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  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: Automotive … Planes and Trains Too

article number 458
article date 06-18-2015
copyright 2015 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Bill Boeing Enters Aviation, Part 2, Builds Airplanes for the Navy
by Harold Mansfield
   

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

* * *

Learning Things

The twenty-one men working for Bill Boeing gained zeal from the sight of their B & W in the air, and from Engineer Wong’s promises of something better.

Boeing’s view of the future developed sharper outlines, less confused with the question of war or peace. One day the airplane would be accepted as a means of transportation.

It was time to incorporate a company. Boeing asked his attorneys to draft the broadest possible articles. Their charter would allow them to manufacture airplanes or other products, operate a flying school, and “act as a common carrier of passengers and freight by aerial navigation.”

On July 15, 1916, the articles of the Pacific Aero Products Company were approved by the three incorporating trustees: William F. Boeing, president; E. N. Gott, Boeing’s cousin, vice president; J. C. Foley, secretary.

The remaining shipbuilding work at the Heath yard was closed out. Carpenters took up the ways, put in a new floor and laid out a clean shop.

The two B & W’s had followed closely the lines of the Curtiss and the Martin. Engineer T. Wong had other ideas for the next plane, which he identified as Type C.

Wong had a passion for study. At M.I.T. he was fascinated by the work of Gustave Eiffel, builder of the Paris tower, whose writings Jerome Hunsaker had translated.

Eiffel had measured wind forces to learn their effects on his tower structure. With a flat plate tilted in various ways, he’d learned about the loads on a plane surface with air rushing by it, and that was what an airplane was. It was a delicate balance of forces in four directions, the pull of the propeller against the drag of the machine through the air; the lift of the wing against the downward pull of gravity.

The wind lifted the wing as it would lift your hand when you’d hold it out of a moving car and tilt it upward, or as it pushed against Gustave Eiffel’s flat plate. Wong wanted to apply some of Eiffel’s calculations in designing the new Model C for Mr. Boeing.

“We’ve learned some things that the Wright brothers didn’t know,” Wong told General Manager Foley. “Now we know how to make a plane inherently stable, so it will return to normal if it is forced off balance in any direction.”

“That’s the way it should be,” said Foley.

“We don’t need a vertical fin on the tail to stabilize it, because if we tilt the wings up—that’s called dihedral—you can tip the plane one way or the other and it will come back level. We can also do away with the horizontal stabilizer by staggering the top wing ahead of the lower one to give a broad surface.

Then we’ll balance the elevator, put part of it ahead of the hinge line, so it will be easier to move. The part in front of the hinge will catch the wind on the opposite side and help the pilot.”

Foley couldn’t see any flaws in Wong’s concepts. Model C went from theory to form.

The plight of the Allies was growing more desperate. America couldn’t stay on the sidelines if its friends were losing. Commander Westervelt wrote that the Navy would surely be buying some school machines. The chance for a contract would be good if the Model C could meet Navy requirements. Bill Boeing told the men to finish it as fast as they could, but to make it right.

Everyone was at the hangar for the first flight of the “C,” November 23, 1916. The day was bright and cool, and there was a low wind from the southwest.

All was in readiness, but not Herb Munter. For the past week, following Boeing’s instructions, he had been taxiing the plane and taking short jumps off the water. He was unhappy about the controls. “You can’t fly a plane with that tiny rudder and no stabilizers on the tail,” Herb insisted.

Wong was polite but firm. “The controls have been thoroughly proved out.” He turned to Boeing with reassurance. “The model has been in the wind tunnel for six hours. Mr. Munter will feel differently about it when he gets it in the air.”

Foley looked at Munter. “You’re not the engineer, you’re the driver,” he said.

“I know something about airplanes and it doesn’t look right to me,” said Munter.

“It’s just something new that you’ve got to get used to,” Boeing interposed. “Let’s get started.”

   
Boeing Model C after inclusion of vertical stabilizer.

Munter lifted the airplane off Lake Union without trouble. He climbed to about two hundred feet. He knew he’d have to turn promptly to the right to stay over water while trying things out. He pushed the rudder pedal cautiously. Better not try the aileron yet; one thing at a time. If he got into too steep a bank, it would be hard to right it again without a stabilizing fin.

The plane banked itself, without aileron. “Wong’s dihedral did that—the up-tilt of the wings,” Munter thought.

