Douglas Aircraft Company
The Early Years of
Douglas Aircraft, the 1920s
Donald Douglas, born in
Brooklyn, New York on April 6, 1892, became interested in aviation as a
young boy. After a visit to the Smithsonian Institution with his father
and seeing the aircraft engine that Charles Manley had built for Samuel
Langley, Douglas began reading all he could about aviation and building
model planes. In 1909, he was a fascinated observer at Orville Wright's
historic flight tests for the U.S. Army at Fort Myer, Virginia.
When it was time for
college, Douglas decided to combine his love for the sea with his interest
in aviation and attend the U.S. Naval Academy. But after two years there,
he realized that being a midshipman was not for him and he dropped out to
pursue a career in aviation. He first tried to get a job in the aircraft
industry but was unsuccessful and enrolled as an aeronautical engineering
student instead at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT),
graduating in just two years. One of his MIT professors, Dr. Jerome
Hunsaker, a noted aeronautical engineer, developer of the first large wind
tunnel, and chief of the Bureau of Construction and Repairs for the
Aircraft Division in the U.S. Navy, would help him in his career. After
finishing school, Douglas worked as an assistant to Hunsaker at MIT for a
year and then joined the working world.
Douglas' first job was as
a consultant with Connecticut Aircraft Company. Though he stayed with the
company for just a short while, he helped design the DN-1—the first
dirigible for the U.S. Navy. He then joined the Glenn Martin Company in
California as chief engineer. He was only 23 years old. The Model S
seaplane was the first aircraft Douglas designed for Martin. The Model S
exceeded its performance expectations, flying at 72 miles per hour (116
kilometres per hour), setting three world altitude records, and holding
the flight duration record for three years.
Douglas left Martin in
1916 when the company merged with the Wright Company and moved to the
eastern United States. Douglas then became chief civilian aeronautical
engineer for the Aviation Section of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. His main
job with the Corps was to work on redesigning British planes for wartime
use. He argued for the design of stronger airplanes, but his superiors
killed any hopes of new aircraft. Douglas was particularly bothered that
automobile executives with no experience in the aviation business were
running aircraft production during the war.
When Martin re-established
his company in Cleveland, Ohio, in the spring of 1918, Douglas joined him
there. At Martin, Douglas contributed significantly in the area of stress
analysis—determining scientifically how much stress aircraft structures
could withstand. He designed Martin's MB-1 bomber, its transport
derivative, the T-1, and its naval version. Douglas brought precision
drawings and mathematics to what was largely a trial-and-error building
process. Although some of his colleagues were sceptical at first, Douglas'
methods proved effective.
In 1920, Douglas left
Martin and his $10,000 annual salary and with only $600 to invest,
returned to California to form his own aircraft company in Santa Monica.
Through a friend, Bill Henry, he met David R. Davis, a wealthy sportsman
who was interested in aviation. Davis provided Douglas with $40,000
capital to start his company on the condition that Douglas design and
build a single aircraft for an attempted non-stop crossing of the United
States. Douglas agreed, and the Davis-Douglas Company was established on
July 22, 1920.
His first plane was the
Cloudster. It was built in a second-story factory that was so small the
parts had to be lowered one by one down an elevator shaft for assembly at
a nearby airfield. The Cloudster was the first plane to lift a load
greater than its own weight.
The plane made its first
30-minute flight on February 24, 1921, with Eric Springer, a former Martin
test pilot, at the controls. Among the spectators was Ed Heinemann, who
would become one of the all-time outstanding American aircraft designers.
On March 19, 1921, the Cloudster broke the Pacific Coast altitude record
by climbing to 19,160 feet (5,840 meters). In June 1921, the Cloudster set
out for its transcontinental flight from March Field, California, to
Curtiss Field, New York. But engine trouble forced it to make an emergency
landing in Texas, and it was returned to March Field for installation of a
better engine. But after its aborted flight, Davis lost interest and left
the company, taking the plane with him. The plane would have a second
career later when it was sold to T. Claude Ryan of San Diego in 1925 for
$6,000 and converted to a passenger plane for Ryan Airlines, one of the
first U.S. scheduled passenger airlines, flying between San Diego and Los
Angeles. After Ryan Airlines went out of business, the plane was used for
charter flights, including ferrying liquor between towns in Mexico near
the California border during Prohibition.
