Message Area
lblHidCurrentSponsorAdIndex =

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

article number 516
article date 12-31-2015
copyright 2015 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Boeing Enters the Aluminum Age, Part 1: The Monomail, 1930
by Harold Mansfield

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

The All-Metal Idea

The breeze that makes San Diego delightful was rustling the pepper trees and the palms along the bay shore. It was spring of 1928. Claire Egtvedt paused on the walkway to enjoy it for a moment before going to see Admiral Reeves aboard the aircraft carrier ’Langley.’

There was a familiar music in the air: the singing of Wasp motors in the F2-Bs and F3-Bs that were Boeing’s contribution to the fleet. In the distance he could see several of the tiny fighters cutting scallops in the sky.

Commander Gene Wilson, the Admiral’s senior aide, had told him the pilots liked the F2-B (the F meant fighter; B, Boeing), which weighed in at less than 2,000 pounds empty, and made 160 miles per hour. They weren’t so enthusiastic, he said, about the next model, the F3-B, which had more wing span and was 900 pounds heavier, five miles an hour slower.

“The kids really put up a howl when I told them we were going to make it still heavier, for a five-hundred-pound bomb. You’ve got to do the impossible and design one that’ll carry a five-hundred- pound bomb, and still be as light as the F2-B.”

Egtvedt had answered that they’d learned not to call anything impossible or they’d find someone else doing it. He was glad now he had said it because the new plane, the F4-B, was turning out to be a beauty. By changing from steel to duralumin, they had trimmed it down to 1,660 pounds and still it could carry the five-hundred-pound bomb. If the Admiral approved the new ship, they’d be in line for a big order from Washington.

The Langley was tied up to dock opposite the Administration building. Gene Wilson went with Egtvedt to the Admiral’s cabin. Joseph Mason “Bull” Reeves, commander of aircraft squadrons, Battle Fleet, met him with a hearty handshake.

“Wilson tells me the F4 is looking good,” the Admiral said. They sat at a long, green baize-covered table. Beyond it the metal bulkhead was covered with sea charts.

“We were happy the way the ship turned out,” said Egtvedt. “A fleet of them would make a real striking force, wouldn’t it, Admiral? A lot more versatile than torpedo planes.”

Up to now carrier fighters had been used only to protect the fleet. If they could be used as an attacking force they’d become much more important. Egtvedt remembered what aerial bombs had done to the ’Virginia’ and ’New Jersey’ back in 1923.

“Striking force? Do you know what striking force is? Let me tell you about it.” “Bull” Reeves was speaking quietly now. He was a scholar of naval science. “Your five-hundred-pound bomb won’t penetrate deck armor. A sixteen-inch projectile from a battleship’s turret delivers 60,000 foot-tons of striking force at a single point.

A flight of thirty-six F4’s can deliver eight tons of bombs, if they can get past enemy fighters. A battleship delivers eight tons of projectiles every time it fires a round from all its turrets, and it can keep on firing.

A hundred rounds each from four two-gun turrets is eight hundred tons of steel; two hundred rounds, 1,600 tons. Multiply that by the force of the projectiles striking at 2,000 feet per second and you get nearly 100, million foot-tons of destructive force. One battleship.”

Egtvedt reeled a little under the weight of the figures. Here was a man who played a big game and knew how to play it for keeps.

“I’m not belittling your product,” “Bull” Reeves continued. “We love it. But I want you to see its place. The battleship is called the capital ship because it carries the big punch. The cruiser comes next. It’s our patroller. Then we have the destroyer, which can get around fast with torpedoes.

A torpedo plane can carry only 1,750 pounds. It’s relatively ineffective, but we take it along just as a football quarterback has his sneak play. Sometime, under certain weather conditions, we may need the torpedo plane to sneak in.

