Pioneers in Aviation: Donald Wills Douglas, Sr

Donald Wills Douglas, Sr was a real aviation Pioneer, from actually viewing the trials of the Wright Flyer, to creating the Douglas Cloudster, and creating the company that would eventually go up against Boeing, building some of the most famous aircraft in the world, even parts of the Saturn V! You could say he has some experience in the world of aviation.

Born April 6th 1892 in Brooklyn New York, the son of an assistant cashier at the National Park Bank. Being an early enthusiast of aviation, in autumn 1908 at the age of 16, he convinced his mother to take him to see the Fort Myer trials of the Wright Flyer. Graduating in 1909, he enrolled in the United States Naval Academy. There are stories of Douglas building model airplanes out of rubber bands and motors in his dormitory at Annapolis. Then flying them on the grounds of the academy’s armory. In 1912 he resigned from the academy to pursue his dream of a career in aeronautical engineering. Applying to jobs at Grover Loening and Glenn Curtiss, and being rejected, he ended up enrolling in MIT. He received a Bachelors of Science in Aeronautical Engineering in 1914. He was the first person to ever receive this degree because he completed the 4 year course in half that time.

Donald W Douglas
Donald W Douglas, Sr holding a prototype of the DC-8 Circa 1955

In 1915 after a year working as an assistant to a professor at MIT, Douglas joined the Connecticut Aircraft Company, and was part of the team that designed the DN-1, the Navy’s first Dirigible (also known as an airship). That august, he left to start working for the Glenn Martin Company, where he was the Chief Engineer, at the young age of 23. During his time there he designed the Martin S seaplane. Not long after that, Douglas left when Glenn Martin merged with the Wright Company. He became the Chief Civilian Aeronautical engineer, of the Aviation section of the US Army Signal Corps. Then a short time after that he moved back to the new Glenn L. Martin Company, as the Chief Engineer, designing the Martin MB-1 bomber in his time there.

Glen Martin MB-1
Glen Martin MB-1 designed by Donald Wills Douglas, Sr

In March of 1920 he gave up his job, which was paying $10,000 a year ($125,000 in today’s money) and moved to California where he had met his wife Charlotte Marguerite Ogg. There he started his own aircraft company, the Davis-Douglas Company. The Davis was from David Davis a millionaire, and his financing partner, who payed $40,000 into the company. The aim of the company was to develop an aircraft that could fly from coast to coast non-stop. This aircraft was called the Douglas Cloudster, and unfortunately failed in its challenge. Although it didn’t achieve the challenge, it was the first airplane that could carry a payload greater than it’s own weight. The failure was too much for Davis, who left the partnership, and in 1921 Douglas founded the Douglas Aircraft Company.

The Douglas Cloudster
The Douglas Cloudster made by the Davis-Douglas company

Douglas was now regarded as a great engineer and a bold entrepreneur. Even though his Cloudster had failed, his new company, the Douglas Aircraft Company was a bit hit. In 1922 he employed 68 people, but with the increase in sales due to WW2, and the increase in passenger planes, the Douglas Aircraft Company became the 4th largest company in the United States. A year and a half before Pearl Harbour, he was already writing about how it “was the hour of destiny for American aviation”. Until 1957 Douglas was President of the Company, until he passed that position over to his son when he retired, and became the Chairman. In 1967 Douglas Aircraft Company Merged with McDonnell Aircraft to form McDonnell Douglas. This company would then go on to merge with Boeing in 1997.

Donald W Douglas, Sr
Donald W Douglas, Sr standing next to a new DC-7

Donald Wills Douglas, Sr died aged 88 on February 2nd, 1981. He is widely regarded as a great engineer and businessman, with plenty of awards to his name, and is listed as 7th in Flying’s magazines 51 heroes of aviation.

The Abandoned Buran Launch Site

So on my recent search for history on the Buran Shuttle, I came across this blog post. Although I had to use the Wayback machine to see it, it shows some great shots of the place where the Buran Shuttle used to launch.

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The images show the way that the test site has been left to rust away. Although still obviously a launch site, the stone is breaking, and the machines obviously havn’t been used in a long time.

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As you can see, there is still rubbish piled up, remains of old vehicles, and random scrap metal everywhere. Almost like everyone just up and left. If you have read any of my other posts on the Buran, you will know that is basically what happened. Around 1993, the USSR crumbled and the Buran shuttle programme was left behind. This is why this launch site is still like this, and why urban explorers can go out and take pictures.

On top of this, they found a few other things, including an actual Buran shuttle. Although not a working version, more of a prototype, this shuttle shows how it probably would have looked back in the day. I believe this is the version found at the Gagarin museum in the Baikonur Cosmodrome, close to the launch site found in these pictures. This one is on display to the public, and was refurbished in 2007.

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The last thing that they found was a large machine. More specifically, the machine used to transport the Shuttle to the launch site. A colossal platform, that could move the shuttle and the solid rocket boosters needed for the flight. Unfortunately it was only ever used once in 1988, the only BUran flight ever. So it hasn’t seen much action. It was different to the USA’s Crawler-transporter because it was pulled by 5 diesel trains.

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The Abandoned Buran Wind Tunnel Test

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40km Southeast of Moscow in the back corner of Zhukovsky International Airport, there is an an interesting remnant of the space race just left to rot. These are a set of 15 pictures taken by Aleksander Markin on this Flickr album. It shows a 1/3rd scale model of the Buran Orbiter. According to Markin, the replica is made almost entirely out of wood, and was used as a wind tunnel test when developing the aerodynamics.

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When the Buran shuttle program fell into disarray, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, these prototypes and test were just left behind in the change. In the intervening years, they have been left the rot. Many shuttles and tests have been found by urban explorers, but many are still out there. In another recent post I talk about a similar Buran prototype left to rot away in an impressive warehouse. You can find that post here.