By the time the Cloudster
had made its first flight, Douglas had become more interested in military
contracts and had started developing military designs. In February 1921,
he proposed a new type of single-engine torpedo seaplane to the U.S. Navy.
On April 14, 1921, the Davis-Douglas Company received its first military
order, Navy Contract No. 53305 worth $119,550, for three experimental
aircraft that were based on the original Cloudster design. This was the
beginning of strong ties between Douglas and the Navy.
In the meantime, Douglas
wanted to launch his own company but needed money. He looked again to Bill
Henry for help. This time, with the expectation of payment from the Navy
for work in progress on the DT bomber, Henry helped arrange for the
publisher of the Los Angeles Times Harry Chandler to guarantee a
$15,000 loan to Douglas. Douglas also got a $5,000 loan from his father.
The company incorporated as the Douglas Company in July 1921.
Its first plane, the DT-1
was delivered late in 1921. The folding-wing DT bomber used a welded-steel
fuselage with aluminium and fabric coverings. Initially able to seat only
one person, the second and third bombers were built to hold a crew of two.
Other modifications were made as well, including a change to a more
powerful Liberty engine. The first production DT-2 was accepted by the
Navy on October 19, 1922. Douglas built about 45 bombers (sources differ),
and the Dayton-Wright Company and Naval Aircraft Factory together built
about 50. The DT-2 also was the first Douglas aircraft constructed under
license by a foreign manufacturer—by the Norwegian government and later by
With the second production
order, the company moved to larger facilities where it would construct one
of the most famous Douglas aircraft—the Douglas World Cruiser.
Douglas Aircraft Builds
the DC-1 and DC-2
Since 1921, Donald Douglas
and his father had controlled the funds of the Douglas Company and had
reinvested all but a small amount of the profits. By the fall of 1928, the
net worth of the company had grown to $2.5 million. This was an
extraordinary achievement, considering that Douglas had needed a $15,000
loan just seven years earlier to get started. In November 1928, the
company reorganized and became the Douglas Aircraft Company Inc., a
publicly traded company. Some of the cash that was received went into
building a new plant in Santa Monica. The company, thus, became the first
of the aircraft manufacturers to choose southern California as its
permanent residence, as so many aircraft companies would in the future. In
January 1932, Douglas bought just over a half share of John "Jack"
Northrop's El Segundo operation to create the Northrop Corporation as a
partially owned subsidiary of Douglas Aircraft.
round-the-world flight in 1924 brought huge orders for the Douglas
Company, including an order from the Army Air Service for 27 C-1s, the
military transport version of the Douglas World Cruiser. This plane was
similar to the DWC but could carry six to eight passengers or, if the
seats were removed, cargo instead. The first C-1 flew at Santa Monica on
May 2, 1925. Douglas also built a series of mail planes in the mid-1920s
that flew millions of miles across America for several small airlines that
carried the mail. The company also built a series of observation planes in
the mid-1920s, the O-2, for the U.S. Army Air Service.
In 1929, Douglas combined
his love for the sea with aviation and built his first flying boat—the
Sinbad, a prototype of the Dolphin series, which he designed for the
luxury commercial market. But the stock market crash and the resulting
depression virtually eliminated the commercial market and meant that most
of the 58 Dolphins ended in military hands. Military orders during the
next few years kept Douglas financially sound when so many other U.S.
companies had to close. In 1930, the Army bought seven Douglas gull-wing
B-7 bombers and five O-35 observation monoplanes, and the series of
observation biplanes that had begun in 1924 remained in production until
1936, with almost 800 built. This steady income allowed Douglas to take
more of a risk with a commercial airliner.
On March 31, 1931, Knute
Rockne, the famous football coach, was killed when a wooden Fokker
trimotor crashed. It had suffered a structural failure partly because of
its wood construction. Consequently, the Civil Aeronautics Authority
grounded the plane and insisted on so many modifications that the Fokker
was taken out of service, leaving the company to return to solely European
production. The industry realized that it had to come up with a safer
plane—an all-metal plane. United Airlines turned to its companion company,
Boeing, which came up with the highly successful Model 247. But Boeing
would not commit to providing planes to one of United's competitors,
and Western Air
(TWA), so in 1932, TWA vice president Jack Frye turned to
the other aircraft companies.
