From the book, Vision, A Saga of the Sky.
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Much to Be Discovered
There’d have to be some more business landed soon. Egtvedt stayed east to see what could be done.
Principal production work in the plant now was on an Army order for the rebuilding of two hundred de Havillands with welded-steel frames, cloth covered—a job that wouldn’t take long.
Three of the DH’s were being further remodeled into observation planes, but these had developed the same longitudinal instability—nose hunting up and down—as the first PW-9 pursuit had.
“We’ll have to experiment with the center of gravity and add more stabilizer,” Marsh wrote. Egtvedt wondered if there weren’t some better way than trial and error to solve these problems.
Seeking new leads for some orders, he visited Army fields and Navy bases to talk to pilots and engineering officers. Christmas of 1923 caught him at Randolph Field, San Antonio. Major Ralph Royce, the commanding officer, said he’d better come out to the house to spend the holiday.
“What new planes does the Air Service want for Christmas?” Egtvedt asked Royce.
“First we need to find a Santa Claus,” said the major. “There are no appropriations for new planes. I’ll have to keep nursing my Jennies.” They were planes left from the war.
To most congressmen, disarmament and aircraft appropriations didn’t seem to go together. Billy Mitchell was getting into trouble.
Barnstorming pilots who were overhauling their Jennies, getting ready in the spring to sideslip over barbed-wire fences into cow pastures from town to town, gave Egtvedt the facts of their business.
“When I crack this plane up I can get another Army Jenny for $700,” said one. “A new plane would cost me $4,000. The season is short. You figure out how many rides I’d have to sell at five dollars a hop to buy a plane from you. Don’t bother to figure my gas and lodging.”
Egtvedt mounted the long steps of the Post Office Building in Washington to talk about mail planes. “I agree we should be developing some new ones,” said Colonel Paul Henderson, second assistant postmaster general in charge of the air mail. “But so far I haven’t been able to sell the idea.”
At the Post Office overhaul base at Maywood, Illinois, Egtvedt was told politely, “The DH’s we’ve rebuilt are serving very well. The plywood sides polish up nice, and there’s no fabric for the mail bags to punch through.”
With the spring thaw of ‘24, however, new hopes sprouted. The Navy declared Boeing the winner of its competition and ordered forty-nine of the new trainers, to be called NB-1s and NB-2s, “N” being the symbol for Navy trainer, “B” for Boeing.
Colonel Henderson announced the Post Office could buy one experimental mail plane from each company that wanted to go ahead and build one and could meet the specifications.
Mr. Boeing authorized a Boeing entry. It would be partly based on the NB trainer, but would have a plywood body and would use the Liberty motor which the Post Office required because the government had a big stock of them from the war.
The Air Service said it was going to put the Boeing PW-9 pursuit through a mock-combat competition with the Curtiss to decide which plane would be purchased with the new year’s appropriation. Engineer Bob Minshall went to observe the trials at Selfridge Field where Major Tooey Spaatz was in command.
Spaatz ordered all his squadron pilots to take turns fighting each other, one in the Boeing, one in the Curtiss, then to trade planes and do it again. Young Minshall watched wide-eyed as the rival planes burned tighter and tighter circles. The PW-9 would usually end up on the inside.
To Minshall’s joy, the pilots came down afterward and pinned bouquets all over the Boeing.
“Nothing mean about it,” they said. “Just like driving an automobile.”
The results of the combat trials upset Washington, George Tidmarsh, the company representative there, reported. “The Army was all set to buy the Curtiss again. General Patrick still doesn’t want to buy from us, but he can’t ignore the tests.”
In September 1924, the Army decided to order both types, giving Boeing a contract for twelve. “We’re beginning to get somewhere,” Egtvedt thought.
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|The Boeing PW-9 was well designed and was finally accepted. D version is shown here.|
The NB trainers were coming out. The mail plane was under way. The plant was busy. It all looked good again.
On January 16, 1925, Boeing discontinued the office of chairman and resumed the presidency, Johnson was elected first vice president and general manager, and Egtvedt vice president and chief engineer. Gott had resigned after a disagreement with Boeing.
The new vice president and chief engineer received no warning to batten down the hatches for an approaching storm. On February 5, Lieutenant Al Williams got an NB-1 trainer in a flat spin and crashed, unhurt, at Anacostia, Virginia. While other Navy pilots were laughing at the famous flier’s slip, Lieutenant H. J. Brow rode another NB like a whirling dervish into San Diego Bay. Someone counted thirty revolutions per minute.
