Message Area
lblHidCurrentSponsorAdIndex =

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

article number 476
article date 08-13-2015
copyright 2015 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Boeing Aircraft Survives the Lean 1920’s ... Part 1: Cancelled Great War Contracts
by Harold Mansfield

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

* * *

Production Needed

The plant whistle sounded new and strange on the morning of November 12, 1918. It had an exhilarating note of freedom, no longer the strident note of military need. Somehow it seemed less businesslike, though, less certain of its purpose.

To Claire Egtvedt, spreading out the partial drawings of a new Navy flying boat that would probably never be, the morning whistle was a question and a hope. Would there be work after the HS-2L flying boats?

Egtvedt was now deep in aerodynamic theory. Perhaps the postwar problem would give him a chance at original design.

To Phil Johnson, checking over material orders and the routing of parts through the shop, the whistle was a call to action. Johnson was now manager of the production office. He needed to know what to do about a stack of papers ready to go to the superintendent. Would contracts be changed because of the armistice?

The questions of both men pulled them magnet-like to Ed Gott’s office, where they found a group already gathered.

Gott was bouncing and talking loud into the telephone, nervously adjusting his thick-rimmed glasses. He was trying to get Mr. Boeing in Chicago. When he got him, the conversation was short. Gott put down the phone and announced: “We keep going as we are, until we hear further from Mr. Boeing.”

The gathering broke up. Claire Egtvedt stopped in at Phil’s office. “What do you think Mr. Boeing has in mind?”

“You can’t expect him to have all the answers in a day.” Phil wouldn’t say, “I wish I knew, too.”

There was an essential difference between the two young airplane men. Claire’s mind was sensitive and searching. Phil was quick-seeing, but he wore a casual air. There was a twinkle in his gray-blue eyes. Claire dreamed and then did. Phil did and then dreamed.

Yet there was also an essential likeness between the two. Both were soft spoken, both had been brought up in the discipline and parental encouragement of religious Scandinavian homes. The university, perhaps the war, had instilled in both a desire to achieve.

That desire was finding its own channel. In Egtvedt, it came through when he gazed beyond the three dimensions of space and the fourth dimension of time to an engineering idea taking form in his mind. In Johnson, it flowed swiftly when he saw an idea take form in metal, and helped men give it form.

While waiting for Boeing’s word and thinking of the future, Claire Egtvedt and Phil Johnson had a feeling the future didn’t depend entirely on Boeing, but also on them. Here was a new challenge. Wasn’t challenge, in reality, an opportunity?

Boeing’s word came as fast as a mail train leaving Chicago November 12 could huff and whistle across plains and mountains to Seattle. During the days and nights this required, the world was rapidly changing hue. On the Western Front in Europe, after four long years, all was quiet. America rejoiced that the world had been made safe for democracy. The talk was all of disarmament, of the return to normal, of building a better world.

Boeing’s letter narrowed the change to a simple business proposition.
- The Navy would probably not cancel the HS-2L contract, but might cut it in half, salvaging the work already done.
- No new production contracts could be expected either from Army or Navy.
- The Post Office had spoken encouragingly of the development of an air-mail service, but this would not come fast.

Boeing had a contract to build the Curtiss HS-2L flying boat.

They should look for their own market. It seemed to him that the flying boat offered the best possibility for commercial sale. Landing fields were scarce but water was plentiful in the Puget Sound country. They should start right away developing two sizes, one of them about 100 horsepower, the other perhaps 200.

“I look for a splendid future in peacetime,” Boeing continued, “but there is going to be a gap of six months to two years when it will be a hard struggle. In the meantime we should keep our shop occupied with other work. Comb the field and see what we might go into. I can suggest showcase work and interior woodwork.”

Boeing’s letter was sufficient. Miller assigned Egtvedt to look into engines and begin sketching the first flying boat, the larger of the two proposed sizes. It would be called the B-1, “B” for Boeing, their first commercial design.