Frye decided that TWA
would issue its own specifications for a passenger airliner. On August 2,
1932, he invited five aircraft companies to submit designs for his plane.
His specification called for a three-engine all-metal monoplane. One of
his requirements was that the plane be able to take off fully loaded with
only two of the three engines operating out of any airport TWA used. This
was a rigorous requirement because TWA flew out of some airports at high
altitudes or where the temperatures were high.
Although Douglas hesitated
at first because he anticipated the need for fewer than 100 of these
planes—a risky investment considering the development costs—he responded
with a much more advanced design. It was a twin-engine plane that would
incorporate features of Jack Northrop's strong tapered wing and a floor
that wasn't divided by a spar. Douglas received the DC-1 prototype
contract on September 20, 1932. The DC-1 flew on July 1, 1933. Calling on
the expertise of a talented Douglas team, Douglas had built an all-metal
monoplane with tapered wings, retractable landing gear, and two
690-horsepower (515-kilowatt) Wright nine-cylinder air-cooled radial
engines that drove its variable-pitch propellers. It sat 12 passengers and
had a large lavatory, a small galley, and a soundproofed cabin with
heating ducts. After 200 test flights and ironing out some problems,
including carburettors that had been installed backwards and caused the
engines to cut off when climbing, the plane was approved for service. TWA
officially accepted it in December 1933.
Only one DC-1 was built,
but it was enough to get TWA to order 20 production aircraft, which were
designated the DC-2. They had a larger engine and seated 14 passengers as
opposed to Boeing's 10. The plane first flew on May 11, 1934 and began
service with TWA on May 18. Douglas was ready to go on and build what many
consider to be one of the greatest planes ever—the DC-3.
The Douglas DC-3
The Douglas DC-3 was one
of the most noteworthy aircraft ever built. It probably did more than any
other plane to introduce a whole new segment of the population to air
travel and establish air transportation as a normal way of travelling.
More than five times as many passenger miles were flown in 1941 than in
1935 in the United States, and much of that can be attributed to the
popularity of the DC-3. Douglas also produced a number of military
versions that played a vital role around the world, especially in World
The DC-3 was the first
airliner to make a profit by carrying just passengers without the support
of mail contracts or other forms of government subsidies. Its production,
along with continued production of the DC-2 that lasted until September
1939 for the military version, ensured the prosperity and financial
soundness of Douglas Aircraft for many years.
The DC-3 was an outgrowth
of the DC-2, which first flew in 1934 for
and Western Airlines (TWA).
, a competitor of TWA, had longer routes and needed a plane
where passengers could stretch out and sleep. It had been using the
Curtiss Condor because it was large enough for sleeping berths, but it was
slow. The DC-2 was faster but it was too narrow for berths.
During the summer of 1934,
American decided that it needed a plane that could fly non-stop between
New York and Chicago with both the roominess of the Condor and also the
DC-2's performance. It approached Douglas about providing a plane to meet
Douglas was a little
hesitant about accepting the project at first since he anticipated a
limited production run and because American was low on cash. However,
American's president, Cyrus R. Smith, promised an initial order of 20
aircraft, and Douglas decided to proceed. American also received a
$4.5-million loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, so Douglas
was confident that American could pay for the planes.
This new plane would
appear in two versions: a 14-berth sleeper version, the Douglas Sleeper
Transport (DST), and a day version, called the DC-3. The DST, initially
called a "wide-body DC-2," was wider and longer and had more powerful
engines than the DC-2. Its modified tail gave the plane better directional
stability and reduced the tendency to fishtail found in the DC-2. Its
original design used 85 percent of the parts used on the DC-2. Douglas
realized, however, that reliance on the DC-2 limited use of the new plane
in a wide variety of roles and the plane was substantially redesigned.
