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.