility in California, where he had developed a process for applying insulating material to the nose cones of space capsules.
The family isn’t sure where their technical gifts came from, but Bob had fixed things forever.
“He took everything apart and made it better,” Jim Kiliz said. “He was constantly figuring out how things went together, and he’d go ‘Jesus Christ, these guys don’t know a damn thing.’?”
“He perpetually designed things — even if he was asleep, he would be fidgeting, moving his arms in the air, designing things while he was sleeping,” said his son, Mike Kiliz, an inspector in Boeing engineering operations and technology.
Bob’s crusty streak was offset with humor. At home, alongside plaques honoring his Boeing work, he hung joke versions made by his co-workers, including one naming him “Worst Dressed Man at Boeing, 1982,” Jim Kiliz said.
After retirement, Kiliz kept tinkering. He did consulting, and he invented and patented a bow thruster for boats, and a variable fuel-injector timing system for diesel engines.
Coolest of all, though, is a model hydroplane he built and powered with a motor scavenged from a 20-inch chain saw. Kiliz also built a Gatling gun that fired paper pellets and mounted it on the boat. From his deck overlooking the lake, he’d use a remote control to guide the boat and harass ducks with its weapon system.
Every now and then his family would get a glimpse of his Boeing work, such as when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were discussing the “Star Wars” missile-defense system.
“He called up and said, ‘Turn on Channel 7 — you’ll see my model on there,’?” Jim recalled.
While cleaning up his dad’s shop, Mike said, he found a box with a folding contraption inside. It turned out to be a model of solar panels designed to fold and stow into the Space Shuttle for transportation.
Co-worker John Barton, who designed solar panels and power systems for Boeing spacecraft, said Kiliz was “a joy to work with” and explained why it took unique abilities to be a spacecraft configurator.
Configurators have to visualize how hardware goes onto a spacecraft, taking into account things like the rotation of antennas or star and sun sensors that have to have a particular view.
“It’s like working on a three-dimensional puzzle and you really don’t know what the final picture’s going to look like until it’s done,” Barton said. “Then when everything’s stowed up for launch, the center of gravity has to be right on the z-axis that goes up through the rocket and spacecraft.”
Kiliz came to Seattle after graduating from high school in 1956 , and he was hired at Boeing. His work as a draftsman caught someone’s eye, and he was elevated to designer. Boeing sent him to the University of Washington to study mechanical engineering, but he didn’t finish the program. It didn’t slow his career.
“People are born with the gift of being able to visualize — some people have it, and some people don’t,” Barton said.
Mike said his dad had another trait — a drive to always make things work better.
“I guess it’s a perpetual Boeing thing — continuous improvement, just make something better every day,” he said. “I try to do that too.”
I wonder if Bob Kiliz contributed to the missile-defense systems we’re now counting on for protection from North Korea.
But I think his story resonates because of how Boeing has changed, moved headquarters to Chicago and started building its latest planes in South Carolina. Will it provide the same opportunities to engineering geniuses who emerge from the hinterlands, looking for work at the most exciting company in town?
Perhaps the next Bob Kiliz is now tinkering someplace in Appalachia, dreaming about building flying machines in North Charleston.