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Douglas, Donald - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Donald Douglas, Social and Economic Impact

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Douglas Aircraft


Donald W. Douglas, Sr. was a designer and entrepreneur who founded what became the Douglas Aircraft Company in 1920. His innovative aircraft designs revolutionized civilian and military aviation. Among his most successful designs was the DC-3, which became the standard for civilian and military air transportation around the world and remains in service more than 60 years after its first flight in 1935. Douglas merged his company with the McDonnell Company in 1967, forming McDonnell Douglas. In 1996, McDonnell Douglas itself was merged with the Boeing Company, creating the world’s largest producer of civilian aircraft.

Personal Life

Donald W. Douglas, Sr. was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1892, the second son of William Douglas, a banker, and Dorothy Hagenlocker, a German immigrant. At an early age, he acquired a love for the sea and sailing that would later influence his work as an aircraft engineer. An energetic and bright child, Douglas was once sent home by a grade school teacher for correcting her pronunciation. Later, at Trinity Chapel School, Douglas developed his love for words as the editor of the school magazine and won a number of prizes, including a five-dollar gold piece for his essay on Trinity Church. At age 14, Douglas wrote and published a book of poetry, printing copies on a press in his home.

But Douglas soon found another source of inspiration. In 1908, Wilbur and Orville Wright announced the trial demonstration of their new biplane, the Flyer , at Fort Meyer, Virginia. A 16-year-old Douglas persuaded his mother to accompany him to Virginia to witness the trials, an experience that would change him forever.

In 1909, Douglas was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy, following the lead of his older brother, Harold. He spent much of his spare time building rubber band-powered airplane Models and he also tried, unsuccessfully, to build a rocket-powered model. The resulting smoke caused a panic when he launched it from the window of his room. In 1912, he left the Naval Academy because, as a Douglas Aircraft Company release would say years later, he could not “interest his officers in the airplane as a naval weapon.” He immediately transferred to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Finishing after only two years, he became the schools’ first aeronautical engineering graduate.

In later years, Douglas served as a member of the 1932 U.S. Olympic Yachting Crew and won the silver medal in sailing (six-meter class). He also garnered a series of prestigious awards for his aviation designs, including the Guggenheim Gold Medal and the Wright Brothers Trophy. Douglas was married twice and had four sons and one daughter.

Career Details

Douglas stayed at MIT for an additional year after graduating to work as a research assistant on the first wind tunnel, and also worked briefly for the Connecticut Aircraft Company on the Navy’s first dirigible.

In 1915, aviation pioneer Glenn Martin asked the “boy engineer” to join his company, the Glenn L. Martin Company of Los Angeles. Already on staff was a young pilot, William Boeing, who in later years would become the head of Douglas’ chief rival, the Boeing Company.

At Martin, Douglas designed his first airplane, a two-seat hydroplane later purchased by the U.S. Army Signal Corps. While Douglas became the company’s chief engineer, he left in 1916 for a civilian position as the chief aeronautical engineer with the Signal Corps. The Signal Corps had acquired several British and French airplanes for study but the Aircraft Production Board wanted only the automobile industry to construct airplanes, not the fledgling aircraft companies Douglas had worked for. An irate Douglas secretly copied all of the airplanes’ designs, gave them to American designers, and left the Signal Corps to return to Martin’s Cleveland plant in 1917, eventually becoming vice president of the company.

By 1920, Douglas was ready to strike out on his own. A 1941 profile of Douglas in the New York Herald captured his vision: “His dream, at the time, was a completely streamlined plane with engines and other obstructions completely concealed in the teardrop fuselage.” But Douglas had only $600 to work with and he knew he would need capital if he was going to realize his dream. He quickly found it in David Davis, a wealthy sportsman who wanted to become the first person to fly nonstop across the United States. Douglas and Davis formed a partnership to reach their goals, and later that year, the Davis-Douglas Company set up operations in the back room of a Los Angeles barbershop. It was there that Douglas designed the Cloudster, which was to carry Davis across the country and into the record books, or so they thought. The Cloudster was grounded by engine trouble in Texas, but the plane set many new design standards. It was the first aircraft to carry a useful payload greater than its own weight and its streamlined design, efficient instrument panel, and high-power engine also earned national recognition. Douglas convinced the Navy, which years before had shown little interest in Naval Academy cadet Douglas’ aviation interests, that the Cloudster could be adapted as a torpedo bomber. The Navy ordered three copies for $120,000.

Chronology: Donald Douglas

1892: Born.

1914: Graduated from MIT after two years.

1920: Founded Davis-Douglas Company.

1924: Douglas World Cruisers become first planes to circle the globe.

1928: Established Douglas Aircraft Company.

1932: Designed DC-2 for TWA.

1935: DC-3 debuted.

1958: DC-8 became company’s first jet-engine passenger plane.

1967: Merger created McDonnell Douglas.

1981: Died.

