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 Peru's navy.

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.

Douglas' successful 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, Transcontinental 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 War II.

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 Transcontinental and Western Airlines (TWA). American Airlines , 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 these requirements.

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.

Interestingly, Douglas 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.

United Airlines 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 and Japan.

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 flying.

Douglas Aircraft From the Late 1930s

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 service.

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 post-war years.

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.

Meanwhile, Douglas 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.