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article number 454
article date 06-04-2015
copyright 2015 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Bill Boeing Enters Aviation, Part 1, From Enthusiast to Builder
by Harold Mansfield

From the book, Vision, A Saga of the Sky.

* * *

The rainy sky had cleared and it was California-warm. At old Dominguez Ranch, a few miles south of Los Angeles, the atmosphere was charged with anticipation and mystery. Twenty-five thousand people packed the grandstand to the top rails, while other thousands swarmed the edges of the field to see America’s first international aeronautical tournament.

It was January 1910. Like all America, but with a lusty boom spirit of its own, the California public was responding to the new allure of machines and inventions of all sorts.

“The motor car, the wireless, the flying machine! What will we have next?” Every man and boy took a second cousin’s pride in America’s Henry Ford and Thomas A. Edison.

Today this new-century public was on the broad Dominguez acreage that had been turned into a flying field. Milling crowds were eyeing in wonderment the latest Curtiss, Bleriot, and Farman flying machines, which stole attention from the balloons and dirigibles in the background.

William E. Boeing of Seattle was there. Tall, mustached, with intent eyes behind thin-rimmed glasses, he had the air of a distinguished college professor.

He was moving toward the landing area where a Farman biplane was approaching low. It was a machine larger than the others, with four wheels instead of three, two vertical tail planes in back, and a wide cloth-covered surface well out in front of the wings—a horizontal stabilizer.

As it jounced to a stop, its peppery motor idled down. The motor was a rotary type; fastened behind the lower wing, it spun around with the propeller, cylinders and all.

The aviator stepped down from his perch on the wing and walked toward the crowd. Boeing was out in front. “Monsieur Paulhan, my name is Boeing. I like your machine and the way you fly it.”

“Merci, Monsieur Boeing.” The Frenchman clicked his heels militarily and did a quick bow. Boeing asked him more about the Farman. Would it be possible for him to take a ride in it? “Oui, Monsieur,” said Paulhan, but added that it couldn’t be done until tomorrow after the endurance competition.

Boeing walked over to his motorcar and drove off. Next afternoon he was back, joining in the crowd’s roaring applause as Paulhan completed forty-seven laps around the 1.6 mile course. Glenn Curtiss had dropped out at ten and Charles Hamilton at twelve times around.

At the first opportunity Boeing asked again about the flight. “Oui, Monsieur Boeing.” Paulhan would be glad to take him. A little later. Boeing waited and watched while various dignitaries went up in the machine with Paulhan.

Another day was much the same. Every time he thought he was about to get a flight, someone with special priority would arrive. The flashing-eyed Frenchman was a great favorite. Thinking to make a more definite arrangement, Boeing visited the aviator at his hotel, but learned that the $10,000 cross-country event was on the next day’s program.

Paulhan gave rides in the Farman between events.

The course was to Lucky Baldwin’s ranch, twenty-three miles away, and back. When it came time for the birdmen to start, a breeze had come up. This was a dangerous thing; a gust from the side might throw them. All balked but Paulhan.

He twirled a scarf about his neck and climbed onto his place on the wing. The Farman lifted, lurched, then steadied into the wind. The crowd shouted. Some pursued along the country road on horses, motorcycles and automobiles. In one of the racing motor cars Madame Paulhan was praying aloud and crying.

Paulhan winged along at a height of 1,000 to 2,000 feet, turned successfully over the Baldwin Ranch, and made his way back to the field in an hour and two minutes.

When he arrived, the yelling crowd burst out of the grandstand and onto the field. Two men hoisted the birdman to their shoulders and the pressing, shouting thousands bore him happily off the field.

After Paulhan’s triumph, Boeing didn’t see him again. The wide spreading wings of the Farman, on which the visitor from Seattle had pictured himself aloft, were crated and hauled away. Cleanup crews swept the litter from Dominguez Field. “Well, how do you like that!”

Bill Boeing didn’t mention his disappointment to anyone, but it left a mark. He returned to Seattle, not knowing that Paulhan, too, had departed in a seething mood. The French aviator had been summoned to defend himself in court against the Wright brothers.

Aviation in 1910 was still a frail venture into the art of flying. When the Wright brothers had first taken up the challenge, they had found one of the keys to the art in the bicycles they built for a living.

If they turned a corner on a bicycle without leaning into the turn, they would spill. It was the same with the flying machine. They found that by pulling down on the trailing edge of the outside wing in a turn, they could make the machine bank properly, and this became their basic patent.

The court decided that the aileron devices which Paulhan and Glenn Curtiss had hinged to the trailing edges of their wings were a violation of the Wright patent. The Frenchman returned to Paris to build a plane without ailerons, with a wing that was limber at the back like trailing feathers on a bird.