Thoroughly alarmed, the Navy ordered all further flying stopped while the Bureau of Aeronautic Engineers ran wind-tunnel tests. No one was hurt yet.
March arrived. The Navy design section looked at the test results and proposed larger tail surfaces as a cure for the trouble. Anacostia pilots said no, the body would have to be lengthened to give the tail more wind.
George Tidmarsh wired that the time element was critical. “They’ll soon be planning next year’s procurement. We have an enormous sales resistance to meet.”
Lieutenant Ralph Ofstie arrived in Seattle to make flight tests with enlarged tail surfaces. For some days he couldn’t get the plane into its unusual spin—into auto-rotation, as they had come to call it. Then he took one of the men from the plant along as a passenger and the precocious craft did her trick. The rudder was useless. But he got out of it with maximum down elevator.
Ofstie and Eddie Hubbard kept trying different tail modifications. Theory upon theory was checked. Evidence was conflicting. Fin and stabilizer changes seemed to have little effect.
The clock struck April. “Everyone’s laughing at us,” wrote Tidmarsh from Washington. “They say we’ve been hauling in the money and this serves us right.” Work was under way on a new wing, forced draft. Another plane was being constructed with a lengthened body. “We’re clogged with unshipped planes,” said Phil Johnson. “We’ll have to lick this or shut the place down.”
It turned May. Ofstie went to Anacostia with a new set of the tail surfaces, to try to get the ship cleared. He felt that with proper flying procedure, it was O.K. “You’ll have to prove it to me personally,” said Lieutenant Commander Marc Mitscher, head of the Bureau of Aeronautics plans division. “I’ll ride with you.”
Ofstie took Mitscher to 4,000 feet, dumped the plane into a normal spin entry, then tried to straighten out. The spin flattened and the tail was whipping around faster. The desolate whine of the wind through the whirling wing wires increased its pitch.
Ofstie tried everything. They flattened onto the ground with a twisting crunch. The lieutenant pulled a sprained ankle out of the wreckage and turned, done dog, to Mitscher. “I’m terribly sorry, Commander.”
After this, the Navy washed its hands. “There’s been divided responsibility between you and us,” Rear Admiral W. A. Moffett told Boeing. “We want it distinctly understood now that it’s all on your shoulders.”
There was a mighty hope that the new wing would be the solution. “If the wing doesn’t cure it, I’ll be greatly astonished,” Egtvedt wrote Tidmarsh, “and more chagrined than I’ve ever been in my life.”
It was June when Hubbard took the plane up. He entered a spin that looked normal for a while. Then—was it happening?
Hope fought what eyes were seeing. “No, it can’t be. Straighten it out, Ed. Straighten it out!” Egtvedt’s spirits whirled in torment with Eddie all the way to the ground and flattened like the limp linen fabric that lay in a heap, Hubbard climbing out of it. Hubbard’s ankle was injured and they sent him to the hospital.
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|Land plane version of the Boeing NB-1 trainer.|
Phil Johnson tried to reassure Washington, “We’re doing all we can. There is no scientific solution. We’ve got all they have at NACA, Europe, anywhere. We just have to keep experimenting.”
The plane with a lengthened body was ready for flight. Les Tower, a lanky blond who had come from a Montana farm to study engineering and learn to fly, put down his drafting tools and walked over to Egtvedt one morning. “I’d be glad to fly it for you if you want me to,” he said. He got the job.
Tower found he could hold the new plane in a spin for two turns and then it would straighten itself out nicely. That didn’t pacify the naval inspector at the plant. “Hell, we want a free-spinning airplane,” he said. “One you can spin all you want and get it out any time you want to.”
Tower went back at it like an engineer. He started by varying the amount of throw on the elevators, plotting and calculating the effect. Egtvedt for the first time began to feel a sense of orderliness. “Les Tower is a find,” he told Phil. “In these things, we don’t need a pilot so much as an engineer in the plane.”
July. Tower found that by limiting the up-throw of the elevators to twenty degrees, it was impossible to get into any kind of spin, flat or regular. Grasping at this, Phil Johnson reminded the Navy that when the NB-1 was first demonstrated at Pensacola it was unspinnable.
