Atwood was schooled in Kentucky and Texas. James H 'Dutch' Kindelberger and Atwood were young engineers when they met at Douglas in 1930, working on the DC-1 and DC-2 transports. They left Douglas together in 1934 to join the manufacturing division of North American Aviation, where they became a unique American industrial team. Kindelberger rose to be President of the company. He was an extrovert, a 'pile-driver' of a man. Atwood was quieter, serving as Chief Engineer. Atwood became assistant general manager in 1938 and in 1941 was named North American's first vice president.
When the two arrived at North American in 1934, the company had one passenger aircraft on order. The two had worked on the DC-1 and DC-2 at Douglas. Kindelbergr managed to get a $ 1 million order for BT-9 aircraft. Then Britain asked North Amerian to build P-40 fighters. Kindelberger told them he could make a better design than that and completed the prototype of the legendary P-51 Mustang in four months. 42,000 aircraft were built by the company by the end of the war.
After World War II Atwood expected there would be a need for improved rocket engines based on those developed by the Germans for the V-2. The two decided in 1946 to invest $ 1 million in a rocket engine test facility in Santa Susanna, California, and a supersonic wind tunnel at Los Angeles International Airport. This paid off when North American landed the contract to develop the Navaho, a rocket-boosted intercontinental cruise missile. Navaho allowed North American to develop unrivalled expertise in rocket engines, inertial navigation systems, and supersonic aerodynamics. This in turn led to securing contracts for many of the most advanced aerospace vehicles in the late 1950's - the X-15 manned hypersonic spaceplane, the Hound Dog missile, and the XB-70 triple-sonic bomber. The B-70 required the company to develop new materials, welding, and manufacturing processes.
North American had informally been notified that they had won the USAF competition for the Man-In-Space-Soonest program in 1958, but when NASA took over the program, the award was cancelled. The requirement was recompeted as the Mercury program, and McDonnell received the contract.
Finally North American landed the contract to develop the Apollo command and service modules. Atwood felt there were two main reasons for North American's success: unrivalled experience in the previous projects, and the fact they bid alone rather than as part of an industrial team. McDonnell had wanted to team with North American, but in retrospect Atwood believed they would have lost the competition if that team had been realised.
Kindelberger died in 1962, and Atwood then became Chairman of the Board. Atwood's first wife died in 1964 of lung cancer, and he married his third wife in 1968. Having guided the company from propeller-driven fighters through the first man to land on the moon to award of the contract for the space shuttle, Atwood retired at age 65 in 1971.