He shoved the stick to the left to decrease the bank with opposite aileron. Instead, it went into a steeper bank. Muscles and mind straining, he jammed his foot hard on the rudder pedal to straighten it out. The turn tightened instead. He had a sinking feeling. “Why did I give in?”

He could see he was running out of lake; Queen Anne Hill ahead. If the plane banked any steeper he would spiral into a spin and he wouldn’t have enough altitude to pull it out. He thought of the hole he had made in the lake twice before.

Munter was pushing now with all the strength of his arms and legs. His body against the machine. He was leaning and pressing and urging, almost out of the narrow cockpit. He thought he felt a favorable response.

The plane was slowly beginning to straighten. He pressed harder. It was straightening out. He headed down and slapped the unruly craft onto Lake Union with a solid smack.

Herb Munter taxied back to the ramp and climbed out, wrenched off his helmet and stomped over to the waiting group. “Put on some more rudder and some fin.”

“It has enough,” said Wong.

Munter just looked at him.

“You’d better take it out again and get used to it,” Ed Gott suggested.

“I’ll take it out again when you’ve made the changes,” Herb said. He was shaking.

“But there is no reason to change it,” said Wong. “You have not given it a full trial.”

“She’s going to stay right here till you do,” Munter said, and walked off.

It was in January 1917 when Munter again cranked up the Hall-Scott to taxi the “C,” now sporting a large rudder and a vertical stabilizer in front of it, but still without horizontal stabilizers. Alternating with Ed Hubbard, a new pilot, he taxied it for several weeks, just up to flying speed.

“Keep taxiing it and getting the feel of it,” Boeing told them. “Hop off a little, but don’t fly it.” It was clear he wasn’t taking any chances. Munter made the most of the limitation. For weeks he practiced take-offs and landings, sharpening his skill.

Gradually the airplane took on a friendly feel. He found he could land it on the forward step of the pontoons, skating along in perfect balance like a ski jumper converting from air to snow. In bad weather he liked the solid footing of the twin pontoons. He was thankful that Boeing and Westervelt were boat men who appreciated stability on the water.

   

He began to feel the stability, too, of the plane’s wing stagger and dihedral angle when he hopped off the water. It felt comfortable.

With the tail fixed, Wong’s other ideas seemed to have worked out all right. “Why shouldn’t an airplane be stable?” Munter thought. “It ought to fly itself, and I can just go along for the ride.”

But the importance of a complete flight test was growing. Two more planes were coming along and they needed to know more about the airplane’s control system, its performance. The war Situation was growing worse and Boeing was talking about adding floor space so a hundred more men could be employed.

The Kaiser had announced that Germany would no longer be bound by the Sussex Pledge protecting neutral shipping. In a short period, eight American ships were sent to the bottom of the Atlantic by U-boats. On April 8, 1917, President Wilson requested and Congress quickly agreed to a declaration of war.

Next day, Boeing’s permission in hand, Herb Munter lifted the “C” off Lake Union and churned straight on into the sky. The new controls seemed to work well. “It’s O.K.,” he announced on landing.

Boeing moved at once. Now they could demonstrate the plane to the Navy and go after an order. He called a meeting of the three trustees, changed the company name to Boeing Airplane Company, headed for Washington to talk about war business.

Boeing hadn’t been long in the East when a wire came from Foley that Wong was resigning. Boeing tried locating engineers in the East, then returned to see if there weren’t some seniors at the University of Washington he could use. He had offered to make the University a gift of a wind tunnel like the ones at M.I.T. and in Washington, D. C., if they’d establish a course in aeronautics.

Professor C. C. Moore, head of mechanics and masonry at the school of civil engineering, walked over to one of the seniors. “You’re wanted in the Dean’s office.”

Claire Egtvedt, slight, neatly groomed, a serious student, went promptly.

“How would you like a job working on airplanes?” asked Dean Fuller.

“Airplanes? I don’t know.”

“William E. Boeing needs two or three engineers. You have a good record. If you’re interested, go to his office tomorrow morning at nine.”

“You mean. . . before graduation?”

“Mr. Boeing is quite anxious. The war.”

   
Curtis Model N’s were being purchased by the United States Navy.

Claire Egtvedt glanced out the window across the green campus, into some strangeness beyond. The war. He had failed to pass the physical exam for military service. Perhaps this was his job. “Thank you,” he said. “I’ll be there.”