There was many a trick to be learned about flying. In Europe and in America, the zeal of competition was fanning an adventurous faith. The flying machine would yet be important. To the inspired few, the newborn publication ‘Aircraft’ summed it up:

“You cannot tether time nor sky.
The time approaches, Sam must fly.”

When the noisy excitement of the Los Angeles air meet was re-created nine months later at Belmont Park, New York, Paulhan was not there, but Glenn Curtiss was on hand to defend the Gordon Bennett trophy he had won at Reims, France, the year before.

Glenn Curtiss was developing his own aircraft designs.

Among Curtiss’ fans was a Navy lieutenant named Conrad Westervelt. A couple of years earlier he had watched all day while Curtiss tested the wind with his finger and finally, in the still air at dusk, hopped two hundred feet.

Westervelt, an engineer, was serving as junior officer in the Navy Construction Corps at New York; he obtained permission to represent the Navy Department at the Belmont Park meet.

Enthralled, he watched LeBlanc of France take ten speed events with a Bleriot monoplane. With other spectators he gasped at the flying skill of the French aviator Latham in a 100-horsepower Antoinette racer. Claude Graham White of England won the Gordon Bennett trophy.

Ralph Johnstone, who flew to 9,714 feet in a 30-horsepower Wright flier, was the only American to set a world’s record.

Lieutenant Westervelt reported that aviation’s progress was astounding. The Navy should watch closely the developments in Europe as well as in this country.

Advanced to Assistant Naval Constructor, U.S.N., Westervelt was sent to Puget Sound Navy Yard and then to the Moran Shipyard in Seattle. At Seattle’s University Club, a host introduced him to Bill Boeing. “I expect you could give me a few pointers,” said Boeing. “I have a boat under construction that isn’t doing so well right now.”

Westervelt and Boeing, both bachelors, found many interests in common. Boeing also had studied engineering, in Sheffield Scientific School at Yale. Weekends they played bridge, cruised up the Sound in Boeing’s yacht, talked about things mechanical.

Westervelt came to know and appreciate some of the thoughts that were going on in Boeing’s active, even restless mind. If others thought him aloof, it was because they didn’t understand his background, Westervelt decided.

Boeing had been a lone operator since boyhood. His German-born father died when Bill was eight. His Viennese mother continued to bring him up in strict fashion. But with a spirit of independence and a supply of funds, he was on his own at an early age. The family had large holdings of timber and of iron ore in Minnesota’s fabulous Mesabi Range.

As part of his upbringing, young Bill went to school away from home, partly in America and partly in Switzerland.

When his mother remarried, Bill didn’t hit it off well with his stepfather. In 1903, a year before he was to graduate from Yale, he decided the time was ripe to move west and acquire timber on his own. He was twenty-two then.

His hunch proved a good one. It was this desire to do things, Westervelt thought, that explained Boeing’s outfitting of expeditions to Alaska, his purchase of the Heath shipyard on the Duwamish in order to finish building a yacht, and his interest when a flier named Terah Maroney brought a Curtiss type hydroplane to Seattle.

He and Boeing talked about airplanes and discovered a bond of interest in memories of the two great aviation meets of 1910. “Let’s go out and take a flight with Maroney,” Boeing proposed.

It was July 4, 1914. “I’ve been wanting to do this a long time,” Westervelt admitted on the way out. “Isn’t this a day for it?” The sky was blue. The Olympic Range behind them and the long Cascade skyline ahead were the rim on a bowl of beauty. In the center of the bowl lay Lake Washington.

At the edge of the lake, Maroney was ready to take them up. The plane was nosed into a board ramp, its pusher propeller idly flailing the air. The two straight wings were covered with muslin on the lower as well as the upper side. The machine was supported on rods that extended up from a sled-like float in the middle. The engine was hung between the two wings, its tall radiator almost making a back to the pilot’s seat.

The Curtis Hydroplane had a single float in the middle. Note early Curtiss ‘ailerons’ between the wings.

“Would you like to go first?” Westervelt asked.

“All right.” Boeing climbed up beside Maroney on the front edge of the lower wing and steadied his feet on the open foot rest that reminded him a little of a shoeshine stand. A mechanic in coveralls, agile as a log-boom jockey, was pushing the machine to head out into the water.

Maroney gunned the engine in short spurts. Boeing adjusted the goggles he had been given, then used both hands to hold on.

The taxiing out was jiggly, vibrant with noise. The race down-lake was a prolonged drive for take-off speed, wind in the face, water rushing at them. Boeing tightened his grip.

