100 years ago today, a legend was born. 100 years ago, one of the biggest names in aviation was signed into existence. 100 years ago, the Douglas Aircraft Company opened its doors to the world.
When you think of Douglas, you may think of the DC-3, the DC-10, or maybe their demise in the form of a merger with Boeing. You’d be correct in thinking that those were part of Douglas’s storied history, but there is so much more to it than just that. Douglas’s history is filled with market dominance, financial troubles, military experience, and so much more. Today, on what would be Douglas’s 100th anniversary, we will dive in to see how Douglas was founded, some important aircraft from the company, their ultimate demise and many mergers, and everything else that made Douglas Aircraft what it was.
Douglas Aircraft Corporation (DAC) was founded on July 22, 1921 by Donald Wills Douglas Sr, in Santa Monica, CA. The company was founded after the ending of the Davis-Douglas company.
DAC began with quick success, with the Douglas DT being their first military contract, being Contract No. 53305. The Douglas DT was a torpedo bomber used on early aircraft carriers such as USS Langley. The DT was an average aircraft, but it was developed into the aircraft that would put DAC on the map, the Douglas World Cruiser.
The World Cruiser was first produced as a variant of the DT for the military as an aircraft intended to be flown around the world. It was also the first major project for Jack Northrop, who helped design the fuel systems (Northrop would later go on to create what would ultimately become Northrop Grumman). On April 6,1924, four Douglas World Cruisers left Seattle, WA on a journey west around the world. Three of the four aircraft (one went down over the Atlantic) returned on the 28th of September, making a Douglas aircraft the first to have flown around the world, bringing great fame to DAC.
Douglas World Traveller. Photo Credit
The First Legend
Years went by and DAC continued to thrive making both military torpedo bombers, but also civilian aircraft such as airmail planes. But it wasn’t until August 2nd, 1932 Donald Douglas got a letter that he would call “The birth certificate of all the DC ships”. A letter that called for an all-metal, Tri-motor airliner. Eventually, going through many changes, the twin-engine DC-1 was born, which first flew on July 1st, 1933. Little did the people at Douglas know that the single DC-1 that was made would begin a saga that would help bring DAC to market dominance in the pre-war with planes like the DC-2, DC-3, and the DC-4.
Fast forward to 1934, and you find yourself with the widely successful DC-2, and in 1936, the DC-3 took to the skies and changed the aviation industry, bringing travel to places that never before had airline service. The DC-3 was a massive success, and airlines flocked to get their hands on one. The DC-3 was used in the military as the C-47, and it is still in service today, a testament to DAC’s genius design that was the DC-3.
A United Douglas DC-3 sits on the apron. Photo Credit
WWII is raging in Europe and in the Pacific, and America is in the thick of it, with soldiers on both sides of the world and manufacturers back at home have converted to making war products. DAC has switched from making airliners and civilian aircraft to making military aircraft. DAC also joined the BVD (Boeing-Vega-Douglas) program that helped produce the famous B-17.
Not only did Douglas play a role in making the B-17, but they proved themselves with many of their own designs, the first of which was the C-47, a military variant of the DC-3. The C-47 “Thats All Brother” was the first aircraft to reach the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. The C-47 lives on after the war with some being converted to civilian passenger aircraft, while others served in the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Though the C-47 wasn’t the only DAC-made aircraft that served in the war. The SBD-3 Dauntless was another aircraft made by Douglas, a dive bomber, and it was one of the most rugged planes of the early part of the war. Another dive bomber DAC made, the BTD, was produced but it never saw combat.
DAC also made attack aircraft during the war, such as the A-20 Havoc and A-26 Invader. Overall, DAC produced over 30,000 aircraft during WWII, and their workforce grew to over 160,000. Overall, Douglas ranked 5th for overall value of it’s wartime products.
USAF C-47’s lined up outside the terminal of Berlin Tempelhof Airport. Photo Credit
End of the Propliners
After WWII, Douglas had to make major cutbacks on its workforce due to the lack of government orders and the surplus of aircraft, this caused DAC to let go of nearly 100,000 workers. Despite that, DAC produced it’s improved DC-4, the DC-6. And in 1953 rolled out the ultimate propeller-driven airliner — and their final propeller airliner, the DC-7. Throughout the years of the Douglas propliners, DAC topped out by having 90% of the market share for passenger airliners — meaning that 90% of airliners flying were Douglas-made. That’s something that’s never been seen since in the airliner industry.
Military Jets, Passenger Jets!
By the late 1940’s and early 1950’s DAC was pioneering with jet technology, in their military sector at least. Their first, the F3D, was rolled out in 1948, then the F4D in 1951. This jet technology wouldn’t reach the airliner industry until 1958.