At William E. Boeing’s office, Egtvedt found Phil Johnson, a mechanical engineering student, also waiting. Boeing was courteous. He introduced them to Jim Foley. “Mr. Foley will take you down to see our plant.”

There wasn’t much said on the way out. Egtvedt turned to Phil, a cheerful youth and a good friend. “What do you think?”

Phil Johnson was serious. “Not exactly what I’d expected to do, but.. . the war’s on.”

After four miles through the industrial fill south of Seattle, they came to a narrow plank-way leading a mile and a half over the mud flats to the Duwamish River.

Across the bridge the planks led to a two-story frame building with the old lettering, E. W. HEATH still showing, and a new sign, BOEING AIRPLANE COMPANY. They entered the door marked OFFICE. Jim Foley showed them to the drafting room upstairs. It was a loft-like room, with heavy beams, a board floor, and unadorned board walls. In front of the multi-paned windows there were five or six drafting tables on horses, with stools.

They met Joe Hartson, chief draftsman, and Louis Marsh, whom they had known at the university. Louis’ pleasant drawl dissolved the strangeness. “Guess we’re going to get some airplanes designed.”

Hartson showed them to their tables, gave Johnson some drafting work.

“Your job will be to figure stresses,” he told Egtvedt. Claire Egtvedt thought he was going to like this all right. Stress analysis, at least, was a subject he felt he knew something about. He was glad Phil Johnson was here. Phil was bent over his drafting table, digging in as though he’d belonged here all the time.

Claire took a walk out in the plant, where carpenters were sawing out spruce wing ribs. Airplanes. He was in the airplane business.

While Herb Munter was putting the first Model C through speed, climb and altitude tests on Lake Washington for local Navy officers, the next two Model C airplanes were being completed in the shops for official tests at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, and the drafting room was at work on revisions for a production model.

Word came that the Navy had immediate need for fifty trainers. They’d buy the ones that came closest to meeting their performance requirements. Boeing should get its machine to Pensacola right away.

The two new Model C’s were dismantled and crated with care. Munter and Claude Berlin, Foley’s factory superintendent, would go with them. Bill Boeing and Vice President Ed Gott coached the pair thoroughly. “Pensacola can make or break us,” said Boeing. “If the tests succeed we are a going concern.”

Out of the Storm Cellar

Pensacola was hot and steaming. Herb Munter had expected that July would be warm in Florida, but the humidity was something he’d never experienced. He and plant superintendent Berlin had arrived a day ahead of the airplanes and at the Centralis Hotel they met Floyd Smith, from the Martin Company.

“You’ve got a rough deal ahead of you, Herb,” said Smith. “These guys are tough.”

Out at the naval station Munter watched a Curtiss Jenny settling to the water’s surface. It had a couple of extra wing sections in the middle and a big pontoon, plus wing-tip floats. The station was said to be entirely equipped with these Curtiss N-9s. Glenn Curtiss was the experienced producer in the business, the Navy’s standby.

At headquarters Munter and Berlin met naval constructor H. C. Richardson and Lieutenant G. B. Strickland, the inspector. These men, with Lieutenant R. W. Cabaniss, head of the flying school, and Lieutenant Pat Bellinger, would constitute the trial board.

Lieutenant Strickland showed them around the base. “You can set up here in the storm cellar,” he said. It was a low brick building, not really a cellar.

The sky was heavy, as though a squall were approaching, when Herb Munter was ready to taxi the Model C onto the bay and check it out. Strickland was on hand. “Pretty choppy,” he said.

“It’s all right,” said Herb. He would show them some flying. The wind was up to twenty miles an hour when he was ready. The motor sounded good. He raced it and ripped off the water in four hundred feet. Berlin saw Strickland watching closely. The lieutenant said nothing.

   
Note that the Boeing Model C had “Twin pontoons,”.

The speed trials were set for Saturday. Munter went out to practice, to get used to the atmospheric conditions. He tried jump-offs at high angles, steep banks, spiral dives, and a seven-hundred-foot vertical dive. The plane felt good. No tendency to side-slip or tailspin.

On shore, Strickland’s interest appeared to be growing. “How much of a plant do you have out there in Seattle?” he asked Berlin.

“About 50,000 square feet. We can add whatever may be needed.”

On Saturday Munter exceeded the seventy-mile-an-hour high-speed requirement without trouble, but he knew he was going to have trouble with the forty-mile low speed. They hadn’t quite done it in Seattle. Now there was a nine-mile crosswind.