Louis Marsh worked on the hull lines. The rest searched for other work. They lined up a job building the fixtures for a glove store. Other furniture work developed.

Joe Hartson had the idea of building sea sleds, “automobiles of the sea.” They would be wingless second cousins to the seaplane. A license agreement was arranged with the Hickman Company in Boston, which had such a design.

Word came from the Navy canceling twenty-five of the fifty HS-2Ls. Then Miller announced his plan to return to the university. Engineering was split in two. Claire Egtvedt became head of Experimental while Phil Johnson handled the production end.

With the B-1 it was decided they’d get clear away from the Model C’s problems of too much stability. They’d pattern the wings and tail surfaces after the more conventional HS-2L boats. Very little wing stagger. Dihedral upsweep in the lower wing only. A regular horizontal stabilizer. No balance on the elevators.

The boat hull would be built of two plys of light mahogany with a layer of fabric glued between. The airplane would be a pusher, with a 200-horsepower motor mounted high under the fifty-foot upper wing, propeller behind.

When the plan was complete enough, it was presented to Boeing.

“Go ahead and build it,” he said. With space for mail bags or two passengers behind the pilot, the B-1 flying boat would be an ideal commercial airplane to fly the northwest skies, Boeing thought. He could see air transportation becoming a reality, bringing people and nations closer together.

The idea was timely. President Wilson was now in Europe with a plan for a League of Nations. His Fourteen Points were a new hope to millions. There would be peace and commerce between nations. The year 1919 would start a new era.

When a businessman in Vancouver, British Columbia, E. S. Knowlton, asked the postmaster there if he would permit mail to be taken by air from Canada to the United States as the feature of an exposition, the postmaster readily assented.

Knowlton called W. E. Boeing. “Can you bring a plane to Vancouver and fly a bag of mail back around the third of March?” Boeing said he’d like to. He asked Eddie Hubbard to pilot the plane. Hubbard was now doing the test flying for the plant. Munter had left to go into a new flying business for himself.

Vancouver Postmaster R. G. MacPherson sent a message for the occasion. “When we mount upon the wings of eagles, no line of demarcation then shows between Canada and the United States. May the first airplane mail be the harbinger of thousands more to follow. . . ."

The Boeing “C” was fifty minutes on the way to Vancouver when Hubbard tapped Boeing on the shoulder and pointed silently at blackening clouds ahead. In a moment, a change of wind hit them with a wild gallop. The sky closed about them, filling with snow.

Wiping his goggles with his sleeve, Boeing looked back at Hubbard. No use trying to outshout the engine.

Hubbard pointed down and pushed the stick forward, starting down. Boeing nodded. No ground outline appeared; no bottom. Groping downward, Hubbard finally saw black water and leveled off above it. For twenty minutes, with blinding snow in their faces, they bucked along, watching a blurred shoreline to the right.

Hubbard identified Anacortes and set the plane down in the bay. Boeing was pale when they climbed ashore. “Good job, Eddie,” he said.

Bill Boeing boards the Model C for the mail trip to Vancouver, British Columbia.

They stayed there overnight. Next morning with weather improved, they made it on in to the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club.

On March 3 they headed back with the sixty letters that constituted the first international air mail. The 125 miles to Seattle was a little too much for the fuel capacity of the “C” against a headwind and they put down at Edmonds, just north of the city, to take on gas.

Three hours after leaving Vancouver they nosed the pontoons up to the ramp of the Lake Washington hangar. Eddie Hubbard jumped lithely out of the plane and helped Boeing down with the mail bag. There was a dream in Eddie’s eyes.

“Mr. Boeing, if we can do this in the ‘C,’ it would be a cinch in the B-1 flying boat. I’d sure like to fly up there and back on a regular basis.”