The water began to get less bumpy. He felt a shake and a boost. There was a surge of power against the small of his back. The din of the motor filled his ears as the water dropped away.

In another minute the whole landscape was tilting up beside him like a flat picture plate being raised on edge and he realized they were banking and turning away from the lake. Boeing looked down upon Westervelt and the tiny group on the shore. They seemed something detached, a detail in the picture plate.

Maroney was winging straight over trees and housetops, still climbing. They were perhaps a thousand feet in the air.

Boeing settled more comfortably in his seat. He felt a certain mastery he had been seeking. It all seemed right. The hour-glass shape of Seattle below with Puget Sound and the Olympics in the distance, unrolled before him.

Man was meant to fly.

When they got back Westervelt was eager for his turn, and he, too, was filled with enthusiasm after the flight. “Wonderful. We’ve got to do this more.”

Boeing, short of words, found Westy a screen on which his own feelings were displayed. “Let’s,” he said. More flights with Maroney cultivated the seed that was growing in Boeing’s mind.

One day the idea broke through. “There isn’t much to that machine of Maroney’s,” he told Westervelt. “I think we could build a better one.”

Westervelt hid his surprise. “Of course we could,” he said. “Would you like me to make some inquiries?”

Westervelt wrote to Jerome Hunsaker, who had established a wind tunnel and the country’s principal store of aviation technical information at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and to others.

What could they tell him about the theory of stability and control? About the Wright patents, now available for use, about weights, stresses, motors?

With the aid of his naval engineering tables, he studied strength requirements. He took a tape out to Maroney’s ramp and measured the supporting members of his plane, then took the figures home to check the stresses.

“My gosh,” he told Boeing. “There isn’t any reason this thing should hold together. The strength of the parts is just about equal to the load they have to carry.”

Glen Curtiss with his lightly build Hydroplane.

Herb Munter, the local exhibition flier, was getting a new plane ready for flights, down on Seattle’s Harbor Island. Westervelt suggested they talk to him. Munter’s headquarters were a fifty-foot shiplap hangar on the dredged-up sand flat.

They found Munter inside working on his craft.

“What type machine are you building?” Boeing asked.

“It’s a Munter.”

Boeing looked up and then fixed his eye on a wing rib. “You design this yourself?”

Munter’s pride was evident. He brushed back a shock of red hair. “This is my fourth.”

“Where are the others?”

“Washed out.”

“You built them all here?”

“No, the first two I built at home in the kitchen. Mother helped me. We went by a picture of the Curtiss in ‘Aerial Age.’ The last two have been my own. Main thing is to make them so they’re easy to take apart for crating. We’re on the move a lot. See how this comes apart? It’s going to be a honey.”

“Did you study engineering?” Boeing asked.

“No, I went to high school nights.”

Westervelt turned to look out the hangar door, the top half of which went up with pulleys, the bottom half lying down to form a ramp to a plank runway about three hundred feet long, twelve feet wide. “You take off from here?” he asked.

“Sure,” said Munter. “Works fine. So long as the wind is blowing in the right direction.”

“Do you think the public is interested in flying?” Boeing asked.

“Mostly they come out to see if you’re going to crash,” Munter grinned. “I’ve built my show around that. End up by diving straight at the ground. Then I pull up just high enough so the tail doesn’t hit.”

“Isn’t that terrifying?”

“Not bad. The thing won’t go any faster straight down than it will on the level. About forty or forty-five. But I let ‘em think it’s tough.”

Was that all there was to aviation, risking your neck like a trapeze performer?

The possibility of building a pleasure airplane for his own use intrigued Boeing. But he felt restless about other things developing in 1915. True, business was good around Seattle. Elliott Bay was being dredged and its silt poured out on mud flats to make more plant sites.

But across the world the Triple Alliance had swept all Europe into a mortal struggle. The great liner ‘Lusitania’ had been sunk by a German U-boat, taking the lives of 114 Americans among the 1,153 who perished.

Boeing knew that America could be drawn into the war.

Boeing was disturbed when he read the newspapers. The unnatural contrast between peace at home and war across the Atlantic was distressing. Perhaps because of his schooling and frequent trips abroad, Europe seemed nearer to him.

Wasn’t it likely that America would be drawn in? What were we doing to prepare? He thought of the urgent effort that must be going into airplane development in the countries at war, and then of the plane in which they had been flying. Wasn’t America falling behind?

One day, plans in mind, Boeing asked Herb Munter to join him and Westervelt for lunch. “We’re going to get a group together to build some airplanes,” he said. “Will you join us?”


“You’ll have to quit this exhibition flying.”

“But I’m under contract. I’ll have to finish the season.”

