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Douglas Aircraft From the Late 1930s

By Judy Rumerman, U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission

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.

DC-9 Manufacturing

New, off the assembly line, DC-9 Super 80 commercial aircraft parked on the ramp at the McDonnell Douglas plant in Long Beach, California, January 1986.

DOD photo by Bill Thompson

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 tubojets. 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 canceled 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 signaled Douglas' end. First, its winning Manned Orbiting Laboratory design was canceled by the Defense 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.

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.

MDC became the fourth largest U.S. planebuilder, 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.


Right front view of a newly constructed and painted KC-10 Extender aircraft parked next to its commercial counterpart, the DC-10 wide body.

DOD photo by Bill Thompson

After 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.

In the 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.

In the 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.

In spite 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.

MDC's 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.

In 1975, 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 foreign militaries.

Possibly 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 Storm.

By the 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.

The A-12 program, which began in January 1988, experienced serious delays and technical difficulties and was canceled 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.

High 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 Canada.

In 1984, 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.

The aerospace industry had managed a broad recovery during the 1980s, principally due to the Reagan defense buildup. But that expansion leveled 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.

By 1991, 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 canceled and deliveries delayed, and MDC was forced to slow MD-11 production, with substantial layoffs.

MDC, the largest defense 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 totaled 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.

But to 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.

Note: This article was commissioned by and first appeared on NASA's U.S. Centennial of Flight web site. It appears here with permission. We gratefully acknowledge both the author and NASA.



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Early jetliners, such as this DC-8, were not friendly to the environment.

McDonnell-Douglas photo

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