The B-1 was out of engineering and into the shops now, except for some detail drawings. Egtvedt and Gott went east to display one of the “Cs” at the National Aeronautical Exposition—their first real opportunity for public recognition. But in the New York Armory it was one airplane among many.

“Nice workmanship,” said a sightseer who paused to look at the “C.”

“Sort of a Curtiss,” said another who came by.

“More like the Aeromarine,” his companion argued.

A Curtiss man told of their plans to build a network of air fields and establish flying schools throughout the East. “Does Boeing plan anything like that?”

“No,” said Egtvedt, “we’ll just manufacture airplanes.” Waiting around, he had his first chance in some time to have a good talk with Gott about the business.

“We’re getting badly in debt,” Gott told him. “We have a good-size plant now—eight buildings. We need production. A few experimental planes won’t bring anything in.”

An Italian lieutenant named Cantoni came by. He had the S.V.A. airplane on display down the corridor. It was one of the best: fast and well designed. Cantoni proposed that Boeing be licensed to build and sell it as a sport plane.

“You’re going to have trouble catching up with Curtiss,” said the Italian. “Curtiss has the reputation. You still have to prove yours. You need a plane that’s already popular.”

This made sense. If they didn’t license the S.V.A. someone else would, and they’d be that much further behind. They told the lieutenant they’d see what Mr. Boeing thought of the idea. Boeing turned it down.

When the show was over Egtvedt went to McCook Field in Dayton. Major Reuben Fleet, in charge of contracts for the Air Service, arranged for a lieutenant from the engineering division to show him around. “We have a hundred different planes here,” said the lieutenant. “Ninety-seven of them aren’t worth a darn.”

They walked through a long hangar. The lieutenant pointed out the Thomas Morse pursuit plane and the Martin bomber, which he said were O.K.

There was a bewildering array of experimental models, many of them unconventional. One was shaped like a halibut. “The Army paid $75,000 for this design,” said the lieutenant. “The only way you can get it off the ground is with a chain and block. You can see why we’d rather design them ourselves.”

Egtvedt moved on to Cleveland, where there was a good deal of flying activity. He asked about new equipment for local passenger flights. “We can get war surplus de Havillands for a song,” they said. He returned to Seattle, the bright colors in his sunrise well faded.

The HS-2L work was all but finished. The growing starkness of the outlook was reflected on people’s faces. The plant crew was down to eighty from the wartime four hundred.

Boeing decided the divided engineering department was an unnecessary luxury and Johnson was put in the shop as assistant superintendent to organize the furniture and sea-sled work. That left Egtvedt in charge of all engineering.

The raised eyebrows of some of the older officials would have bothered him if it weren’t for Boeing’s seeming confidence.

Boeing Airplane Company plant at the end of the Great War.

When the B-1 was completed and sent to Lake Union for test, there were bets, half in jest, that it wouldn’t fly. Boeing refused to join. “I think the boys have done a good job,” he said.

The engineers were anxious to see if the water would break cleanly along the sides of the hull. Egtvedt and March got in the back seat to watch while Eddie Hubbard taxied. “It’s coming clean,” Egtvedt noticed as Hubbard gathered speed. The big Hall-Scott was deafening now. Marsh was gesturing wildly.

They were taking off. They hadn’t expected to fly but the boat had popped right out of the water. Hubbard looked around with a grin. He was continuing to climb. They reached about three hundred feet when the engine coughed, then sputtered.

“The pump! The pump!” Marsh shouted. The fuel pump driven by the engine had slipped out of gear and the engine wasn’t getting any gas.

The two passengers strained in a futile effort to assist Eddie, who was reaching for the hand pump with one hand. They could see he was battling to hold the stick forward. The strength of one arm wasn’t enough. The horizon was dropping, the nose coming up.

Hubbard couldn’t handle the sudden load on the elevator. With the heavy fuel tanks down in the hull and propeller up high behind the wings, the airplane wanted to nose up when the power was cut off.