The year was 1954, and the military called for a design of a jet aircraft that could be used as a tanker. Douglas, Boeing, and many others worked on their aircraft designs. Boeing ultimately won the contract with their KC-135, which would go on to inspire the 707 which would enter service in 1957 (the “Million dollar gamble” as the 707 was sometimes called, is credited as to saving Boeing from going under). DAC, on the other hand, had a design which would become the DC-8, but was skeptical to create a jetliner so early, but the DC-8 still entered service in 1958. The year that DAC waited to roll out the DC-8 would put them behind Boeing for years to come. Despite this, the DC-8 was a massive success, winning many airlines over the 707 and set Douglas on the road to success with many more jet aircraft. The DC-8 came in many variants, and even had a -70 version, which had CFM-56 engines and allowed the DC-8 to outlive the 707 in civilian service. The DC-8 broke many records too. A DC-8 was the first airliner to break the speed of sound, and the DC-8-63 briefly held the record as the largest airliner in the world until Boeing’s 747 came around.
Photo taken from the DC-8’s supersonic flight, becoming the first airliner to achieve such a feat. Photo Credit
The Little Twinjet That Could
The day is February 25, 1965 and DAC has just completed the first flight of it’s new DC-9 jet, which would become the first examples of the most successful airliner series the company will ever make, going on to be the basis of the MD-80, MD-90, and the MD-95/717.
The original design was a smaller DC-8, still being a quad jet. But engine technology had advanced between 1958 and 1965, so a twinjet design was ultimately chosen for the small DC-9. The DC-9 entered service in December of the same year with Delta Air Lines, and from then on out it was a huge success, ultimately amassing to over 900 of the type being made. Communities that were still being served my propeller-driven aircraft now saw faster and larger jets, and Boeing never caught up in the regional airliner market until the rollout of their 737-100/200 a few years later.
A TWA DC-9 sits on the apron on a cold day in Cleveland. Photo Credit
The McDonnell Douglas Era
The year was 1967, and Douglas was of all things, struggling. They had massive success and so many orders, but couldn’t expand production to meet the demand of their DC-8, DC-9, and A-4 Skyhawk needs, and they needed cash to continue developing the DC-10. DAC was in trouble, and had no choice but to merge with another company.
They found that merger in McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, and on April 28, 1967, the two companies merged to become McDonnell Douglas Corporation. DAC became a wholly owned subsidiary of the company and Donald Douglas was made honorary chairman at McDonnell Douglas where he served until his death in 1981.
New Company, Same Great Planes
After years of development, a new aircraft was finally ready to be rolled out of Douglas’s Long Beach factory. This aircraft was originally requested by AA to be an “air bus”, and DAC lived up to that promise with the new DC-10. The new aircraft was a trijet, because Twinjets crossing the ocean at this time was virtually unheard of. The year was 1970 when the DC-10 made its first flight, and it entered service in 1971. But the DC-10 had its problems, cargo doors flying open and rapid depressurization situations caused many to crash, and the type was grounded. The issues were fixed, and the DC-10 flew again and became known for being a workhorse for airlines, despite its tarnished safety record. The DC-10 would go on to become a very successful cargo aircraft too, as well as becoming a military tanker in the form of the KC-10, and a firefighting plane.
Going back in time, we see one of the best fighter aircraft of Vietnam, the F-4 Phantom II. It originally entered service in 1961, being produced by McDonnell Aircraft. After the merger with Douglas, McDonnell Douglas continued to produce the F-4 Phantom until 1981, and the U.S. flew the type in combat until until 1996 — a testament to the great products made by McDonnell Douglas.
The year was 1979, and McDonnell Douglas has just introduced the MD-80 when it rolled out of the Long Beach factory, it’s first flight was on October 18. The MD-80 was basically an improved DC-9, with newer JT8D engines, a longer fuselage, and new avionics. It entered service in 1980, and became the most produced airliner for DAC and McDonnell, amassing over 1,100 built. It was a huge success for McDonnell Douglas, but they were already looking to make a replacement in the MD-90 by the early 1990’s. It was a re-engined MD-80 again with a new longer fuselage, but it wasn’t met with much success.
Left to right: Continental DC-10, USAF F-4 Phantom II, SAS MD-80. Photo Credit(s)
In the year of 1990, McDonnell Douglas’s newest aircraft out of Long Beach entered service, the largest trijet ever created, the MD-11. It was basically a stretched DC-10 with improved engines, new wings, and winglets. The MD-11 was a massive project, and despite reasonable sales (200 produced) of the type, it put a big dent in the company’s finances.
Many people know the C-17 Globemaster as a Boeing aircraft. And in a sense it is, but McDonnell Douglas also played a role in its design and production of the C-17, which was made to replace the C-141. The Globemaster would go on to outlive Douglas itself, being produced by Boeing until 2015.