“The fighter plane is primarily to keep our ships from being bothered by enemy planes. It has an important job. If it can carry a five-hundred-pound bomb, so much the better, but there is nothing in the aircraft line that can pack the punch of a dreadnought. The airplane has its place, but it just isn’t as effective a weapon as those we already have in the fleet. The airplane isn’t a dreadnought.”

Boeing F2-Bs were loved by pilots for their maneuverability. The Navy Aerobatic Team has it’s picture taken while "tied together."

With that the furrow in the Admiral’s forehead melted. “Now back to the F4-B. If it turns out to be what Wilson says, we’re going to want plenty of them. It’ll be a more effective weapon than what we have. Any time you can make an airplane more effective, there’s a use for it.”

Egtvedt was glad for that last. He took it as a compliment to the men who had worked hard on the F4-B. But he left the carrier rudely awakened. "The airplane isn’t a dreadnought. It just isn’t as effective a weapon as those we already have." He had never thought of it that way before.

“Bull” Reeves’ words were a grain of sharp sand that he knew would remain an irritant until the truth of the Admiral’s claim was dissolved. They hadn’t yet built what Billy Mitchell called “air power.” An irritant could be a stimulant. It brought a flood of ideas, like tears that wash a sandspeck from the eye.

The airplane wasn’t what it ought to be. It couldn’t range out and defend our shores as the battleship could. Once again there came the dream that made the Model 40 mail plane, the tri-motored 80, even the Navy fighters look awkward and out of date. A dream of something better.

Each morning Egtvedt reminded himself that he was the general manager now and that a company does not exceed the vision of its leader.

In September 1928, a group from Boeing went to the Los Angeles air races. They watched the F4-B climb to altitude and back to set a record, then saw the F2-Bs take a sizzling first, second and third place in the fifty-mile Navy pursuit race.

For Egtvedt, the hotel room was a haven of peace after the din of the races. It was the same with Eddie Hubbard. The two had come to be close friends. In earlier days, they had roomed together. The holiday at the air races offered a chance to discuss hopes and views.

“I have an idea, Claire,” Eddie said one afternoon. “Why shouldn’t we go entirely to metal when we build our next transport? We have to line the mail compartment with metal anyway, so the mailbag locks won’t tear the fabric. We have to put metal plates up front for accessibility to the engine controls. Why not go the whole way, nose to tail?”

Eddie was the stimulus Claire Egtvedt needed. “We could do that,” he said. He laid a piece of stationery on the dresser, drew the front view of a wing, long and slender. “Here’s what we could do. If the body’s going to be metal, easiest way to make it is perfectly round. Set it here on the wing.” He drew a circle for the body, on top of the single wing.

That was all there was to it, a low-wing monoplane. “Here is an airplane with minimum drag.”

“Can you do that?” asked Eddie. It looked too simple. “Where’s your landing gear?”

“You could pull the gear up into the wing after you get off the ground. Dragging that thing through the air costs more than all the mail you carry.”

“You think we could do it?”

“It’s just a question of whether we could afford the cost of working it out. There’d be a lot of new engineering.” The corrugated-metal “flying washboard” surface on the Ford and Junkers tri-motors wouldn’t do. It would have to be a smooth metal skin.

But without the corrugations there would have to be more stiffening on the inside. They would probably have to use thicker metal for the skin and make it carry part of the load. Then they could use a lighter frame. This was what was called monocoque structure, but no one had much experience with it yet. “It will depend a lot on how big an airplane we build,” Claire said. “If it gets too costly we could never do it.”

“The 80 is too big,” said Eddie. “In bad weather we leave it in the barn and take out the 40s. I’d rather have smaller planes and more of them. More frequent flights. More flexibility. The 80 is a lot of airplane to herd around.”

“I’d certainly like to try our hand at an all-metal monoplane,” said Claire. “Make it just as clean as we could make it. We’ve got to do it sooner or later, that’s a cinch.”

The three-engine Boeing Model 80 was rugged but slow. It also was less maneuverable than the smaller single-engine Model 40.

