Smith McDonnell was the fourth child of a cotton grower in Little Rock,
Arkansas. Born on April 9, 1899, he graduated from high school in 1917 and
served briefly in the Army. He studied physics at Princeton University,
where he flew a plane for the first time. After graduating from Princeton,
he took graduate courses in aeronautical engineering at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology then joined the Commissioned Reserve of the U.S.
Army Air Service to become a military pilot.
He spent one year in the
Army and then went job-hunting. His first professional job was as an
aeronautical engineer and pilot for the Huff-Daland Airplane Company in
Ogdenburg, New York. Over the next 15 years, he gained valuable experience
while he worked for eight different companies, including Consolidated
Aircraft Company, Stout Metal Airplane Company, and Hamilton Aero
Manufacturing Company. He was involved in the design of the 3-AT Trimotor
at Stout and was responsible for designing the series of monoplanes for
Hamilton that resulted in the H-45 and H-47 metal transports.
In April 1927, he heard
about a competition offered by the Guggenheim Foundation for the design of
a safe, light, training aircraft. The next year, McDonnell and two
colleagues, Constantine Zakhartchenko and James Cowling, decided to leave
Hamilton, which was being absorbed by the United Aircraft and
Transportation Corporation, and organize J.S. McDonnell Jr. & Associates.
The three entered the "Doodlebug" in the competition, but it didn't win,
and the hard economic times of the Great Depression kept it out of
In 1931 McDonnell joined
the Great Lakes Aircraft Corporation briefly and then moved to Glenn
Martin's company in Baltimore, Maryland, where he became Chief Engineer
for Landplanes. He worked on the B-10/B-12 series there as well as other
planes for the export market.
But he still wanted his
own company, and in 1938, he resigned from Martin, managed to find
funding, and on July 6, 1939, incorporated the McDonnell Aircraft
Corporation in the State of Maryland.
It did not have a
promising start. The company rented quarters next to Lambert Field in St.
Louis, Missouri, and from there, submitted numerous proposals to the Army
and Navy. But business was extremely poor the first year, and the company
lost money. The United States, however, was beginning to prepare for war,
and in September 1940, McDonnell Aircraft received its first military
engineering contract. The company spent most of the war years
manufacturing parts for the various aircraft being produced by other
manufacturers as well as building some training aircraft. Its contract for
the XP-67, which looked promising, was cancelled when the prototype didn't
perform as well as expected.
McDonnell engineers were
interested in applying jet propulsion to combat aircraft and, since most
of the more established Navy contractors were busy with production
aircraft, the Bureau of Aeronautics chose McDonnell to develop a
jet-powered, carrier-borne fighter. This plane, the XFD-1, became, on July
21, 1946, the first jet fighter to take off from and land on the deck of
an aircraft carrier.
Helicopters also held
interest for McDonnell and the company began in June 1943 to study the
design and construction of rotors. An award to construct the first
twin-engine/twin-rotor helicopter, the McDonnell XHJD-1, came on May 15,
1944. McDonnell also acquired control of the Platt-Le Page Aircraft
Company, which held an Army contract to build the XR-1 helicopter. But
Platt closed and none of its innovative rotary aircraft were produced.
On March 7, 1945, the
company received its first major production contract—for 100 FH-1
Phantoms. A few days later, the Navy ordered a second, more advanced
prototype, the XF2D-1. But the war's end reduced the number of FH-1
Phantoms to 60 as well as ending most of the work McDonnell had been doing
for other aircraft companies. These events, along with the closing of
Platt-Le Page, led to a financial loss in 1946.
The company, however,
became profitable again the next year with the production of the F2H
Banshee, development work on two escort jet fighters—the XF-85 Goblin and
XF-88 Voodoo—for the U.S. Army Air Force/U.S. Air Force, and more
helicopter work. The F2H-2s became the first McDonnell military aircraft
to see action when they started serving in the Korean War.
McDonnell continued to
grow and in July 1951, bought its own plant at Lambert Field. The early
1950s also saw the ordering of the first McDonnell aircraft to be built in
quantity for the U.S. Air Force—the F-102. The company reached a
significant milestone in December 1953 when it delivered its 1,000th
In 1953, McDonnell also
received the contract that would lead to production of several thousand
F-4 Phantom II fighters, the single most significant fighter built by
McDonnell and one of the legendary aircraft of the twentieth century.
Production began in October 1954, and the Mach 2 fighter made its first
flight as a Navy interceptor on May 27, 1958, under the F-110 "Spectre"
designation. A superior plane, the Phantom made McDonnell one of the
world's leading aircraft companies, with more than 5,000 being built for
the United States and foreign nations before production ended in 1979.