Davis soon dropped out of the company and Douglas turned to Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler, among others, for funds to produce the redesigned Cloudster. The planes were constructed in a former motion picture studio in Santa Monica, California. In 1923, the government placed an order for a plane capable of flying around the world and on April 6, 1924, four Douglas-designed World Cruisers set out from Seattle, Washington. Two eventually returned, becoming the first aircrafts to circle the globe. This stunning success produced a slew of orders, the first from the government of Norway and a year later, from the U.S. Post Office Department for its new air-mail delivery service.

In 1928, on the eve of the Great Depression, the company was reorganized into the Douglas Aircraft Company. The Great Depression posed a number of financial difficulties for American corporations, but Douglas Aircraft survived primarily through its work on military contracts. However, that would change in 1932 when the Boeing Company, a Douglas Aircraft rival, built the world’s first passenger aircraft, the Model 247. The plane was the fastest of its time, and Boeing built 60 for its subsidiary, United Airlines. But Boeing would not allow other airlines to purchase the Model 247 which prompted Transcontinental & Western Airlines (TWA) to ask Douglas to design a bigger, faster version of the Model 247. The result was the world’s most advanced airliner, a twin-engine, all-metal monoplane (single-wing) called the DC-2.

The DC-2 was an instant success. TWA ordered 25 copies, but also asked Douglas to design a larger version. Just as the DC-2 had supplanted Boeing’s Model 247, the newly minted DC-3 promptly overshadowed its predecessor. This twin-engine airliner could carry 21 passengers 1,480 miles at 195 miles per hour, and had sleeping berths for cross-country flights. Its wider body and larger wings lowered its operating costs for carriers and it quickly became the mainstay of military and civilian air transportation around the world. Douglas would make more than 10,000 of them by the end of its production run in 1945. A much larger four-engine redesign, the DC-4, was produced in 1938. By the beginning of World War II, Douglas airplanes carried 95 percent of the nation’s domestic passenger traffic.

As war approached, Douglas began designing fighter-bombers and other attack aircraft for friendly nations, and later, for the United States. Douglas’ SBD (Dauntless) dive bombers were credited with the destruction of four Japanese aircraft carriers at the Battle of Midway in 1942. During the War, Douglas organized the Aircraft War Production Council and served as its president.

Peace brought new challenges. Douglas Aircraft reentered the civilian aviation market with its new, propeller-driven DC-6 and DC-7 airliners. In 1950, Selig Altschul wrote in Aviation Week that Douglas Aircraft had “the strongest financial position of any major aircraft builder.” The advantage was short-lived, however, this was the jet age, and Douglas had to scramble to catch up with his competitors’ new technology. The company launched the DC-8 in 1958, and soon after the popular DC-9, but it was too little, too late to keep pace with the competition. Douglas continued to construct a number of military and transport aircraft, and even designed the Thor guided missile in 1957, which was redesigned years later to put satellites into orbit.

Douglas handed over the reins of his company to his son, Donald Jr., in 1957 but Douglas Aircraft never completely recovered from its late and costly entry into the jet aircraft market. In 1967, creditors forced Douglas Aircraft to merge with the rival McDonnell Aircraft Corporation. Douglas remained on the board of directors of the new McDonnell Douglas Corporation, but his days as an active company leader and designer were over. Douglas died of cancer in Palm Springs, California in 1981.

Social and Economic Impact

Douglas had a profound impact on the aviation industry. Not only did his aircraft become the first to circle the globe in 1924, but during World War II, his company built one sixth of the airplanes manufactured in the United States. His DC-3 became the workhorse of air transportation around the world, so much so that 60 years after its maiden flight, more than 2,000 DC-3s are still in service.

Part of his lasting fame comes from his belief in the “streamlined” design for aircraft. In the early years of flight, airplane engines, wing supports, landing gear, and pilots, were exposed to the open air. Douglas wanted all of these elements concealed within the fuselage of the craft. That way, the planes would not only be more efficient in flight, using less energy to fly longer and faster than before, but would be pleasing to the eye. Douglas’ designs not only achieved these goals, but paved the way for larger and more powerful aircraft.

Douglas also helped launch the careers of other noted aviation engineers, including Jack Northrup and James Kindelberger, who would later head their own aircraft manufacturing companies.

But Douglas wasn’t prepared for the rapid change from propeller-driven aircraft to jet-powered planes. The DC-8 passenger airliner, while produced in various versions until 1972 and used as a cargo transport as late as 1995, was a late entry into the market and its development costs were never fully recovered. Douglas often misread the market for aircraft, and while his planes were reliable, sturdy craft, he was unprepared for the leap into jet propulsion. In 1990, his youngest son, James, was laid off from McDonnell Douglas, marking the end of the Douglas family’s involvement with aircraft design and manufacture.

Douglas, Gavin (c. 1475–1522) - BIOGRAPHY,  , CRITICAL RECEPTION [next] [back] Double Indemnity

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