“We changed it, to make it spin, at your request. If you want to eliminate the hazard, let’s return the plane to its original condition, a nonspinnable airplane.”
The Navy said they’d consider the suggestion. In September, they decided to accept the planes, limiting the up-throw of the elevators to twenty degrees as Les Tower proposed.
January 7, 1926, the Navy released the planes for training flights, but no stunting would be allowed. Egtvedt sighed, a sigh of relief, not of success.
Work went on. Man is made of springy metal. Bent under pressure, he bounces back to form through a power not his own—as long as he has something better to think about. At the plant on the Duwamish they had plenty to think about. Getting the rest of the NB trainers out of the shops.
There was trouble with vibration in the new radial engine. Fred Laudan, the project engineer, said they’d have to weld a fitting for a brace-wire on the engine mount to steady it. He went with Phil Johnson to the shops to see about the change.
“Can’t do it without tearing down the engines,” the welding foreman objected. “We’ll burn up all your engines.”
“If we have to disassemble them it’s going to cost an awful lot of money,” said Walter Way, the assembly foreman. “You better weld them in place.”
Fred Laudan looked to Johnson, many years the junior of these factory-wise supervisors. “Well, now,” asked Phil, disarmingly, “if you did have a case where you had to weld it in place, how would you go about it?”
“I’d probably fit a little piece of asbestos over it like this, and come in at it this way.”
“That’s the way we’ll do it,” said Phil Johnson. He was out the door fast, the two foremen gazing after him, Laudan suppressing a smile.
Alongside the trainers on the assembly floor, the PW-9 pursuits were coming well. A Navy carrier-fighter version of the PW-9 had been worked out; the Navy wasn’t too enthusiastic, partly, no doubt, because of the NB-1 trouble.
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|The Navy did order a few PW-9s which were designated the FB-1.|
But that mischievous child had its virtues. The five hundred tests of the NB-1 had proved the advantages of light-weight, air-cooled engines, and a Navy fighter was being designed around the air-cooled Wright.
These were the regular projects. Then there was the special project, the air-size Kirsten model. In a padlocked shed back of the woodshop was a thing of wonderment that carried Egtvedt outside the board walls, outside the plant and right into the blue.
Frederick Kirsten, a thin-faced professor with a squint of genius in his eye, had sold Boeing on trying out a whole new principle of propulsion in flight. “Let the wings be the propeller,” said Kirsten. “We can make a wing in strips that will rotate like the blades of a lawnmower. Change the angle of the blades and you can fly up, down, forward or backward.”
Egtvedt was skeptical about its mechanical complexity, but intrigued. Its novelty washed away the flat spins, the exasperating rigidity of airplane design rules.
Viewed through the doorway of the Kirsten shed, the brood of planes in the plant looked much like the original Wright brothers machine. Was the whole of the art circumscribed in the Wright papers and the deductions from them?
Knowledge is gained by accurate observation, but wasn’t observation a tricky thing? It seemed to depend on the point of view. Didn’t people see mostly what they expected to see?
Didn’t they often fail to see the answer because they were looking the wrong place? Ptolemy thought he observed the sun circling the earth and his deductions straitjacketed astronomy for centuries. Was there a higher principle of flight still to be discovered?
Egtvedt thought of the long-ranging sea gull, using the tiniest package of energy; the quick converting perch and push of the hummingbird; the hornet’s bullet drive. Knowing only nature’s law, they had no stability problems, no enigmas of autorotation.
Wasn’t there much to be discovered? Edison’s fact-packed mind had concluded that we know only the millionth part of 1 per cent about anything.
“We’ve been putting most of our time on structure and strength,” Egtvedt thought. “We’ve been taking aerodynamics and propulsion for granted.” A nagging picture came into view: General Patrick saying that they didn’t have any research.
Egtvedt went back to the NB trainer. There was no longer the frantic compulsion to solve the problem, but he wanted to see order and law in it. “Sometimes we’d get autorotation and sometimes we wouldn’t, with the ship in the same condition,” he recalled. “That’s odd. There has to be some variable.”
Where to find it? When did the normal spin become the flat, uncontrollable one? Like a top, when it got spinning. How did you spin a top? By giving it a good start. It was the rudder that started all the turning in the first place. If you threw the rudder over too far, it would get the spinning turn going faster and faster, tighter and tighter.