One Last Plane
McDonnell Douglas was dying. They had been having financial trouble throughout the late 80’s and 90’s, but in 1995 it was hitting home. But that didn’t stop McDonnell Douglas from creating its last airliner, the MD-95. The MD-95 may have looked like the DC-9 (it even had the same length as the DC-9-30), but it was different in every aspect. New wings, new tail, new engines, new avionics, everything was all new and modern. But even before the little new Twinjet had it’s chance to shine, Boeing took over and merged with McDonnell Douglas. Many thought that would be the end of the Long Beach factory, but Boeing found a home for the MD-95 in its ranks, naming it the 717. It was produced with moderate success until 2006 when production of the 717 ceased after 156 examples had been made. The moment the last 717 rolled off the production line, it marked 41 years of continuous production of the DC-9 and its derivatives.
A Boeing 717 sits on the apron at the Boeing factory. Photo Credit
The Demise of a Legend
By the late 1990’s, McDonnell Douglas’s financial problems were getting severe. The company designed a few concept aircraft to try and save the company, such as the MD-12, a double-decker quad jet, and twin-engine version of the MD-11, among others. The latter of which, in the the opinion of some, had the potential to save the company. The proposal was denied though, as McDonnell Douglas was busy just trying to stay afloat.
Meanwhile, Boeing had just acquired North American Aviation in 1996, and was poised to become the largest manufacturer in the world. The tables had turned on McDonnel Douglas and now it was Boeing breathing down their necks. Yet McDonnell Douglas survived for another year, until the inevitable happened. In August of 1997, Boeing bought out McDonnell Douglas for $13.3 billion in stocks. McDonnell Douglas was gone, the last of DAC was gone, but the legacy of the company lived on.
Douglas may have been bought out and merged with its long-time rival, but it’s contributions to the aviation industry have lived on. Even it’s earliest airliners in the DC-3 and DC-4 still fly for airlines to this day. The MD-80 and the 717 are still in service with many airlines around the world, technologies the company pioneered are still being used today. And the Long Beach factory that produced Douglas aircraft for decades was used by Boeing, when the last C-17 Globemaster rolled off the production line late 2015. And believe it for not, Boeing’s logo is actually a simplified version of McDonnell Douglas’s logo. Now that is something to be proud of. The company may be gone, but Donald Douglas and his legacy live on to this day.
Douglas’s iconic Long Beach factory working through the night on new MD-80’s. Photo Credit
Additional Aircraft Information (In case you want to know more about some of Douglas’s more well known aircraft that weren’t mentioned in the main topic):
The A-20 was a night fighter, bomber, and attack aircraft. It served with many allied countries during World War II, including the Soviet Air Force, USAF, RAF, and French Air Force. 7,478 were produced.
The Douglas DC-4 is a quad-engined 1940s era airliner. 80 DC-4 and 1,163 C-54 (military variant) aircraft were produced. After the war, many C-54 planes were converted to fly passengers.
The DC-5 was twin-engined propeller driven aircraft, 20 were built in total. The prototype DC-5 actually became William Boeing’s personal airplane, which he named Rover.
The F4D Skyray is a carrier based interceptor. It was the first carrier based aircraft to break an all time speed record of 752 miles per hour. It was produced from 1950 to 1958.
McDonnell Douglas MD-90
The MD-90 is a single-aisle twinjet produced by Douglas, derived from the DC-9. Production lasted 116 aircraft, before it was shut down in 2000. The majority of these aircraft were delivered to Delta Airlines and competed with the Airbus A320 as well as Boeing 737.
The Douglas SBD-3 was an American dive-bomber used in the Pacific theater of World War 2. These planes were rugged,as many of the crew members that flew on the Dauntless stated. Many crews came back with bullet holes across the aircraft and could survive enemy aircraft on there tails for extended periods of time. The SBD has shorter rounded wings instead of foldable wings to take up less space on the carriers, by doing this it became much lighter and much more sturdy than many other aircraft. The SBD was a great plane to wipe out the Imperial Japanese ships and fortifications hidden in the dense forest of the pacific jungle islands. Something that made the Dauntless identifiable were the dive flaps, these flaps extended both up and down on the wings. These flaps had 3 inch holes in them to let air run through them stabilizing the aircraft during the dive at about 250 mph. The plane was great with defense and offense. The pilot had twin Browning .50 caliber heavy machine guns, while the tail gunner on the back of the plane had twin browning .30 caliber machine guns to protect the plane. The SBD was nick named “slow but deadly”.It also had 3 hard points across the aircraft to hold multiple bomb payloads. The wing hard points would hold a 100 pound bomb on each. While the center hard point would hold the heaviest load, it could hold up to a 1000 pound bomb or a sea mine that would land and the water and blow up once a ship ran into it. The aircraft was used all the way up until about 1942 until it was replaced with better aircraft.In conclusion, the Douglas SBD-3 was a great dive bomber used in the Pacific Theater.
Credit: @AviationFreak’s brother
I would like to thank you for stopping by and hearing a bit about one of the most well-known aircraft manufacturers of its time. Hopefully you learned something new, cause I know I sure did while researching. Thanks for stopping by, and have a great day IFC!