He was required to hold twenty-five feet off the water for the measured course. Munter put the nose high and offset it with power, mushing through the air, the tail squishing along above the water’s surface. The best he could do was to hold it down to 40.8.

He came back to face the board. Strickland seemed eager to see him. “My God, Munter, how do you keep the airplane in the air at that speed? It isn’t even supposed to fly.”

Munter shrugged, submerging his relief. “Good airplane.” His high-angle technique must have done the trick. Cabaniss confided that no one could meet the forty-mile requirement, but they had set it because they would like to achieve a low speed for school safety.

Munter’s timed attempt to reach 2,500 feet altitude was disappointing. He tried various angles of climb, but at 1,800 feet the wings wouldn’t lift another inch. “I don’t understand it. We made 2,500 easy in Seattle,” he said afterward.

“It’s the atmosphere here,” said Strickland.

Herb was beginning to like it in Pensacola. These people knew about airplanes. They were tolerant. He felt like the horseman who reaches open field and wants to gallop.

He took the “C” up, cavorted and spiraled, and then brought it in on the step with the clean perfection he had learned in his weeks of practice on Lake Union. It was a landing with style and grace, like a champion skater gliding past the boxes.

The instructors on the Curtiss planes gathered about afterward and wanted to know how it was done.

In a day or so the weather turned so squally that it stopped all flying at the base. There was a rough-water test to be done. The wind was thirty miles and the waves at least three feet high, maybe four.

Strickland asked Munter if he thought the Boeing could handle the sea. Herb pulled on his flying cap. “This is the day,” he said. He asked Berlin if he’d like to go along. While the trial board watched they taxied boldly out into the wind.

They heaved and fell with the swells but she rode well. Herb kept a ready hold on the throttle and his feet solid on the rudder as they swung across the wind. They had never confronted anything like this on Lake Washington or Lake Union.

Berlin was watching a high crest bearing down on them from the side. He looked nervously around at Munter. The plane rocked. The wave went under, wings dry. Munter grinned. They did some more turns. She was a seaworthy boat. Munter cut off the motor and the plane weather-cocked neatly into the wind.

Strickland was impressed. “Didn’t think you could do that,” he said when they got back.

“Twin pontoons,” said Munter.

Berlin wired the plant that things looked good. The Navy seemed to like the plane, its performance and stability. They were a little concerned, though, that it was stiff on control. A plane that was stable was naturally heavier on control, because it wanted to stay put. It was clear now that Wong had designed a plane that was inherently stable.

When the news was received that the Seattle plant was to build fifty of the Model C’s for the Navy, Bill Boeing was all business. New organization charts were drawn up. Professor J. W. Miller of the University of Washington faculty, the new chief engineer, was rushing drawings to the shops. Boeing Airplane Company began to look like a factory.

   
Boeing Airplane Company began to look like a factory.

Enthusiasm was dampened some when two landplane versions of the Model C purchased by the Army met with disfavor at McCook Field in Dayton. Herb Munter, after finishing his demonstration there, saw them being dismantled and asked, “How come?”

“We’re sending them to the mechanics’ school in Minneapolis to show how an airplane shouldn’t be built,” he was told.

But everyone at the Seattle plant was too busy to be more than temporarily annoyed over this. The pressure of production was on, with things running a little behind. Ed Gott had moved in as general manager. Young Phil Johnson, whose ready, capable way had impressed Bill Boeing, went into the production office.

It was May 1918 when Bill Boeing went with Herb Munter to San Diego to see that the first plane was received satisfactorily. The Naval Air Station was being run on a strictly war basis. They felt an air of unfriendly commotion about the place.

“Your planes are so late we are having to bring others in to take their place,” they were told. Boeing wired Gott to put on three shifts. Gott was general manager now; Foley had left.

Munter rushed flight preparations and got the airplane into the air, with the San Diego officers watching. He made a rough landing. The commanding officer didn’t think twin floats would be safe for students and he didn’t like the Hall-Scott engine, said it was an oil-eater.

Could they change to a single float like the Curtiss and put in a different engine?

Gott wired back in anguish when Boeing wrote him of this possibility. “The effect would be catastrophic. We’d have to lay off everybody for six months while the changes were engineered.”