Pushing hard with both hands, Eddie was able to lower the elevators enough to bring the nose back down. Momentarily he released one hand for the pump. They heard the engine catching hold. But instantly the surge of power reversed the forces and sent the airplane rocketing downward.

When Eddie got the nose back up, the engine again began to die. Again they humped and roared downward. Three or four times they rocketed and dived. Finally Eddie put it down on the lake.

Wet with perspiration, Eddie just sat there for a while. “We can fix the fuel feed, but that elevator. . ."

“We went too much by the HS boat, I guess,” Claire said. “This is a different airplane.”

Back out at the plant they studied the problem, realizing they didn’t really know very much about control surfaces. You had to make an elevator longer to make it more effective, but the longer you made it, the more force the pilot had to overcome.

Wong’s balanced elevator was one solution, but it was too tricky, too touchy. There must be some other way. Claire Egtvedt stared at the dozen elevator doodles his pencil had been making. He started to toss them all in the waste basket, then looked back.

One of the sketches, upside down, suddenly looked different. Why not make the elevators wider instead of longer? That would give them the same area for the lift they needed, but it wouldn’t be half as hard for the pilot to pull. Odd, no one thought of that. Elevators had always been long and narrow.

Revisions and testing of the B-1 continued, along with work on two smaller planes, one of them a land plane. But Ed Gott announced unhappily that all work under construction, including the sea-sleds, if established an office in Washington.

“Get busy and design something that we can sell,” Hartson replied.

“We couldn’t develop anything in time to do any good,” said Gott. “Get hold of an established design that they’re planning to buy, and we’ll sold, wouldn’t pay the overhead. The furniture business was making some contribution, but it wasn’t very profitable.

“We can’t stay in the aircraft business unless we can get production orders from the government,” he wrote to Joe Hartson, who had bid on it. We can sell something they want quicker than something we have developed.”

“I don’t agree with you,” said Hartson. He had been in to see the Army and Navy again and again. He had shown the Navy the B-1 drawings.

Boeing B-1; “A small-size Curtiss boat,” they had commented.

He sought an Army experimental contract.
- “What claim have you to one?” Colonel Hall in the supply office asked.
- “What have you developed except the C-type trainer?
- What successful land machines have you designed?
- Who is your designer?
- What experience has he had with military requirements?
- What original ideas has he developed?”

Hartson found himself out of answers.

As fall turned to winter of 1919, spirits in the front office were as down-washed as the steady rain that drained into the Duwamish. Boeing was advancing money from his personal account almost weekly to meet the payroll.

One day Gott could stand it no longer. He took the books in to Boeing. “Do you think we should close up shop?” he asked. “We’re going to finish the year $90,000 in the red.”

Boeing was a man fighting with himself. He had lain awake nights thinking about this. He didn’t like to start something and not finish it. But he had to face the facts.

Possibly they could close down the airplane part of the business and keep on with other work until conditions were better. But that would be losing the start they’d gotten.

The thing that concerned him most was the men at the plant. Young fellows like Johnson and Egtvedt and Marsh, trying to make a go of it.

“I’d hate to break up the organization,” he said. “But we can’t keep on like this indefinitely. If we can’t get some business with an assured income. . .“ he paused a long while, “. . . we’ll have to close.”

Hartson wired there was a chance to get a contract remodeling fifty wartime de Havillands.

“We’ll take it only if it’s certain there’s a profit in it,” Gott wired back. “Not just for the sake of staying in the aircraft business. We’ve decided to go out of business unless there is an assured opportunity.”

Hartson negotiated zealously and a contract to rebuild the DH’s was drawn. It would give them work to last until May 1920. Phil Johnson, who had taken Berlin’s place as superintendent, organized the shop force to hit the job hard.

Airplanes, Not Cement Sidewalks

To make the de Havilland remodeling a financial success, the emphasis had to be on manufacturing. Overhead was slashed. The sole survivors in Engineering were Claire Egtvedt and his assistant Marsh. No staff. But from what they had seen at Dayton they knew they could design better airplanes than the Army was getting, if only they had a chance.