Thus, the DC-3 would use only 15 percent of the parts and components from
the DC-2. These design changes included rounder sides and nose, made
possible by relocating the landing lights in the wing leading edge, and
strengthened and longer wings with greater area that provided more space
for fuel tanks. The undercarriage was also strengthened and its operation
made softer on landing. These changes, while resulting in higher design
costs, contributed to the DC-3 being produced in greater numbers than any
other transport aircraft.
built this new plane because American had come to Douglas, which was known
for its outstanding engineering skill, with a requirement. Some say that
this approach of designing aircraft only in response to a customer's
requirements rather than by anticipating the airliner market indicated
poor marketing skills and would eventually lead to the demise of the
company. But the practice was common, and Douglas designed the DC-2 to
meet TWA's requirements, the DC-3 in response to American's, and would
continue this pattern with later designs.
Construction began in
December 1934, before a firm contract had even been written. On July 8,
1935, American's president confirmed the initial order of 10 Douglas
Sleeper Transports at a cost of $79,500 each. The first DST debuted on
December 17, 1935, exactly 32 years after the first flight of the Wright
brothers. After testing and completing all certification requirements, it
received the first of eight U.S. Approved Type Certificates on May 21,
1936. It began scheduled service with American on June 25, 1936. Service
with the DC-3 began in September.
became the second DC-3 customer in November 1936, and KLM
in the Netherlands was the first overseas DC-3 user. By the end of 1938,
95 percent of all U.S. commercial airline traffic flew on DC-3s. By 1939,
90 percent of the world's airline traffic was being carried by
these aircraft. Douglas built a total of 10,655 of the DC-3 series and
about another 2,500 planes were built under license in the Soviet Union
The DST could be fitted as
a sleeper for 14 in plush surroundings or as a day plane seating 28
passengers. It began service as a day plane and became a transcontinental
sleeper when American received its DC-3s in August 1936, flying on a
16-hour eastbound and 17-hour 45-minute westbound schedule.
Transcontinental coast-to-coast sleeper service between Newark, New
Jersey, which served New York City, and Los Angeles began on September 18,
1936. Between 1934, when the flight between New York and Los Angeles
required 25 hours 55 minutes with numerous stops and aircraft changes, and
1937, the time required for a transcontinental trip fell to 17 hours 30
minutes, a savings of almost one-third.
The plane used all the
latest technology. It was a low-wing cantilever all-metal monoplane with
trailing edge flaps,
single elevator and rudder, and retractable landing gear. It had the
Northrop multi-cellular wing structure and two cowled radial engines. The
controls included an automatic pilot and two sets of instruments. Although
many variants were built, the original design was so satisfactory that the
basic specifications were never changed.
When the war began, many
commercial DSTs and DC-3s were pressed into military service as the C-47.
These planes were attractive because of their large load-carrying
capacity. Their normal range was 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers) but adding
fuel tanks extended the range. The Army Air Forces became the largest
purchaser of DC-3 military derivatives, acquiring some 10,000 aircraft.
The large number of planes produced made it necessary for Douglas to add a
third manufacturing facility in Oklahoma City to its new plant in Long
Beach and existing Santa Monica plant.
Both the Army Air Forces
and the U.S. Navy used large numbers of C-47s and other military DC-3
derivatives in a variety of support roles. Some variants also participated
in major airborne operations including those in Sicily, New Guinea,
Normandy, southern France, and Nijmegen in the Netherlands. Those used by
Britain and other Commonwealth Air Forces were known as "Dakotas." The
C-47 Skytrain was nicknamed "Gooney Bird" because of its awkward
appearance. These planes travelled reliably over water and in areas with
few or no navigation aids or accurate maps and survived in every
environment from the heat of Africa to the cold of Alaska, flying in all
types of weather. The Skytrains, Skytroopers, and Dakotas served the
Allies in every theatre of World War II. Allied Supreme Commander General
Dwight Eisenhower credited them with being the single most important
airplane contributing to the Allied victory.