“Then come down and see us when you’ve finished it.”

They planned to start on two airplanes, to be called B & W’s for Boeing and Westervelt. They would get motors from the Hall-Scott plant in San Francisco.

They’d put Ed Heath, down at the shipyard, to work on the pontoons. Westervelt would have Jim Foley, a marine architect in his office at the Moran Shipyard, lay out the wings and body. Foley had a good notion of strength requirements and things like that.

Boeing wrote to Glenn Martin in Los Angeles.

“I’m going down there to learn to fly,” Boeing told Westervelt a few days later.

At Griffith Park in Los Angeles, Bill Boeing was an earnest pupil. He went out with Floyd Smith, the instructor, at dawn each day, while the air was quiet. Again about dusk it would be still enough for more instruction.

Before he returned to Seattle, Boeing bought a $10,000 seaplane from Martin. It looked huge when Floyd Smith uncrated it on Lake Washington in October 1915.

“I’d like you to show Herb Munter how to operate it,” Boeing told Smith. “He’s going to be our pilot.”

After Munter was briefly checked out, he and Boeing cruised the plane over Seattle. In behalf of an Aero Club that Boeing and Westervelt had formed, they tossed overboard a load of missile-shaped cards calling attention to America’s need for preparedness.

Munter was concerned with his flying. “Machine feels heavy,” he said. “It’s sure different from mine.”

The following Sunday Boeing watched while Munter made a flight with John Hull, one of the Aero Club members, as a passenger. Munter seemed to be banking unusually steeply over the lake. The plane slipped, dived straight for the water.

Boeing gasped. He saw it hit, then come up again to float motionless, wings on the water, tail in the air. A motorboat brought the two men ashore. Munter was dazed and apologetic.

Glenn Martin seaplanes were large.

“Forget the airplane,” said Boeing. “You and Hull are all right. That’s the main thing.”

The Martin was repaired in a new hangar Boeing had erected on Lake Union. Munter took it up again, anxious to prove he could manage it. Again he stalled on a turn, dove to the water, crushed the pontoons. Again he escaped unhurt.

“We won’t fly that any more,” Boeing decided. “Fix it up as a land plane and we’ll sell it. Wheels will make it lighter.”

At the Heath shipyard, the pontoons for the first B & W were progressing. Boeing examined the wood that had been selected, the fitting and glueing of the two plys that would form the pontoon structure.

“Keep it light,” he cautioned.

The old shipbuilder seemed affronted. “Mr. Boeing, they’re so light now, I’m afraid to open the door or they’ll blow out.”

The war in Europe was growing in intensity. The German embassy had warned American shipping against the submarine peril.

The French, British and Germans were sending up aviators with machine guns. Airplanes diving on each other with raking gunfire, wings and fuel tanks bursting into flame, aviators turning into fiery torches as they plummeted to earth; these were the blazing new images of warfare in the air.

Boeing and Westervelt knew the implications were grave. They talked of forming a permanent company to manufacture airplanes, but the Navy had other plans for Westervelt and he was ordered to report for duty in the East.

An appeal to Secretary Josephus Daniels only confirmed the Navy’s need. The international situation was growing more ominous. “Go ahead on your own,” Westervelt told Boeing regretfully.

Boeing asked Hunsaker at M.I.T. for advice and, on his recommendation, hired a brilliant Chinese engineer named T. Wong, a recent M.I.T. graduate.

In June 1916, the first B & W was finished and ready for flight.

The new B & W seaplane.

It was a crisp-looking airplane there on the ramp at Lake Union; wings straight and pert, spruce struts gleaming with new varnish. Its 125 horsepower and its span of fifty-two feet were identical with those of the Martin, which had been a great aid in determining dimensions, but it was lighter and its wing section was different.

Inside the hangar, Boeing kept looking at his watch. “Where is that Munter?”

Jim Foley said he would be along soon.

“I’ll take it out myself,” said Boeing.

He got in, taxied out to the middle of the lake, swung around to head north and gunned the Hall-Scott full out. The plane gathered speed. It skipped along for a time, throwing a good deal of spray.

Then Boeing lifted it into a quarter-mile straightaway flight and set it down again. When he got back to the ramp Munter had arrived. “Taxi it around and try out the controls,” Boeing said. “But don’t fly it.”

Munter taxied for several days, wondering if Boeing was afraid to let him fly. One day when he was practicing small hops off the water he concluded it was time for action. He hauled back on the stick, roared into the air and winged across the city to Lake Washington.

Boeing rushed over. “Don’t ever do that again unless I authorize it,” he said. Then he looked at the airplane with pride. “How was it?”


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