During the second half of
the 1950s, the company concentrated on producing F3H Demons and F-101
Voodoos. The first flight of the Phantom II prototype took place on May
28, 1958. The company also received its first export contract, providing
F2Hs for the Royal Canadian Navy.
McDonnell was also
interested in missiles, and it had received a Navy contract in 1944 for a
radio-controlled device, the KUD-1 Gargoyle. A number of contracts for
missiles followed, including the Talos surface-to-air missile, the GAM-72
Quail decoy, and the MAW anti-tank missile. The company also conducted
research in the fields of hypersonic flight and re-entry vehicles.
Its crowning achievement
was its selection on January 12, 1959 by the National Aeronautics and
Space Administration to produce the Mercury spacecraft, the first U.S.
piloted orbital spacecraft. The first Mercury spacecraft, called
Freedom 7, lifted into space on May 5, 1961, with Alan Shepard aboard.
The program included two suborbital missions and four orbital flights.
McDonnell also produced the follow-on Gemini capsule, a two-person
spacecraft that was 50 per cent larger than the earlier capsules. Ten
successful missions were flown, including the world's first space
rendezvous and the first space docking. McDonnell was also chosen in 1965
by the Air Force to develop the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, which was
cancelled in 1969.
In light of the company's
move into the space field as well as its diversification into other
business areas, its shareholders voted in 1966 to change the company's
name to the McDonnell Company.
The company's sole
reliance on military business, however, led to some uneasiness among
management about its future prospects. In 1963, James McDonnell had
attempted unsuccessfully to acquire control of Douglas Aircraft. But in
1966, Douglas was experiencing a serious financial crisis and needed cash
desperately. McDonnell and some of his company officers also held stock in
Douglas, which gave it a strong bargaining position. McDonnell offered to
buy Douglas stock, which allowed Douglas to obtain some much-needed cash
to continue operations. He also offered to keep Douglas' officers on
board, including Donald Douglas, Sr. and his son, Donald Douglas, Jr.
Thus, stockholders of both companies accepted the union, the government
approved the merger, and on April 28, 1967, McDonnell Douglas Corporation
McDonnell Douglas Corporation (MDC) was one of the most dominant aerospace
companies in the world. It began operations on April 28, 1967, when
Douglas Aircraft Company merged with the McDonnell Company. The merger was
essentially a takeover by McDonnell of the financially troubled Douglas,
with James McDonnell as chairman. The merged company's products included
military and commercial aircraft, spacecraft and boosters, missiles, data
processing services, and electronics products. At the time of the merger,
it had over 140,000 employees. The company existed until another aerospace
giant, Boeing, acquired it in 1996.
became the fourth largest U.S. plane builder, after Boeing, North
American, and Lockheed. It had two main components: Douglas Aircraft
Company in California included the Aircraft and the Missiles and Space
groups and the McDonnell Company based in St. Louis, Missouri.
the merger, MDC's first major project was its DC-10 wide-body airliner.
American, United Air Lines, and Northwest ordered the aircraft, which was
competing with Lockheed's L-1011 TriStar. The first DC-10 rolled out on
July 23, 1970, and the first flight took place on August 29. Although the
plane outsold the TriStar, with a total of 446 built during the program's
lifetime, it split the market with the Lockheed plane and lost money.
meantime, production of the DC-9 airliner, which had rolled out in the
early 1960s, continued with more than 300 delivered by mid-1968, including
the military C-9A Nightingale. The DC-9 was one of the first airliners to
share production internationally on a large scale—Canada and Italy both
produced major components that were assembled in California. It evolved
into a stretch version—the MD-80, which entered airliner service in late
1980. Another early 1960's airliner, the DC-8, ended production in May
1972, with 556 planes completed.
military sector, the company built the new F-15 for the U.S. Air Force.
The F-15 first flew on July 27, 1972, and entered production soon after.
of the new business, total production dropped in the decade after the
merger, and MDC employment fell from its high of 140,000 in 1967 to about
57,000 in 1976 before it began to grow again.
space group continued building its Delta expendable launch vehicles (ELVs)
that had launched satellites since 1960. A Delta orbited the world's first
synchronous domestic communications satellite, Canada's Anik-1, in 1972. A
Delta 2914 placed the first U.S. domestic communications satellite, Westar-A,
into orbit in April 1974. A Delta 3914 was used for the first commercial
launch vehicle program whereby MDC paid the development costs but users of
the launch vehicle repaid the investment. On November 26, 1990, the first
Delta II successfully launched the U.S. Air Force Navstar global
positioning system satellite. Since the first Delta launch in 1960, there
have been more than 245 Delta launches and it continues to be used.