If you put in a stop to limit the throw of the rudder. . . . That was it, he was sure. Les Tower did some tests that seemed to confirm it. Egtvedt put the whole thing out of mind. Well, almost out of mind. He could see better now how great was the need for aerodynamic research.
Word came that the Post Office would buy the experimental Boeing Model 40 mail plane, recently completed. It was loaded on a freight car for delivery to the air-mail base at Concord, over the hills from Oakland, California.
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|The Boeing Model 40 mail plane would be a success.|
Flying the Mail
The engine-driven twentieth century was rolling well by 1926. If the Boeing Company had emerged from under a cloud, so had America. The war by now was a nightmare forgotten. The post-war slump was a thing of the past.
Peace and prosperity, which had before unlocked the young century’s inventive treasures, had returned now to put them to work. The country breathed deeply, stretched its arms and felt good. “The business of America is business,” said President Coolidge.
But the aviation business was one that had not yet grown robust. Coolidge appointed the Morrow Board to study its needs and problems.
Billy Mitchell, recently demoted from general to colonel, told the board that America was asleep. Aircraft men paraded the images of risk, uncertainty, and small reward that had discouraged healthy planning and research.
Fliers remembered the dream of Tennyson’s “argosies of magic sails dropping down with costly bales.” “Give air commerce some support and the dream can come true,” they said.
Awakened by the Morrow Board’s report, Congress passed the Aviation Five-Year Program, changing the Air Service to the Army Air Corps, setting up a plan for five years of Army and Navy procurement, and giving industry proprietary rights to its designs.
If a company came up with a good plane, the services could negotiate directly with it. This new program was what the aircraft people had been hoping for.
The Air Commerce Act was passed to encourage civil aeronautics. It established federal rather than state regulation of the airways and appropriated more funds for beacon lights along the air-mail routes.
The Post Office Department, which had successfully recreated the old Pony Express in the modern image, now laid plans to turn the air mail over to private operators.
Phil Johnson and Claire Egtvedt moved to the driver’s seat of the Boeing Airplane Company. Bill Boeing had begun to think of retirement. “I want to retire at fifty if I can manage it,” he said. He would be fifty in 1931. He gave Johnson the presidency and stepped again to the position of chairman of the board. Egtvedt became first vice president.
Phil took stock. The assembly shop was well occupied with PW-9 pursuits and their Navy counterpart, the FB fighter. The experimental air-cooled Navy fighter was being finished. There were five hundred employees now, fifty men in Engineering. Monty Monteith, who had finally left the engineering division at McCook, was a new addition to the department.
Although not large, Boeing was still just about as big as anything in the airplane business. That was all on the plus side of the ledger.
On the liability side, in spite of the market’s rosier hue, they had few new orders on the books.
Eddie Hubbard had strayed. “My heart isn’t in this test flying,” he had said. “I want to operate commercial airplanes. It’s time to start using the airplane to serve the public.”
Eddie’s mail route to Victoria seemed to him only a beginning. When he had gone east the year before to talk to the Post Office he had met Ed Gott, now vice president in charge of sales for Fokker Aircraft.
“We’re going to get clear out of the military field,” Gott had said. “Nothing but commercial ships. Why don’t you work with us? We can form an operating company and bid for the Pasco, Washington, to Elko, Nevada, air-mail route.”
This had been the call of the open road to Hubbard. He had ended up, however, not flying the Elko route but operating Fokkers in Los Angeles and serving as western representative for Gott’s company.
Other competitors were active. Keyes of Curtiss was organizing an operating group with the hope it could become the American Express of the air. Henry Ford was getting into the airplane business. Detroit could build the air age overnight. Ford would produce the big Stout tri-motor, possibly he’d form a company to operate it.
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|The original Boeing Model 40 used the water cooled Liberty engine.|
Phil Johnson felt a responsibility. “Claire,” he said, “I’d like to talk with you about our engineering.” Egtvedt saw Johnson, the executive, wrinkle over his eye, but casual in the old manner.
“We’ve sold the Post Office one mail plane,” said Phil. “You can bet a lead nickel they aren’t going to buy any more. What do we have coming along in new designs for commercial operators?”
“I’ve been thinking about a passenger version of the 40, and a flying boat,” said Claire.
“We’re going to have to organize our engineering to meet the future. It’s been a little loose, Claire. You are gone a lot of the time. That’s necessary, but you should have more responsibility delegated and keep these projects coming along.”