Bill Boeing was highly interested when he saw the monoplane sketch. Its cleanness was appealing to the eye. He wondered if they couldn’t get to work on it as a secret project, bring it out as a surprise. Egtvedt said he’d have the engineering department investigate.

Chief engineer Monty Monteith, a man of stature both physically and professionally, could tackle a big problem with ease. Author of the textbook on aerodynamics used at West Point and many universities, the man who had shepherded scores of experimental designs through McCook Field before he came to Boeing, he was regarded as one of the most surefooted engineers in the business.

But Egtvedt’s proposal was a new one to Monty. “I don’t think so. I don’t think it’ll have the strength,” he said.

Almost everyone knew of his concern over internally braced, or cantilever, monoplanes, where the wing was supported entirely by structure inside.

He had watched his friend Lieutenant F. W. Neidermeyer fall to his death when the center section support gave way on an experimental monoplane. He had seen the wing of another monoplane develop flutter and fail the time Harold Harris made the first parachute escape at McCook, in 1922.

Flutter was the term for a flapping that might start in the wing and get worse and worse until the thing came apart.

“We just don’t know enough about flutter,” said Monty. “Maybe on a slow ship cantilever is O.K., but when we get into faster ships, it’s an unknown.”

Monty wanted to lead the race as much as anyone. New ideas were fine, but the chief engineer was the guy responsible if they didn’t work.

“Keep it simple,” Monty had written in his textbook. “Then there’s less chance for something to go wrong.”
Things like retractable landing gear would add to the speed but they were an invitation to trouble. Suppose something went wrong? Wasn’t it better to know you had a landing gear out there to come down on?

But he knew also that the airplane business lived on advancement. That was his conflict, inside.

Monty agreed that a smaller transport was the thing. The 80 and the Ford tri-motor were too big and slow. So were the Fokker F-10 and the new Keystone. “But the all-metal idea will take time to develop,” he said.

“We should get under way with a six-passenger cabin transport not quite so advanced. Make it a monoplane, but a high wing, that we can brace externally from the body.” Everyone thought this sounded reasonable and he was authorized to go ahead with the design.

The new idea for a fast, low-wing monoplane was growing, nonetheless. Egtvedt’s talk with Bill Boeing had been well timed. The Kelly Act had put the five-cent air-mail stamp into use. Air transportation was taking on a big look.

In a year when bigness was the measure of success, businesses everywhere were expanding and combining for strength. Bill Boeing could see this and had talked with Seattle banker Dietrich Schmitz and then with Joe Ripley of the National City Bank of New York about a public offering of Boeing stock.

On November 1, 1928, Boeing Airplane & Transport Corporation stock went on the market and sold quickly. Shortly after, United Aircraft & Transport Corporation was formed, largest organization of its kind in the country. It took in Boeing Airplane Company, Pratt & Whitney, maker of the Wasp motors, Chance Vought, the Hamilton Propeller Company, Boeing Air Transport and Pacific Air Transport.

Negotiations began also for purchase of National Air Transport, which operated from Chicago to New York. Boeing became chairman of the new corporation; Fred Rentschler of Pratt & Whitney, president.

“Now is the time to build up our engineering and research,” said Boeing. A brick administration building was erected at the Seattle plant with a big area allotted to Engineering. Preliminary design work was begun on the all-metal low-wing proposal. Its simple, smooth lines were rapidly winning favor over the more conventional high-wing design that was under way.

The Ford Trimotor, first flown in 1925 would soon be obsolete.

But two shocks hit in quick succession. In Salt Lake City Eddie Hubbard was rushed to the hospital with an internal disorder and died December 18, 1928. Eddie Hubbard, who had built an airline. Seven days later Claire Egtvedt was taken to the hospital critically ill.

There were weeks when everything hung in the balance, weeks of a new kind of struggle for Claire, and of prayerful anxiety for his wife. Then he began to recover. The Board gave him the new title of vice president and consulting engineer. “When you’re strong enough, get away from the plant, go wherever you want to go,” Bill Boeing told him. “Take your time about coming back.”