After the war, a large
number of C-47s became surplus and joined the commercial air fleet, seeing
use by almost every airline and many militaries around the world. These
surplus planes became the mainstay of the airline industry and helped the
airlines achieve significant growth in the post-war years. Some military
variants remained with the U.S. military and both U.S. and British planes
participated in the Berlin Airlift in 1948. In the 1950s, they flew in the
Korean War, and Gooney Birds were flown in both conventional transport
duties and also in electronic reconnaissance, psychological warfare, and
night attack roles. A group of Navy planes also supported a U.S. Antarctic
expedition called Operation Deep Freeze in 1947. One Navy plane, the
Que Sera Sera, became, on October 31, 1956, the first aircraft to land
at the South Pole.
The DC-3 has proven to be
the workhorse of the aviation world. Back in 1936, President Franklin D.
Roosevelt awarded the Collier Trophy to Donald Douglas, head of Douglas
Aircraft, for his achievements relating to the DC-3. In the year 2000,
more than six decades after it was introduced, hundreds of DC-3s are still
Douglas Aircraft From the
The Douglas DC-3 was not
the only Douglas aircraft of the late 1930s and 1940s. In August 1934, the
U.S. Army Air Corps had invited American manufacturers to design a new
multiengine strategic bomber. Boeing entered its four-engine Model 299,
later to become famous as the B-17, while Douglas and Martin submitted
twin-engine designs: the DB-1/B-18 based on the Douglas DC-2 airliner, and
the Model 146, based on the Martin B-10.
On October 30, 1935,
Boeing's Model 299 crashed following takeoff when the controls
accidentally locked. Before the crash, the U.S. Army had been about to
order 65 B-17s, but in January 1936, production contracts instead went to
Douglas for 131 twin-engine B-18s, which were also less than half the
price of Boeing's 299. These would serve as the standard heavy bomber
until the B-17 replaced it. The first B-18s were delivered in February
1937. An additional 177 were ordered in June 1937. In 1938, Douglas
received a final order for another 40. Changes in the basic B-18 airframe
led to a new version, the B-23 Dragon, which had a new and
more-streamlined fuselage, a large elevator and rudder, and the DC-3's
stronger wings. Thirty-eight Dragons were ordered in 1939.
Although the B-18 was soon
eclipsed by the superior Boeing B-17, the plane had been available in
quantity at a crucial time, and thousands of much-needed airmen were
therefore available to transition to the B-17s when it entered into
Two other designs also
proved successful: the SBD Dauntless, which went to the U.S. Marine Corps,
and the DB-7/A-20 series, which was first delivered to France in late
1939. (Also called Boston/Havoc, it would number more than 7,000.) The
DB-7 was based on a design by Jack Northrop and developed by Ed Heinemann,
the talented Douglas project engineer. Heinemann would remain with Douglas
until 1960 and would become the company's greatest aircraft designer,
designing all its major combat aircraft during World War II and the
During the war, the
military placed huge orders for large numbers of aircraft of many types,
and the existing manufacturing facilities of all the aircraft suppliers
quickly became inadequate to meet wartime needs. Thus, the government
implemented the Emergency Plant Facilities program. This program provided
that manufacturers would pay for constructing new facilities and the
government would reimburse them over a five-year period and assume title
to the facilities. The government, therefore, would avoid a huge outlay of
funds and still relieve the manufacturers of the risk of owning excess
factory space when the war ended. Under this program, Douglas built a new
plant in Long Beach, California, which began operating in November 1941.
It would remain at full activity throughout the war. But even three plants
in California were insufficient for all its wartime production, and
Douglas leased additional factory space in the Midwest.
At the end of the war,
Douglas could claim to be the largest aircraft manufacturer in the United
States. But soon after, the company had to fight hard to remain
competitive. Its major competitor and rival was Lockheed, which came out
with its four-engine Constellation airliner series to challenge Douglas's
primacy in the commercial market. Douglas had the four-engine DC-4, but it
did not have a pressurized cabin, was slower, and could carry fewer
people. Douglas had more success meeting the Lockheed Constellation
competition with its DC-6, which was first delivered to United and
American airlines in November 1946 and which entered service on April 27,
1947 with United Airlines. Following two accidents in November, all DC-6s
were withdrawn from service but they returned to the skies in March 1948
after the cause of the accidents was corrected. The plane was very
successful and around 700 were built. It emerged as the most economical of
the piston-powered airliners of the period.