“Looks like our chance is running out,” said Marsh. His voice was flat, not the genial Marsh.

What had become of their hopes and dreams? The question followed Claire home at night. Alone, he could search for an answer. “Isn’t progress a right thing? If I have ability that can help bring it about, is there any power that can keep me from using it?”

He went to see Gott and found Boeing with him in his office. This was the time; he was going to say what was on his mind, no matter what the consequences.

“We are building airplanes, not cement sidewalks,” Claire began. The ring in his voice gave him new confidence. “If you want to build cement sidewalks and just do work requiring a minimum of engineering, then you can do away with engineering. Do away with it. Just mix the materials, pour them into a form and collect your money.

Surplus aircraft from the war made it difficult for an airplane company to produce a new product. De Havilland DH-4 shown here was good enough to warrant contracts for rebuilding.

But if you want to build and sell airplanes, you first have to create them. That takes research and development and testing and engineering. The airplane isn’t half what it ought to be. We have a foothold again now. Can’t we hire a few engineers and try to build a future?”

Gott seemed about to answer when Boeing rose to his feet. “Claire is right,” said Boeing. That put a spring back in Egtvedt’s step. He organized plans for new engineering work.

Meanwhile a sports landplane they were building was nearing completion, in time for the Aero Show in San Francisco in April 1920. There was a hope of sales to men who had learned to fly in the war.

A finishing crew worked overtime to get the plane ready by the time the freight boat left for San Francisco. They polished the varnished surfaces and began crating the machine while mechanics completed the cockpit installations and adjusted the controls.

They worked all through the last night. At five o’clock in the morning, carpenters putting the last board in place on the crate heard a cry, “Wait! Wait! I’m still in here!” The last mechanic, flashlight in hand, scrambled out.

Egtvedt and a newly hired salesman, H. C. Berg, who had won a national prize selling automobiles, went to the San Francisco show. But the experience was cheerless. They listened long to complaints about the post-war slump and came back with empty order book. The services of Berg weren’t required much longer.

Eddie Hubbard bought the B-1 to start a mail service from Seattle to Victoria, B. C., carrying out the plan he’d mentioned to Boeing after their Vancouver flight.

The smaller flying boat was completed and sold in Canada, but further sales looked unlikely.

Joe Hartson resigned to go to work for the Hickman Sea Sled Company, a business with more promise.

In May 1920, Ed Gott packed his bag to see what he could do for the company in Washington. A new force had emerged in the nation’s capital to counter the downtrend in the airplane business.

General Billy Mitchell, assistant chief of the Air Service, had a vision of air power that was challenging all the old concepts of warfare.

The design group at McCook Field had caught fire from Mitchell and had begun to work on bigger, more powerful planes. One of these was called GAX, for Ground Attack, EXperimental. It had three wings, two Liberty engines, a 20-mm cannon and eight machine guns.

Lieutenant C. N. Monteith, military head of the design office, told civilian designer Mac Laddon not to spare the horses, that Mitchell wanted it rough and tough. Laddon employed shoulder-high bathtubs of armor plate to protect the crew and engines, and devised rotating slots in the armor for viewing the ground.

When it was ready for flight, Army test pilot Harold Harris regarded the creation uncertainly, especially the ribbon-type radiators which had been placed above the engines so they wouldn’t be vulnerable.

“The engines should cool all right in the air,” said an engineer from the equipment section, “but don’t get them too hot on the ground.”

“Take it easy when you land,” said the designer who had contributed the landing gear. It looked tiny now under the big frame of the airplane.

Another admonished him, “Don’t try a turn till you get to 5,000 feet. It may be unstable spin-wise.”