Phil Johnson’s broad shoulders carried both the airline and the plant management at Seattle. In Johnson’s absence from the plant he left Gardner Carr, his assistant, in charge. Faces changed, but work continued.

Steadily the new airplane called “Monomail” came into trim being, first on the drawing boards, then in metal. The high-wing project was dropped. The new idea was in its place. There was something irrepressible about an idea that was right. Disbelieved, pushed aside perhaps, it had unseen armor protecting it. It would keep coming.

“We must not dismiss any novel idea with the cocksure statement that it can’t be done,” said Bill Boeing in an interview. “We are pioneers in a new science and a new industry. Our job is to keep everlastingly at research and experiment, and let no new improvement pass us by. We have already proved that science and hard work can lick what appear to be insurmountable difficulties.”

Monteith supervised the Monomail’s break with tradition. It was an experimental ship. Why not make the most of it? Monty had made young Bob Minshall design engineer because he was quick at devising things. The rotund Bob whipped out ideas for the Monomail.

Jack Kylstra was made project engineer to organize the product of a teeming drafting room. Lysle Wood was given the job of designing the "monocoque" body structure. “Make it rugged,” Kylstra told him. What they couldn’t learn from past experience, they made up for with beef.

A bridge-type structure of square dural tubing for the inside of the wing was worked out with the help of an Army-circulated paper on internally braced wings, by an engineer named E. C. Friel. A retracting landing gear was designed. The clean, simple lines of the airplane were inspiring.

Monomail side view drawing.

It was decided not to carry passengers at all in the first Monomail. The five-cent air-mail stamp had worked wonders and the ability to carry a big mail load was the main thing now. This impetus to the mail had already prompted Boeing to build twenty-five all-mail planes called the Model 95S. They were fabric-covered biplanes much like the 40 but faster, with Pratt & Whitney Hornet engine.

Monty Monteith was proud of the When Captain Ira Eaker of the Air Corps asked him if one of them would be suitable for an endurance flight with aerial refueling, Monty said, “Sure,” and showed how they could move the instrument panel, put a passageway to the mail compartment ahead and fill it with extra gas tanks.

There was national interest in endurance flights in 1929. Ira Eaker and Major Carl “Tooey” Spaatz had started it when they circled for 150 hours over southern California in the tri-motor Fokker ’Question Mark,’ in January. Since then there had been a lot of record attempts.

“Why not an endurance flight over a regular airline route to show the reliability of the mail plane and the Hornet engine?” asked Eaker. “Just shuttle back and forth from coast to coast as long as we can stay in the air, it’ll be a good test, too, of the military possibilities of cross-country refueling.”

A 95 mail plane named ’Hornet Shuttle’ was fixed up for the refueling experiment. On August 27, 1929, with Lieutenant Bernard Thompson, Captain Eaker pointed it to the east out of Oakland. The day was fair. The mountains passed under.

At Elko, Nevada, Clair Vance lowered fifty feet of hose from a Boeing 40. Thompson reached up and caught it, held the nozzle to the fuel tank till it was full. Eaker pushed on into rain and thunder east of Salt Lake City. In the darkness over Cheyenne, he sighted the lights of Slim Lewis with more fuel.

They closed, the storm tossing them about. Lewis settled over them, kept coming down. “You’re sitting on us,” Thompson shouted. Eaker dived and Lewis pulled away. They found quieter air at a lower altitude and Thompson got his fuel.

They refueled again at Omaha, then at Cleveland—after eight attempts to get the hose connected, then at New York, where they made their U turn.

The second evening they were back over Cleveland. Lieutenant Newton Longfellow lowered two five-gallon cans of oil on a rope. While his helper was tying on a third, another can fell free and hit the 95 with a crash that shook their teeth.