MDC teamed with aerospace company Northrop on the Naval Air Combat Fighter
carrier-based aircraft—which first developed into the F-17 and then into
the F-18 and A-18. The two variants soon combined into the F/A-18 Hornet,
a plane that became hugely expensive as well as heavy and complex. Hornets
were widely used by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps as well as by several
MDC's most unique aircraft was the Harrier "jump jet," which could take
off and land vertically but which flew like a conventional plane. MDC,
British Aerospace, and Rolls-Royce developed the AV-8B Harrier II, which
was based on the 1957 British-designed Hawker-Siddeley Kestrel. Production
began in 1981 and more than 340 Harriers were produced. They were the
first U.S. Marine Corps tactical aircraft to arrive for Operation Desert
mid-1980s, MDC alone enjoyed the product diversity that several companies
had shared in the 1950s, with the F/A-18, F-15, AV-8B, and airliners.
Other programs included the C-17 transport, T-45 Goshawk naval advanced
trainer, awarded in November 1981, the A-12 naval strike aircraft with
General Dynamics, the YF-23 with Northrop, the LHX with Bell, and the
Harpoon, which was used on B-52H bombers.
program, which began in January 1988, experienced serious delays and
technical difficulties and was cancelled on January 7, 1991, for default.
Both MDC and General Dynamics lost thousands of jobs and faced huge
potential liabilities from the default decision. Facing financial ruin,
they petitioned to have the reason for cancelation changed to "convenience
of the government," and eventually won a court reversal.
costs and losses continued to plague commercial airliner production in the
1980s, and international collaboration became essential. MDC offered
buyers of the MD-11 tri-jet a choice of American or British engines, and
parts of the plane were built in Italy, Spain, Japan, Brazil, Britain, and
MDC bought Hughes Helicopters from the estate of Howard Hughes for about
$480 million. Its Apache attack helicopter had reached a production
milestone of 6,000 helicopters in December 1981. Under MDC, AH-64 Apache
development was slow. At least five contractors built components, and its
complex electronic gear took a long time to install and test, as did its
engines and flight instruments. The company lost $107 million in 1989
through cost overruns. In 1990, the company hired Thomas Gunn as president
of the helicopter division to put things in order. He cut staff by almost
20 percent and introduced a new assembly method that improved productivity
and morale. The program became profitable the same year. MDC also
inherited the no-tail rotor (NOTAR) contract from Hughes. NOTAR was a new
tail configuration that reduced the danger of tail rotors to ground crews
and was useful in operations where a tail rotor might collide with
obstructions. It received civil certification in September 1991.
aerospace industry had managed a broad recovery during the 1980s,
principally due to the Reagan defence build-up. But that expansion
levelled off, and the industry again began to contract. Further, the
commercial-aircraft sector suffered declining orders, and the space
program became a victim of budget cutting. The end of the Cold War in 1989
resulted in permanent industry downsizing and companies struggled to
survive. For MDC, airliner losses persisted and many military programs
experienced delays and cost overruns. Employment, which peaked at more
than 132,000 in 1990, began declining sharply.
MDC was experiencing a cash flow crisis. Air travel fell off, and U.S.
airline losses in 1990-1992 on the order of $10 billion rippled through
the industry. Orders were cancelled and deliveries delayed, and MDC was
forced to slow MD-11 production, with substantial layoffs.
largest defence contractor at the beginning of the 1990s, needed major
restructuring. It sold its information systems subsidiary, but the
company's commercial sector, which represented about one-third of its
business, remained troubled.
Restructuring paid off, and by 1993, the company's finances turned around
and the outlook seemed brighter. Revenues in 1993 came to $14.5 billion.
Its C-17 transport began to reach squadrons and looked like it would show
a profit. The T-45 trainer, developed in cooperation with British
Aerospace, entered service. The company received new orders for Apache
helicopters, and overseas orders for fighters kept assembly lines busy.
The U.S. Air Force signed a $1 billion contract for Delta rocket launch
vehicles, while various research and development awards totalled nearly
$100 million. Douglas also continued its successful practice of recycling
used commercial planes with smaller, emerging airlines worldwide. Its
MD-90 twinjet also entered service in 1995. And with the launch of a new,
economical 100-seat MD-95 in 1995 (which was redesignated the 717 after
MDC's merger with Boeing), MDC seemed likely to remain in the industry.
many observers' surprise, on December 15, 1996, Boeing announced a bid for
outright acquisition of MDC for $13 billion in stock. The main incentive
for MDC was its troubled airliner operation, which seemed to be losing out
to Boeing and Europe's Airbus. In addition, it had an uncertain military
future after completion of its current programs. McDonnell Douglas agreed
to the merger, and the aerospace industry was reduced to three major
participants: Boeing, Lockheed, and Europe's Airbus.