“I’ve wanted to do this,” said Claire. “We need more research and development work. Now that we have Monteith here, he could take charge of all experimental work and Louis Marsh can handle production engineering.” Johnson approved. Monteith was a good organizer, he felt.
They now put renewed emphasis on the pursuit project. The PW-9C was about to be put through a combat competition with the latest Curtiss.
One thing was causing serious difficulty. In maneuvers, the flying wires would run against the landing wires where they crossed between the wings. If fastened together, there was no give and one would pull out. If not fastened, they chafed and broke.
“I have a man who’s pretty good at coming up with ideas,” said Fred Laudan, the project engineer. “I’ll put Johnny Haberlin on it.”
Haberlin had been working on cockpit arrangements. He was the sort who was happy working on a small part or a big one. To him, the weakest link might hold the very key to success; each job was a challenge, an interesting problem to be solved. Haberlin considered the crossed-wires problem.
“No use looking at the can’ts,” he thought. “What is it we want them to do?” He wanted them to seesaw freely without touching each other. He held two crossed pencils in his left hand and moved them with his other hand, as though they were wires in tension.
He noticed that with only one hand free, he could move but one pencil at a time. “That’s it,” said Haberlin. “Hold one rigid and let the other slip.” He quickly sketched a bullet-shaped finger to separate the crossed wires with one end screwed tight, the other loose.
“Well,” said Fred Laudan, “that was simple.”
Laudan came into the drafting room jubilantly waving a telegram a few weeks later. “The good Lord gave us the right answer on that one,” he said. “Our flying wires held in the dog fight. That Handy Andy gets us an order for forty planes.”
The Boeing was winning elsewhere, too. In October the new Navy FB-3 set a world speed record for pursuits at the National Air Races in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, Experimental Design 69, a Navy fighter equipped with the new Pratt & Whitney air-cooled Wasp engine, got in the air for its first tests. Les Tower was all smiles. “This is it,” he said. “The Wasp makes us an airplane.”
Early in 1926 Phil Johnson had been mulling over the possibility of starting a company to carry passengers between Seattle, Vancouver and Victoria. “It would give us a chance to demonstrate a commercial product,” he said. Egtvedt liked the idea; he only wished that Hubbard were still around. Boeing agreed to back the plan.
Design projects were set up for a flying boat and a passenger land plane, and Phil sought Eddie Hubbard’s return to manage the operation. Organization and operating plans were well along, but no word from Eddie. It was the sort of thing he had wanted to do all along; surely he’d be interested.
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|Pratt & Whitney Wasp powered Boeing Model 40.|
It was late fall when Eddie returned to Seattle, but he didn’t want to talk about a Puget Sound airline. He was hopping with enthusiasm over a bigger challenge. The Post Office was going to put its Chicago to San Francisco route up for bids November 15. “This is the opportunity of a century, Claire,” he said.
Egtvedt was taken aback. “You’re talking about a huge undertaking.”
“I’ve got all the figures on mileage and pounds of mail carried. If you can produce some mail planes I know we can operate them successfully.”
Egtvedt’s pulse quickened. “That’s a lot of country. The distances are big. You’ll have winter blizzards to contend with.”
“We could do it.”
“Night flights? Are the beacons in all the way?”
“Every twenty-five miles.”
“We have the experimental 40 mail plane.” Egtvedt was tumbling fast. “We could modify that. Probably could make room for a couple of passengers and still have space for mail. How much capacity would you need?”
“The DH’s will carry five hundred pounds. The Douglas that Western Express is using will carry 1,000 pounds. We ought to beat those, and have some allowance for growth.”
“The 40 might do it, if we had a little more power.”
“Let’s get away from the Liberty motor. It’s a dodo.”
The new Pratt & Whitney Wasp should be just right, Egtvedt felt. It was two hundred pounds lighter than the Liberty. “How would you like an air-cooled motor? We could allow two hundred pounds more for mail.”
“Good.” Eddie was eager. “I think we can get our costs way under the amount the Post Office allows.”
The thought of the bid stopped Claire short. “We’ll have to talk to Bill. Have you ever discussed anything like this with him?”
“No, just local flying, but Mr. Boeing’s pretty game, you know.”