Eaker was blinded with an oil bath. When he got off his goggles, Thompson had crawled back, black with oil. “Let’s get out of this thing. The front spar is broken,” he yelled. Both were wearing parachutes.

Eaker tried the throttle and found the engine and propeller undamaged. He rocked the wings and found them steady. “We’re going to land,” he said. They groped into Cleveland.

After repairs a new start was made September 1 from New York. Thirty-three hours later the Shuttle reached Oakland and began the long return eastward, into doubtful weather.

In Immigration Canyon, west of Salt Lake, the engine wasn’t getting gas. It sputtered and quit at 7,500 feet with precipitous mountains some 2,000 feet above them on the right and only slightly lower on the left. A switch to another tank didn’t help.

The only possibility of a forced landing was to the left, where the slope was less vertical. Eaker stalled the against the slope at 7,000 feet. They rolled fifty feet, caught in a hole, spun around and stopped. A plugged fuel line had ended the experiment. The two men climbed down the mountain to a stream and a road.

“Looks like we failed,” Thompson said.

“Don’t you ever think it,” said Eaker.

Major General James Fechet, chief of the Air Corps, got a report from Eaker. “This shows what could be done with refueling.”

The "Hornet Shuttle," a Boeing Model 95.

Bomber Experiment

Claire Egtvedt felt the refueling attempts were a clumsy way to go after more range. He had just been touring the airplane plants of Europe. In Germany, he had climbed through Dr. Claude Dornier’s fabulous twelve-engine 169-passenger Do-X flying boat, a more imaginative approach to the problem, he felt. The big ship could carry enough fuel for a flight across the Atlantic.

“It’s an amazing accomplishment,” he told the doctor. But as he looked back, the Do-X was in some ways quite fantastic. The structure was remarkable, but the multiplicity of engines, all racked up on struts above the wing, made it cumbersome and hugely complex.

Would the airplane ever be a rival to the surface ship? He thought of Admiral Reeves. "The airplane just isn’t as effective." Wasn’t there some other approach?

He thought of putting a row of engines inside, gearing them to a driveshaft that would turn a big propeller out front. No, that would be too complicated. Better go back to the Monomail and take it a step at a time. Maybe someday there’d be engines big enough so it wouldn’t take twelve of them to fly a ship like Dornier’s.

Egtvedt had been interested in the bombers under development in Europe, especially in England, where they were using long slender bodies. He suggested that design work be started on a Boeing bomber. They hadn’t yet done anything in this field. Now Admiral Reeves’ remarks stood as a challenge.

The bomber was the military weight-lifter. The bigger bomb load it could carry, and the more gas for range, the better. And the larger the wing area at a given power and speed, the more weight it could lift. That was axiomatic.

But if you got too big a wing, the structural weight became impossible. That explained why all bombers were biplanes, if not tri-planes. By adding one wing on top of another, you got more area. When Egtvedt suggested enlarging the Monomail idea into a twin-engine monoplane bomber, therefore, it didn’t sound right.

Monty said they could make a study of the monoplane, but meanwhile would get started on a biplane design. Both the Keystone and the Curtiss Condor were twin-engine biplanes.

Designer engineer Bob Minshall went with Egtvedt to talk with the Army about bomber prospects. General Fechet said he’d like to see Boeing compete in the field. “If there were more competition the Air Corps might get some better bombers. Go talk to Foulois at Wright Field.”

“Let’s try the monoplane idea on them,” said Minshall on the way to Dayton. “Maybe it won’t carry as big a bomb load, but it would make a sizzling good bomber.”

Brigadier General Benjamin Foulois, chief of the materiel division at Wright Field, formerly McCook Field, and Major Jan Howard, his engineering chief, gave them the bomber picture. Major Hugh Knerr, operating bombers at Langley Field, came in during the talk.

“The Keystone is too slow for a day bomber,” said General Foulois. “A hundred miles an hour isn’t enough in daylight. We’re having Fokker and Douglas bring out a faster plane that can be used either for bombing or observation.