Harris invited engineer Monteith to go along. Monty was a cheerful and able young officer, highly regarded at McCook. When Harris got the tri-plane to the end of the runway, he waited to cool the radiators, then took off. He got off easily and climbed to three hundred feet, when the ribbon radiators burst. No power.

His instructions made it clear he couldn’t turn back sharply to the field. He was headed for the river and a corner of the city. He knew of a cornfield across the river that he might make with a slight turn, but he couldn’t see the ground over the high armor sides, and it was difficult to survey terrain through the slots.

Monteith rode the front gunner’s turret in helpless isolation. Harris got enough coughs of power out of the engine for a wide turn and made it back to the field at fence-top level.

Monteith got out, thoroughly shaken. “This is ridiculous. If we can’t design safer airplanes we shouldn’t design them.”

The design group at McCook Field designed the GAX as an attack airplane. It would go into [brief] service produced by Boeing.

But when General Mitchell arrived for a demonstration of the GAX, the plane was in flying shape with new-type radiator and they were ordered to fly by with guns firing.

Harris and crew passed in review, everything wide open. The roar of the motors, the beat of the big propellers, the cannon booming, the machine guns spitting fire, all were the thunder of Thor.

“That’s what we need! That’s what we need!” Mitchell shouted.

Back in Washington Mitchell was optimistic about the future of the Air Service. “We’ve scraped up $5 million to buy some Martin bombers and some new types,” he told Ed Gott, “including twenty armored attack tri-planes—the GAX type. Go on out to Dayton and see Bane.”

Colonel Thurman H. Bane was head of the engineering division at McCook Field, and Major Reuben Fleet was the contracting officer. Gott called Fleet and left promptly for Dayton.

A bid for the building of twenty GAX attack planes was entered in competition with other manufacturers. Boeing’s bid turned out to be low. On June the contract was awarded and Phil Johnson began looking for additional help and armor plate.

There was also a bidding competition on an advanced experimental version of the GAX, built around a new engine that McCook Field was interested in. There would be three of these. When plans were submitted, it looked as if Boeing might win this order too.

Heartened, Egtvedt talked with Major Fleet in Dayton about original Boeing designs.

“Why don’t you go to Europe and brush up on the latest there?” Fleet asked. “Then come back and we’ll see what ideas you have.”

Boeing thought such a trip would be a good idea. During the next two months, French and British factories and unfinished wartime developments of Germany, including a giant monoplane, gave Egtvedt a fresh outlook. He was particularly interested in the work being done in Germany with light steel tubing, welded together, for the airplane structure in place of wood.

He returned in November 1920, to find that Boeing had won the contract to build the three experimental armored planes designed as an improvement on the GAX, to be called the GA-2S, but that the GAX contract had been reduced from twenty to ten planes and had already lost its savor.

“This is a helluva way to build airplanes,” said a foreman watching his crew struggling with a piece of the heavy armor plate.

“Aw, cheer up,” said Phil Johnson. “At least we don’t have to worry about scratching it.” Phil sauntered off, but turned to look back. He was biting his lower lip. This wasn’t the way things should be.

The sea-sled business was now acknowledged to be a fiasco. Even the furniture business was being carried at a loss. Foreman Walter Way, realizing the bedroom sets weren’t selling well, asked Johnson about getting a set at cost. “Cost?” said Phil. “Why pay the cost? Buy it at retail and save money.”

The three GA-2Ss didn’t interest Ed Gott. “We need quantities of at least fifty or a hundred,” he said.

When an invitation came to enter the Navy competition for design of a new shipboard fighter, Gott was annoyed. He insisted that the military system of experimental work and procurement was completely unsound for Boeing or for any other airplane manufacturer.

“You get the design work, then somebody else can still outbid you to produce them,” he said. “Our business, first and foremost, is to construct airplanes. What we need is production orders.” A $300,000 deficit as of December 1920 underscored his argument.

Eddie Hubbard used the B-1 to fly mail.
< Back to Top of Page