Continued interest from
American Airlines led to development of the DC-7, followed by the DC-7B
and –7C models. The DC-7 began service with American in November 1953, and
Pan Am began flying the 7C in April 1956. By late 1958, Douglas had
produced more than 1,000 DC-6 and DC-7 aircraft, including two military
transport versions. Lockheed had produced around 900 Constellations,
making Douglas the winner in the competition for four-engine transports.
continued providing military aircraft such as the AD Skyraider attack
aircraft; F3D Skyknight naval night fighter; B-26 bomber; and C-74, C-124
(Globemasters), C-47, and C-54 transports to meet the demands of the late
1940s and the Korean War. The worsening Cold War situation also resulted
in more orders for the A3D Skywarrior, F4D Skyray, C-124 Globemaster II,
and new aircraft such as the B-66 Destroyer, A4D Skyhawk, and
Boeing-designed B-47. Douglas increased production substantially at its
three California plants, and the government-owned factory at Tulsa,
Oklahoma, was reopened for B-66 and B-47 production.
The world had also entered
the jet age. But Douglas was slow in joining. It had flown the jet-powered
D-558-1 and –2 and the X-3 research planes in the early 1950s but seemed
reluctant to enter the jet airliner market. Boeing flew the first U.S.
commercial jetliner, the Boeing 707, in 1954, which virtually forced
Douglas to participate. It announced on June 7, 1955, that it would enter
the jet transport field with the DC-8. The airliner first flew on May 30,
1958, but it appeared too late to successfully challenge Boeing. It also
failed to achieve its guaranteed range. Sales were dismal, dropping from
73 in 1955 to 11 in 1958. In 1959, they numbered 18, and in 1960 only
three were ordered. The DC-8 Series 50 first flew on December 20, 1960. It
was the first DC-8 to use a turbofan engine rather than turbojets. It
entered service with KLM on April 3, 1961, and a total of 50 were built.
Although employment and
profits rose dramatically during the 1950s as a result of large military
orders, and net sales reached an all-time high in 1958, after the Korean
War ended, production orders for many of the military aircraft began to
dry up. The company's failure to win orders for new types of military
aircraft plus its late entry into the commercial jet market led to new
difficulties and eventually contributed to its demise.
The years 1959 and 1960
resulted in heavy losses and though the company became profitable again in
1961, many fewer DC-8s had been sold than Boeing planes. To counter
Boeing, Douglas signed an agreement with Sud Aviation of France to
manufacture Caravelle twinjet transports in America. However, in June
1962, TWA cancelled its option for 40 Caravelles and ordered Boeing planes
instead. Douglas' arrangement with Sud Aviation fell apart.
Douglas, instead, began
working on a new, smaller, short-range plane—the twinjet DC-9. Delta Air
Lines ordered 15 DC-9s in May 1962 but only 58 had been sold by the time
the airliner debuted on February 25, 1965. Despite this poor start, the
DC-9 became the most successful of Douglas' commercial jet transports,
with more than 800 sold to airlines and almost 50 built for the military.
It would be the last type of aircraft developed solely by Douglas.
By 1965, Douglas was
building DC-8s and -9s, A-4 Skyhawks, and missile and space vehicles.
Since World War II, its missiles and space launch vehicles had included
Nikes, Sparrows, nuclear-armed Genies, Rocs, Skybolts, "Honest Johns,"
Thors, Deltas and Saturns. But in spite of all this, three events
signalled Douglas' end. First, its winning Manned Orbiting Laboratory
design was cancelled by the Defence Department because of its need to
reallocate funds to Southeast Asia. Then Douglas lost the contract for the
huge C-5A cargo aircraft to Lockheed. And finally, in the commercial
sector, Douglas' 650-seat airliner lost out to Boeing's 747.
By the end of 1966, it had
become obvious that Douglas needed both new capital and, in the opinion of
the Wall Street firm Lazard Frères that was helping Douglas with its
problems, new management .On January 13, 1967, Douglas accepted an offer
from McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, headed by James S. McDonnell, to buy
a large amount of Douglas stock, providing Douglas with the cash it
needed, and to merge. Government approval followed quickly, and the
Douglas Aircraft Company gave way to the McDonnell Douglas Corporation.
The new company began operations on April 28, 1967.