If you want to get into bombers, we’d rather have you compete with the Keystone for a night bomber. We haven’t any funds for an experimental contract, but if you want to get into it on speculation, we’d like to have you do it.”

“How important is speed in the night bomber?” Egtvedt asked.

“Not so important as with the day bomber,” said Foulois. “How about it, Knerr?”

“That’s right. We count on the darkness for protection,” said Major Knerr. “Of course, speed helps a bit if you get caught in searchlights.” Knerr sounded like one of the Billy Mitchell school, an action man. Bob Minshall was making motions at Egtvedt that this was the strategic moment.

Egtvedt approached his subject casually. “What would you think of a type somewhat different from the Keystone and the Condor?” He laid a three-view drawing of the Monomail on the General’s desk. “We’ve been giving some thought to enlarging this plane, putting on two engines and external bomb racks.”

Early design experience on the slick looking Monomail gave Boeing a springboard to a two-engine monoplane.

Knerr and Howard were on their feet looking over the General’s shoulder. “Say now, that looks interesting,” said Major Knerr. Jan Howard’s eyes brightened.

“What will it do?” Foulois asked.

“We haven’t completed our study on it yet,” said Egtvedt. “We’ll get it to you as soon as we can.”

“Do that,” said Jan Howard, now taking the lead.

Egtvedt wired the plant: “Cease all work on bombers until further advised re new opportunity.” When they got back to Seattle there were long discussions. Phil Johnson favored going ahead with the new design. He thought Boeing would approve building an experimental model on speculation.

Monteith cautioned against haste: “Let’s not bet on the wrong horse. We shouldn’t write off the biplane until we’re sure.”

The difference of opinion didn’t stump Phil. “Let’s design it both ways, then,” he proposed. “We’ll find out which is better.”

That was fair enough. John Sanders went to work on the monoplane and Al Soderquist on the biplane. The intramural rivalry was intense for a few weeks. Both Sanders and Soderquist designed around new 600-horsepower Hornet engines, with an alternate design using the 600-horsepower Curtiss Conqueror.

But the further they went, the plainer it became that the monoplane was going to show the best performance. The reduction in drag offset the lack of wing area. Speed made more difference in the lift of the wing than the number of square feet.

Soderquist finally came around to Sanders’ drafting table. “I can’t make my clunk do what a low-wing monoplane can do,” he said.

Minshall wondered if Monty’s real concern about the airplane wasn’t still the question of the monoplane’s strength and the possibility of wing flutter. The Monomail hadn’t been flown yet and this one would be bigger, faster. But he thought they could beef it up enough to meet Monty’s standards. They did.

When Phil Johnson took the drawings east in January 1930, both Dayton and Washington urged him to go ahead on a speculative basis. If the experimental model met specifications, it would surely merit an order for several service-test models.

“It’s the only forward thinking in bombers we’ve seen,” said General Fechet. Bill Boeing and the United Aircraft & Transport Corporation board in Hartford, which now controlled expenditures, authorized the project.

The Monomail had been a well-kept secret until the wings and body were taken to be assembled on the recently completed Boeing Field, a mile down the highway. Then Seattle was astir with interest. Fans crowded the fenced-off area.

This plane didn’t look like other airplanes. But somehow it looked as an airplane should, something meant to fly. Body slender, smooth, round, resting neatly on a silver wing. A wing turned slightly up, slightly back, outstretched for flight.

Employees brought their families to look. Now it was something real. Painted there on its side was the name ’Monomail,’ once mysteriously murmured through the plant. Bold on its tail, the Department of Commerce letters X (for experimental) 725-W, meant that it was ready to become airborne.

Seeking the best pilot to fly the plane, Minshall and Monteith had chosen Eddie Allen. Eddie had studied the Monomail. When he climbed into the cockpit, he was in key with his airplane.

The Boeing Monomail was Boeings first monocoque (internally braced) design. Did they design it strong enouph?