“Let me work on the design end,” said Egtvedt. “You work out the personnel and maintenance costs and I’ll figure the operating cost of the plane. We can put our figures together and we’ll have something to show Bill.”
A few days later the newspapers carried a story on Post Office plans. The New York to San Francisco route would be turned over to private operators in two pieces: New York to Chicago, and Chicago to San Francisco.
Bill Boeing took ’The New York Times’ at home. His wife Bertha got a look at it first. She noticed the story dealing with the air mail. She had often talked flying with Eddie Hubbard and this looked interesting. She folded the paper with the story on top and watched her husband read it. He didn’t say anything. Neither did she.
Within a day or two Hubbard and Egtvedt went up to Boeing’s office armed with a fat file and an idea that was fairly walking under its own power. They laid it all out. Boeing was silent quite a while. “This is something foreign to our experience,” he said.
“I’ve logged 150,000 miles on the Victoria route without any trouble,” said Hubbard. “And made money.”
“But this is over the whole western half of the country. You’ve got mountain ranges and winter storms to contend with. It would be a mighty large venture. Risky.”
They went over it all again. When there was nothing left to say, Egtvedt and Hubbard departed. “It was a good try,” said Egtvedt.
There were things in Bill Boeing that didn’t show. Strong roots, in rocky soil, but growing tenaciously. He didn’t reach back for the phrase in their original articles of incorporation, “to act as a common carrier of passengers and freight,” or to the hope Eddie Hubbard had voiced when they brought that first mail bag back from Vancouver, B. C. But they were there.
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|De Havilland DH-4s designed for the Great War, rebuilt and rebuilt again, were still carrying the mail. This would soon change.|
Boeing liked to finish what he had started. For years they had talked the utility of the airplane. The public wasn’t listening. Here, at last, was the opportunity to offer the airplane as a public service.
Boeing had the resources. His company had the reputation. If anybody could, they could go at it with success and safety as the goal. He found it hard to avoid admitting these facts, just to himself. He tossed through the night.
The idea had gained command by morning. Boeing was up for an early breakfast. Bertha knew something was astir. “What’s on your mind, Bill?” she asked.
“Maybe we’ll bid for the Chicago to San Francisco route.” Boeing looked at his wife. “What would you think of that?”
“Why not? It will develop a market for planes,” she said.
“It will be a hazardous thing. Big.”
Egtvedt got to the plant at 7:30 A.M., bringing back the stack of paper that had seemed so alive the day before. The telephone operator hailed him. “Call Mr. Boeing right away. He’s been trying to get you for half an hour.”
Egtvedt hurried to the telephone. “Get Hubbard and come on up here,” said Boeing. “I want to talk some more about that proposition. It kept me awake all night.” When they got to the Hoge Building, Boeing wanted to go over the figures again, wanted to know about the bond that would be required, compared Hubbard’s cost with the Post Office figures.
Egtvedt and Hubbard had planned to base the bid on a bigger load than the Post Office carried. Air-mail poundage had been increasing and they thought some publicity would increase it more. Besides, there was the opportunity for passengers and express, which Post Office planes couldn’t carry.
The plan would require the building of a fleet of twenty-five planes, to be ready on the line by July 1, 1927.
The Post Office would allow up to $3.00 per pound for the first one thousand miles and thirty cents for each additional one hundred miles. The figure they came up with was $1.50 per pound for the first thousand and fifteen cents for each additional one hundred miles. A vast difference, but that was the way they came out.
“Those figures look all right to me,” said Boeing, finally. “Let’s send them in.”
On January 28, word came that they were low bidders. Way low. The nearest bid was $2.24. Harry S. New, the postmaster general, doubted that theirs was a reliable bid. Rival companies assured him it couldn’t be done and he didn’t want a bankrupt carrier on his hands at the start of this most important transcontinental air-mail contract.
The bid had been entered in the name of Edward Hubbard and Boeing Airplane Company. The Post Office required a $500,000 bond to insure performance of the contract. Bill Boeing underwrote the bond and the contract was signed.
The spruce wing ribs, the arc-welded steel-tube bodies, the stretched linen covering for the 40-A mail-transports were the finest, fastest workmanship that had yet gone through the shops. Through eleven years of trial and triumph, the men of Boeing had gained a confidence. They had built five hundred military airplanes of miscellaneous types.
Yet deep down, every one of them had longed to see their airplanes out one day serving the public. Now that dream was within reach. They dug in.