Boeing sensed that at least they’d better get started on something new. He asked Gott to modify one of the “C’s” to a single float and to start design of a pusher-type flying boat they had been talking about.

Boeing had left San Diego when Munter finished his demonstration and the Navy instructors began flying the plane. “My pilots tell me your airplane is stiff,” the commanding officer said. “Its control isn’t good.”

“Commander, we have given it more stability so it will hold straight and level flight. We thought that was desirable.” Herb couldn’t get it.

The plane was all right in Pensacola. Why not here? “If you want it to handle more like the Curtiss”—when he hit the “C” in Curtiss there was a sharpness in his voice that didn’t much disguise his feeling—”I can take out some dihedral.”

“I suggest you do that.”

Munter readjusted the wing angle and got into trouble at home for taking the liberty. The plane had been approved by Pensacola. It wasn’t his place, or San Diego’s, to be trying out new theories. The official report from San Diego to Washington was that the Boeing had many peculiar features of controllability and should be tested more exhaustively.

   

“The plane is a radical departure. The large stagger of the wings, large dihedral, shortness of tail, and absence of horizontal stabilizing surfaces have never before been employed to such a degree in Navy seaplanes.” San Diego wasn’t going to be the guinea pig.

Boeing was in Washington when he heard the news. The Navy said the chances of additional trainer sales were poor, but that Boeing could bid on some Curtiss HS-2L flying boats they planned to buy. They also agreed to give the Model C trainer another trial at Hampton Roads, Virginia.

Boeing summoned Herb Munter to Washington. They met at the Hotel Washington. Boeing was stern. “Now we are in trouble,” he said. “Go down to Hampton Roads and see if you can get us out of it.”

At Hampton Roads with two Model Cs, Munter was met by Commander Pat Bellinger, who had been on the trial board in Pensacola. They hit it off well from the start. Boeing arrived later, as one of the planes was being prepared for flight. “We’ve tried to give you a good, quality job of workmanship,” he told the officers.

Boeing watched the group examine the trainer. An inspection officer came to an aileron cable that was frayed at the terminal until it was almost parted. It was too short; the wrapped end of the cable had been forced into a small sleeve which could not contain it.

The inspector jerked on the cable and it came off in his hand.

“This would have been embarrassing if we’d been flying,” he said.

Boeing felt his footing in the airplane business slipping away and grasped for words to pull himself back. “Gentlemen, I don’t know how this could have got by. Whoever is responsible will be discharged immediately.”

He scrawled a note to Gott, at once. “A fine state of affairs. What is the matter with our inspection? If I were judging the machine, I would condemn it for all time. I want a complete report made.

For the good of the company the person responsible has to go. Any such laxity is unpardonable and I for one will close up shop rather than send out work of this kind.”

Gott defended inspection and Miller shouldered responsibility. The cable had been made short purposely to keep the aileron from hitting a wing spar, he said.

“Replace them in all machines with longer cables,” Boeing ordered. “We’re lucky we’ve had no fatalities.”

Munter got the tests off well. The trial board said that despite San Diego they’d like to have the planes.

But no more of the “C’s” were to be ordered beyond the fifty. The Navy decided it didn’t need any more trainers of any type.

Instead of its own Model C, Boeing was given fifty Curtiss HS-2L boats to build.

Producing the Curtiss planes, large flying boats, required a further enlargement of the plant. But the order was viewed as a dubious blessing by Professor Miller and his small engineering staff.

Were they losing out on Boeing airplanes just when they were beginning to make progress? The Boeing wind tunnel was completed at the university. The two young engineers, Claire Egtvedt and Louis Marsh, now Miller’s eager assistants, had been flying in the “C” airplanes at every opportunity, to gain more knowledge.

Claire Egtvedt was happy Miller had put him on design work. It was a bigger challenge than figuring stresses. In the air, he’d strap a clipboard to one leg and make careful notes to take back to the drafting room. The clean rush of wind against his face seemed to clear thought for action. The din and vibration were an incessant urging to new and better ideas.

The Curtiss flying boats were just getting well under way in the shops and concern about Boeing’s own design was just reaching major proportions when a crescendo of whistles, horns and yells pierced the walls of the plant, driving airplanes out of mind.

It was November 11, 1918. The rumors of an armistice had turned real. The great war was over. A floodtide of laughing, back-slapping men burst out the gate and joined the grandest parade of the century to the center of town.

   
Curtis HS-2L flying boat.
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