In his gentle, high voice Eddie called down to a mechanic: “I’m going to try a couple of runs at this setting, then I’ll be back.” The blades of the metal propeller could be adjusted on the ground, and he was trying to determine the best pitch.

He taxied down the runway, then back. “Set them two degrees flatter.” Eddie seemed more concerned about the propeller setting than anything else.

Eventually he was ready for a take-off run. Everybody watched as he revved up the engine. He started to roll, picked up speed, and raced for the end of the field. Then there was a screeching of tires and a cloud of dust as he stopped short.

“I couldn’t get airborne with the propeller set for cruising,” said Eddie. “I think we’d better run some static thrust tests.” They tied the airplane to an anchor and used a spring scale to measure the strength of its pull.

The dilemma was painfully clear. The whistle-clean airplane was capable of great speed in the air, but to get this speed the propeller blades would have to take a big bite of air with each turn. They’d have to set the pitch of the blade steep. But when they did that on the ground, the propeller would just blow the air sideways. To get enough power at low speed required a flat pitch. That wasn’t good for flying.

Eddie agreed on a compromise setting. On May 22, 1930, with the Hornet roaring her loudest, the Monomail sailed into the air, a beautiful sight. Down from the flight, Eddie climbed out nodding and smiling. “It’s as smooth as it looks,” he said.

Later he drew Egtvedt aside. “It’s a shame, though. This airplane wants to get up and go, but you can’t get the power out of the propellers.”

Testing went on. After some weeks Slim Lewis, chief pilot of Boeing Air Transport, came up to try the plane. Monty and Gardner “Dick” Carr and some others were watching him from a rooftop at Plant One when he tried some steep banks, pouring it on. They saw him pull up sharp.

“No, he wouldn’t dare,” Monty gasped. Up, up and over on his back went Slim Lewis, in a loop. “It won’t stand that,” cried Monty, his long legs covering in seconds the stairs and the distance to his car. Commercial airplanes weren’t meant for stunting. He raced to the field, skidded to a stop in the gravel by the hangar and jumped out, waving his fists at the sky.

“How’re we going to get him down?” he demanded of John Wilson, the chief inspector. Lewis pulled up into another loop. Monty came down with two powerful arms on top of John Wilson’s slight shoulders. “We’ve got to get him down,” he shouted.

Helplessly they watched Lewis do a third loop. Then he came down, grinning until he caught the looks of his audience. “Well,” said big Slim Lewis, “my boys have to fly all kinds of contraptions that you guys put together up here. I want to be sure they’re good and sound before I let ‘em fly ‘em.”

Inspection showed a few popped rivets on the metal fairings at the wing root, but no real damage. A few weeks later Lewis took the plane on down to Cheyenne, enthusiastic. But he hadn’t reckoned seriously enough with Eddie Allen’s findings concerning propeller limitations. When he took off in Cheyenne’s rarefied air 6,000 feet above sea level, he barely got over the tree tops at the end of the field.

Boeing Monomail in flight.

The Hamilton Standard people, now part of the United Aircraft & Transport group, advised bringing the plane to Pittsburgh for tests with different propellers. They had started to develop a controllable propeller that could take off at one pitch and be shifted to another in flight.

Monty didn’t think that was the answer. It would add weight—and something else to go wrong. He thought they should increase the supercharging, the air supply to the engines, so they could get more power at altitude.

After the Pittsburgh tests a more expedient solution was found, a smaller propeller, without gearing, turning at a faster speed. Then the pitch didn’t make so much difference.

But Egtvedt didn’t feel they’d solved the problem. Neither did Gene Wilson, Admiral Reeves’ former aide who was now the president of Hamilton Standard.

Wilson wanted a controllable propeller device, a geared-down engine that would turn a big propeller with a big bite, and enough supercharging to give power at high altitude. “We need all three,” he said, “if we are going to have any progress.”