Phil asked Oliver West, the production chief, whose memory for part numbers was a marvel to the staff, to shepherd the work through the factory. West didn’t lose a sheep.
Boeing Air Transport was organized as a separate company, with Phil Johnson as president, Ed Hubbard as vice president in charge of operations, Boeing as chairman of the board. Egtvedt became general manager of the airplane company.
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|The new, air cooled, Pratt & Whitney Wasp engine would be incorporated in the Boeing Model 40. 1,344 cubic inches, 650 pounds weight, approximately 425 horsepower, 1900 RPM in early versions.|
While the 40-A’s were building, Charles A. Lindbergh headed out over the Atlantic for Paris in his little Ryan monoplane. The suspense that built up in the thirty-three and a half hours of his silent crossing was cracked open when the sight of silver wings appeared in the Paris twilight.
The floodlights and the acclaiming thousands at LeBourget Field May 21, 1927, awakened the world to flight. The airline plan was timely.
In Seattle the race to build the 40-A’s finished with a sprint. On June 30, all twenty-five planes were gassed up and waiting along the line, ready for the official start, the midnight transfer of the mail at Omaha from Post Office de Havilland to Boeing Air Transport.
Next day a plucky Chicago newspaper woman, Jane Eads, of the ’Herald and Examiner,’ was to be the first Boeing Air Transport passenger. She was the center of attention. In high heels, knee-length business suit, feather boa and felt cloche, she was headed for the clouds.
At 9:30 P.M., in the harsh white of arc lights, Pilot Ira Biffle helped Jane up on the step pad of the lower wing and through the low door to the tiny cabin between the two wings. Biffle jazzed the motor twice and pushed out into the black.
Jane Eads’ heart palpitated as she began her role of trail blazer in a new form of transcontinental travel. The pilot, out of sight and out of hearing in the open cockpit behind, seemed far away. Alone with the night, behind the constant vibrant drone of the motor, cutting the darkness at ninety-five miles an hour.
Jane found companionship for a time with a thin crescent moon beyond the left wing. Now and then a sparkle of light drifted by in the black below. She wasn’t sleepy. She turned the switch on the glazed dome light in the ceiling. Cozy.
The sea green of the little walls was broken by a sliding window on either side. She let in the cool air. This was fun.
Later the crescent disappeared and Jane began to feel rocky. The plane tilted and tipped, then dropped as in a hole. Was it supposed to act this way? “I’m scared,” she admitted to herself. Then with a hard jolt she realized they were landing. Iowa City.
They passed over Des Moines without coming down. A city without buildings, just strings of jewels. The flight over western Iowa was under a canopy of stars. It seemed strange that the sky should be lighter and more real than the earth below.
The Boeing flew straight and steady into the western night. The changeless roar of the engine was strong, sweet music. How odd, and how wonderful, to be settling for the night up here! She found the leather-cushioned seats just large enough to curl up on, kitten fashion. It was peace.
The landing jolts of Omaha awakened her. Reporters were there to interview her. “I could fly forever,” said Jane. “I love it.” She transferred to a new plane, piloted by Jack Knight. Shoving off at 1:45 A.M., Knight wished Jane “a merry trip.” “Same to you—and a safe one,” she called back.
Before morning the air grew choppy. Great flashes of lightning lit up the sky. The crackling streaks seemed to be breaking all about them. The plane was being lifted and thrown about. Jane put her head on her knees and tried not to think about falling.
Then it ended as suddenly as it had begun. There was a yellow fringe on the horizon behind, which grew and flooded the earth with a golden glow. She remembered how a pilot had told her he never knew why the birds sang so sweetly until he saw his first dawn from the sky.
They came down at North Platte, then lifted again for Cheyenne, with the sun setting fire to the edge of the clouds on the horizon ahead.
Out of Cheyenne, past the bald, rippling foothills, she saw what she first thought a mirage, the snow-crested magnificence of the Medicine Bow range. Hugh Barker, the new pilot, pushed the Boeing higher and higher.
Jane grew drowsy and her legs were heavy with the altitude and the bumping. The road seemed as rocky here as it was below. They skinned past Elk Mountain and into Rock Springs.
