Pioneers in Aviation: William Boeing

William Boeing was an aviator with a different upbringing than what you would imagine, nothing to do with engineering or even military. Aiming to profit from the Northwest timber industry from an early age, yet he went on to create one of the biggest aerospace companies ever known, one known in almost all households.

William Boeing

Born October 1st 1881 in Detroit, Michigan to a wealthy mining engineer Wilhelm Böing and Marie M. Ortmann. From Germany and Austria. Boeing Sr had made his fortune through timber and mineral rights near Lake Superior in North America. Up until 1899 young Boeing was educated in Vevey, Switzerland, when he returned he changed his name to William Boeing. Studying at Yale University, Boeing left before graduating in 1903. Starting a new life in Grays Harbour, Washington, he aimed to profit from the lands that he had inherited from his father, who had died of Influenza in 1890. He learned the logging business on his own, eventually buying more timber land and adding more wealth to the approximately $1 million estate left to him (around £26.8 in today’s money) by his parents. This included expeditions to Alaska. One of the main reasons for his success was due to him shipping lumber to the east coast using the Panama Canal.

In 1908 he moved to Seattle, to establish the Greenwood Timber company. He started off by living in an apartment hotel, but after just a year he got elected as a member of the Highlands, a brand-new, exclusive residential suburb. During this time, Boeing was interested in boats, and often experimented with boat designs. So much so in 1910 he bought the Heath shipyard on the Duwamish River. This was so he could build a yacht, named the Taconite, after the mineral that made his father’s fortune. His love of aircraft came from a trip while in Seattle in 1909, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition was a world’s fair publicizing development in the Pacific Northwest. Boeing was visiting as he had interests in the area. While there he saw a manned flight, and he became fascinated.

Taconite
The Taconite, the 125ft teak yaght built by Boeing

In 1910 Boeing attended an aviation meet in Los Angeles, where he tried to get a ride on a boxy biplane, he didn’t succeed. This didn’t deter him though, he took flying lessons at the Glenn L. Martin Fling School in Los Angeles, and even purchased one of his planes, a Martin TA Hydroaeroplane. James Floyd Smith, a Martin pilot travelled to Seattle to assemble Boeing’s plane and teach him how to fly it. Smith assembled the plane in a tent hanger on the shore of Lake Union, and so Boeing became a pilot. At some point, Boeing’s test pilot broke the plane enough for it to be unusable. Martin informed Boeing that the parts would take months to become available, obviously this was an inconvenience. In 1915, Boeing was introduced to Navy Lieutenant G. Conrad Westervelt, and they soon became close friends. When a mutual friend brought a Curtis-type hydroplane to Seattle later that year, they took turns flying it over lake washington. After just a few trips, Boeing and Westervelt felt that they could build a better airplane. Boeing decided to buy an old boat works on the Duwamish river in Seattle for his factory and set up shop, he was now in the aircraft business.

Boeing Plant
The Boeing Plant on the Duwamish River around 1917

Together with Westervelt they built and flew the B&W seaplane. This was an amphibious biplane that had outstanding performance compared to it’s competitors. This sealed the deal for him, and Westervelt. Together they founded Pacific Aero Products Co in 1916. Their first plane, basically the B&W Seaplane was named the Boeing Model 1. At this time, the world was in the middle of World War 1, and on April 8th 1917, the United States joined the fight. Suddenly there was a need for defence manufacturers. A month later, The name was changed from Pacific Aero Products, to the Boeing Airplane Company. The United States Navy ordered 50 planes from Boeing. When the war ended, the need for military aircraft dwindled, and Boeing started concentrating on the lucrative supply of commercial aircraft. He secured mass contracts to supply airmail, and also created a passenger airline that would later go on to become United Airlines.

B&W Seaplane
The B&W Seaplane, sitting on the water

In 1934 the Boeing company had become massive considering the time. It had an airmail business, commercial airline, manufacturing of planes and many other branches of interest. This sparked controversy in the US government, and he was accused of monopolistic practices. That year the Air Mail Act forced airplane companies to separate flight operations from the manufacturing of planes. At this point Boeing separated himself from the company, and divested himself of ownership. The company was then split into three sections. The United Aircraft Corporation a manufacturing arm, based in the east, Now United TechnologiesUnited Airlines which handled flight operations, and still functions as such, and Boeing Airplane Company which was manufacturing based in the west, this went on to become the Boeing Company that we all know today. By 1937 he had started spending most of his time breeding horses, and the new Boeing Company would not become truly successful until World War 2.

Boeing spent the remainder of his life in property development, and the breeding of thoroughbred horses. He was said to be worried about the tensions in the Pacific Northwest due to WW2. This led him to purchase a 650 acre farm east of Seattle. He called it “Aldarra”. He would go on to die September 28th, 1956 at the age of 74 (a year before the release of the release of the 707). He died of a heart attack while on his yacht. His estate was eventually sold off and turned into a golf course in 2001, but parts still remain today, including Boeing’s main home, and two smaller houses. His house in the Highlands was also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Also a creek running near his house in the Highlands was renamed Boeing Creek after him.

Boeing Creek
The Creek named after Boeing, running near his house in the Highlands

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.