North American Aviation

North American Aviation was established in December 1928 as a holding company. Its founder, Clement Keys, intended for it to invest in a range of aviation businesses rather than become another aircraft manufacturer. Its first years were spent buying and selling interests in a number of aviation and airline companies through a series of complicated transactions. The Air Mail Act of 1934, however, forced aviation holding companies to break up (although North American was able to retain Eastern Air Lines until 1938). One of the new companies retained the name North American Aviation. James H. "Dutch" Kindelberger was recruited from Douglas Aircraft as the new company president.

The new North American focused on manufacturing aircraft, and Kindelberger moved the company to southern California, where the weather allowed flying year-round. His strategy was to produce small military training aircraft as he felt that competing with the larger, more-established companies would be difficult. Its first planes, the GA-15 observation aircraft and the GA-16 trainer led to the O-47 and the NA-16 (also called the BT-9), a low-wing monoplane that won the 1934 Army Air Corps trainer competition. The NA-16 was the first in a long line of trainers that would continue for some 25 years. North American's first combat airplane, the BC-1, built in 1937, was based on the NA-16.

With war approaching, North American stepped up aircraft production. In 1940, it opened factories in Dallas and Kansas City, Kansas. From 1938 through 1945, the company produced 43,208 aircraft, more than any other U.S. manufacturer.

Several of its planes were notable. The T-6 Texan (called the SNJ by the Navy and the Harvard by the Royal Air Force) was the most famous Allied trainer of the war and, with 17,000 built, very likely the most widely used trainer ever. The B-25 Mitchell twin-engine bomber was the first bomber used in all World War II combat theatres and the first to sink Axis submarines. It is perhaps best known for the raid its pilots made on Tokyo on April 18, 1942, led by Col. Jimmy Doolittle. North American's P-51 Mustang was initially designed for the British as a medium-altitude fighter. But once the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, built by Packard in the United States, replaced its Allison engine, it became arguably the outstanding American fighter of the war.

After the war, North American faced the same hard times that all U.S. aircraft manufacturers faced. Its number of employees fell from a wartime peak of 91,000 to 5,000 in 1946. On V-J Day, North American had orders for 8,000 planes. A few months later, that had dropped to 24.

Still, North American came out of its post-war doldrums more quickly than some of the other manufacturers. In mid-1948, the piston-powered AJ Savage bomber, which carried an auxiliary jet engine in its tail, flew for the first time. It was the largest airplane at the time flying off aircraft carriers. It served primarily as an in-flight refuelling tanker.

North American had also developed the twin-fuselage XP-82 Twin Mustang from its P-51 late in the war. First flown in June 1945, it served as a radar-equipped night fighter in the Korean War. The four-engine B-45 Tornado became the first operational jet bomber in early 1947. But with the old "straight-wing" configuration rather than the new swept wings, its performance was weak, and only 143 were sold.

In 1946, North American produced its first FJ-1 Fury jet fighter. The next year, it was redesigned into the XP-86, first flown on October 1, 1947. Its test pilot, George "Wheaties" Welch, became the first pilot to fly the plane at Mach 1 in routine flight. The XP-86 was redesignated in 1948 as the F-86 Sabre. It became the standard fighter and proceeded to fly thousands of missions and win fame in Korea. It also set several world speed records. Some 6,656 F-86s were produced in the United States, the most post-war military aircraft in the West, as well as another 2,500 elsewhere. To accommodate its Sabre production, North American opened facilities in a former Curtiss-Wright plant in Columbus, Ohio.

It also moved into a former Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft plant at Downey, California, and in 1948, built a new plant at Downey. In the 1960s, Downey would become the home of the Apollo spacecraft. By the end of 1952, North American sales topped $315 million and employment at the Columbus plant alone had grown from 1,600 in 1950 to 18,000.

In June 1948, Kindelberger became chairman and chief executive officer, and Lee Atwood became president. The team would continue to lead North American into the 1980s.

North America launched the F-100 Super Sabre in the early 1950s. Using titanium extensively, the swept-wing plane quickly broke the sound barrier. The F-100 set numerous speed, endurance, and distance records, and the Air Force chose the plane for its Thunderbird precision flying team.

In 1955, North American spun off its Rocketdyne division, which would become the premier American producer of liquid-fuelled rockets. Its new Missile Development division, became the Space and Information Systems Division in 1960. Another division, Autonetics, focused on guidance systems.

North American in the late 1950s experienced several setbacks, partly because of its dependence on government business. The F-107 and the F-108 Rapier interceptor programs were both cancelled, as was the Navajo intercontinental ballistic missile program. Efforts to diversify resulted in shrinking aircraft production until, with the delivery of the last F-100 in 1959, the manufacture of major combat airplanes stopped.

At the end of the 1950s, the remaining production programs at Columbus were the T-2 Buckeye jet trainer, which enjoyed a long production life, and the supersonic A-5 Vigilante. The company also produced the OV-10 Bronco attack plane for the military and for export, and the T-39 Air Force utility aircraft and crew trainer, which led to a business jet version. Although successful, they were insufficient to offset what the company had lost in larger programs.

A high point was the X-15. North American received the contract in 1955 to build this research airplane. Its first flight took place in 1959. Designed to conduct research beyond the Earth's atmosphere, it achieved higher speeds and faced greater heat levels than ever before encountered.

Lee Atwood, installed as chief executive in 1960, decided to focus on the space program. The decision paid off, at least for the duration of the Apollo program. In 1961, the company beat Martin Marietta for the Apollo Moon-landing vehicle contract. North American also developed much of the Saturn V launch vehicle.

In January 1967 a launch pad fire killed three Apollo astronauts. The subsequent investigations subjected the company to severe criticism of its technical and managerial competence and motivated it to proceed with a merger that had been discussed some years earlier. In March 1967, North American merged with Rockwell Standard Corporation, becoming North American Rockwell (NAR). With the merger, the company could take advantage of Rockwell's other areas of business and expertise.

NAR still pursued military business. In 1970, NAR won the contract for the B-1 bomber over Boeing and General Dynamics. The program was full of controversy from the start though as costs escalated and reliability and performance were criticized. In the frugal post-Vietnam environment, funding was almost cut off a number of times even though proponents touted the jobs the program created. President Jimmy Carter finally cancelled the program in 1977. The Air Force resurrected it, however, in 1979 as a cruise missile program, and President Ronald Reagan succeeded in reviving it as the B-1B, committing to 100 aircraft as part of a massive new weapons program. At peak production in 1986, 40,000 people were working on the program, which also contributed two-thirds of Rockwell's profits.

Earlier Rockwell had formed the Space Transportation Systems Division (STSD) and delivered four Shuttle orbiters. The first Shuttle flight took place on April 14, 1981. After the Challenger was lost in January 1986, Rockwell received the contract for the Endeavour replacement orbiter.

Rockwell participated in international ventures in the late 1980s and into the 1990s with its X-31 Enhanced Fighter Manoeuvrability demonstrator. This was the first international experimental aircraft development program administered by the U.S. government.

In 1996, Rockwell's space systems, aircraft divisions, Rocketdyne, and other units joined the Boeing Company.