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|Besides carrying mail, the Boeing Model 40 could carry a couple of passengers. Note window between the wings. The pilot was still out in the open.|
A veteran now of the ups and downs and the vast, changing topography of the states, Jane flew on past the impossible white flats of the Great Salt Lake country, the forbidding waterless gulches of Nevada, the ultramarine blue of Lake Tahoe.
Suddenly the yellow, razor-topped hills below her opened into San Francisco Bay.
Twenty-three flying hours after leaving Chicago, Jane Eads put her foot on California soil, like an explorer who had discovered a new world. Air transportation.
Boeing Air Transport made money in its first month, and in the second and third. The public interest, aroused by the Lindbergh flight and now by a sky trail to California, was ringing the cash register.
By the end of the year the line had carried 525 passengers and 230,000 pounds of mail. No serious trouble. But winter was harder going. Snow piled deep at Cheyenne, Salt Lake City, and Rock Springs. Blizzards tried to sweep the plains free of commercial airplane intrusion. Clouds hung low over the Sierra Nevada hump.
The Boeing pilots got the weather by telegram. But storm centers could pull in front of them on the way, and behind them. All they could do was get under, follow railroad tracks, watch intently for known valleys and passes through the mountains.
What was up ahead? Look for a place to sit down or go on through? That was the decision that pressed on the pilot, alone with the mail, a $25,000 airplane, perhaps a passenger, and his own hide.
Bill Boeing and Phil Johnson came to dread the ringing of the phone in the night. They had had no tragedy yet. Would this be one?
“I’m sure you could give your pilots the weather by short-wave radio,” said Thorp Hiscock, Boeing’s brother-in-law, at dinner with Johnson and Boeing one night. “With a two-way telephone they could get it from each other.” Hiscock had a ranch in Yakima, Washington, but most of his waking hours he tinkered with radio.
“Could you build it?” asked Phil.
“Just put me to work.”
Johnson could see that Boeing was reticent. He had said he didn’t like to have relatives in the organization. “But Thorp may have just what we need,” Phil counseled. When Boeing consented, Hiscock went to work in a shed at the plant and erected a tall pole for an experimental aerial.
The Bell Laboratories were consulted. They were getting started on the problem, too. They weren’t too hopeful of two-way communication because of the noise and interference of the airplane’s engine.
“We’ll work at it,” said Hiscock. He put a short-wave receiver on a truck to cruise away from the plant while he broadcast records of the Two Black Crows, because they offered voice dialogue instead of music. Bill Lawrenz, his helper, drove the truck farther and farther away as Thorp tinkered. Lawrenz listened all the laughs out of the two somber comedians.
Late at night, maybe up in the Cascades or down near Portland, he’d hear Hiscock sign off: “I’m going home now, Bill.” Lawrenz, who couldn’t talk back, would wheel around to spend the rest of the night getting home. “It’s for science,” he’d console himself.
Later they installed a short-wave set in a 40 and Eddie Allen, a Boeing Air Transport pilot, took Lawrenz’s role as guinea pig. They moved from Seattle to Oakland where equipment was available. They tried every kind of shielding for the engine’s interference.
One day Allen didn’t show up at the hangar. The hangar crew thought he was sick, but when they didn’t locate him at home, they sent out a missing-persons alarm. He was found next day sunning himself on a beach. “I’ve run out of ideas,” said Allen. “It’s quieter here to listen for a new one.”
By perseverance, the two-way radio was perfected, and with the help of Western Electric, was installed on the line.
Finding that the route was not paved with gravestones, more and more passengers sought tickets. The crawl-in box cabin of the 40 was admittedly inadequate.
Monty Monteith, now chief engineer, went to work designing the Model 80, a big tri-motored biplane powered by Wasps. It would carry eighteen passengers, with window curtains and leather chairs. Steve Stimpson, San Francisco manager for the line, thought of adding a girl to the crew to serve box lunches and show the passengers the sights.
First the 40’s, then the 80’s gained a certain romantic fame. They were reliable, but to Claire Egtvedt they already appeared old and slow. Egtvedt no longer went to the shed where the Kirsten machine had pointed awkwardly to a new day in aeronautics. The Kirsten project had been written off as impractical. But the open hope it had stirred was in Egtvedt’s consciousness.
Boeing was established in the pursuit plane line—hauling passengers across the country—a major company in the airplane business. Had they arrived at their goal, or was this just a beginning?
He had a feeling they had only touched the challenge of the sky.
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