Sometimes progress was a disturbing thing. If it solved an old problem, it might uncover a new one. It was always the hard path to take. The old way, the familiar way, was so easy. Why not settle back in it? Why disturb things?

It had been disturbing to the pilots on the line when the big 80 tri-motor had put them inside a closed cockpit. Fliers of the purple twilight, they liked the breath of the night on their faces. They wanted to be able to look out, to lean over the edge and follow the railroad or the fence row.

This attitude was so strong that it was decided to build one of the 80s with an open cockpit. A place was made for the two pilots atop the square nose.

It was a sun-baked day in July 1930 when pilot Clair Vance ferried the new plane to Oakland with Fred Collins, assistant sales manager, as co-pilot. Collins flew over the Siskiyous, then Vance said he’d take over. Collins, sun-drowsy and well fed at Medford, leaned on his arm for a nap. His peace was shared by the half dozen Boeing people relaxing in the armchairs of the eighteen-passenger cabin.

Harold Crary, publicity manager, went forward and climbed up the ladder to the sky-roof cockpit to see what was doing. He found both Collins and Vance bowed and limp, the sun blazing down on the backs of their necks, the big airplane droning on.

Crary shook Fred Collins vigorously by the shoulders. Fred waved a sleepy arm to the left. “He’s flying it.”

“Nobody’s flying it,” cried Crary, beating Vance on the back. The stable 80 hadn’t noticed the neglect. It bore well the fruits of earlier lessons in stability. But pilots soon decided the closed cockpit was better, after all.

The rocking-chair comfort and the accident-free record of the 80 gave the tri-motor a growing popularity. On other lines the tri-motored Fords and Fokkers were equally popular. Passenger traffic was growing. The government was encouraging this under the Watres Act with air-mail rates that allowed a premium for passenger planes.

To take advantage of the Act, the second of the two Monomails, partly built, was redesigned to carry six passengers, but its cabin was tiny compared to the walk-around cabin in the 80.

Since the Monomail appeared to be too small, some of the younger engineers thought a twin-motored transport could be designed along the lines of the new bomber, but Monty didn’t favor this. The bomber was an experiment. It was still unbuilt. A plane for airline use had to be tested, reliable.

Boeing’s experience with the Monomail would help to produce a two-engine design.

Nor was the bomber development coming easy. The plan to put engines in the wing was new. They had always been above or below the wing.

When the NACA ran wind-tunnel tests at Langley Field to help solve the problem, the word was surprising. The best results came from putting the two engines out in front of the wing. As if the structural problem weren’t bad enough already.

But the figures were unmistakably clear and a housing, or nacelle, was devised to hold the engines out there. A ring of metal was put over the rough cylinder heads to smooth up the air flow.

This hurdle past, the bomber design began to look more promising. The plane was going to be much faster than the Monomail.

The propeller on the Monomail was less effective because it had to send the air back over a big body and thick wing root. The bomber, with its engines out in front of the wing, would avoid that. Its expected speed went up to 175 miles per hour.

The chance of winning the next bomber competition seemed excellent. As far as could be learned, no one else was working on such an advanced plane. The project was kept a close secret.

There was a lively pace in the shops, with work also under way on contracts for 177 F-4B Navy fighters and their Army counterparts, the P-12 pursuits.

To keep the pursuit line going, design work had just been started on a low-wing monoplane pursuit. One thousand men were employed now, all on military planes. That didn’t seem right, after all that had been done on mail planes and tri-motored transports. There was a great desire to get a new transport going.

“The question is,” said Monteith, “whether it should be a single or a tri-motored airplane. Is it more economical to operate a small fleet of large transports or a large fleet of small ones? If we go ahead with the Monomail it will have to have a larger cabin. We’ve got to provide better facilities. We’re up against real competition for passenger comfort.”

The tri-motor looked like the best bet. Just so long as it didn’t get too big for the hangars on the airlines. Designs were started on a new twelve-passenger tri-motor.

Boeing Monomail in service.
< Back to Top of Page