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article number 520
article date 01-14-2016
copyright 2016 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Boeing Enters the Aluminum Age, Part 2: Multi-Engine Aircraft, 1933
by Harold Mansfield

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

* * *

Why Not a Twin-engine Transport?

When 1931 rolled around, Phil Johnson asked department heads for reports and recommendations for the new year. One of these requests fell on the desk of ruddy, forthright, young Fred Collins.

Erik Nelson, the sales manager, was away and Fred was in charge. He had just returned from five months of flying the Model 80 tri-motors and felt a little rusty on things at the plant. But he was filled with ideas about flying equipment and more than a little impatient with the slow tri-motors.

“Why aren’t we building a twin-engine monoplane transport like the twin-engine bomber?” The idea hit him with gale force. “Must be some reason or it would have been thought of already.”

Collins wasn’t an engineer. His job was to sell airplanes. But Fokker had just brought out a twin-engine monoplane, an observation plane for the Army that was attracting attention. Why not a transport? The more he tried to set up reasons against it, the greater the force that tore them away.

Safety? Certainly two engines would be better than one, as in the Monomail.

Performance? He’d seen the bomber figures in Engineering. Neither a tri-motor nor a single-engine plane could equal them.

Operating cost? He scoured the trade magazines and Army correspondence files for data. He found some Air Corps figures showing that the cost of operating a tri-motored Ford was $229 an hour, that of a two-motored biplane Keystone bomber only $175.

He expected the cost of construction would be greater for the new plane, but the increased revenue would offset that.

When Collins got his sixteen-page presentation ready, he took it straight to Phil Johnson’s office and handed it to W. A. Patterson, Phil’s new assistant. When Pat Patterson had read the paper he walked into Fred’s office: “I think you got something. But you’d better have Engineering go over it.”

Collins sent copies down to Engineering and also discussed the proposal with Claire Egtvedt. “It’s certainly worth looking into,” said Egtvedt. Two weeks later Monteith made his report.

“The plane can be built,” said Monty, “but Collins has overlooked one thing. Its service ceiling with one engine out of commission will be only 4,000 feet.” Monty didn’t bother to add that the Medicine Bow range, where Boeing Air Transport crossed it, reached 10,000 feet. Work went ahead on the tri-motor transport design in two versions, a monoplane and a biplane.

All hands were busy now getting the secret experimental bomber ready for flight. On April 29, Les Tower took it up.

It was a surprise, a falcon in the air over Seattle—long black body, barrel-nosed; long low wing carrying two powerful engines. Perhaps not so graceful as the Monomail, but unmistakably sinewy. Its burning speed was evident.

By June the new plane was tested and trimmed for its flight to Wright Field. Slim Lewis and Erik Nelson were the pilots, with John Sanders, project engineer, as passenger in the rear gunner’s seat.

This was zero hour for Sanders, his months of planning and effort now going to the big test. He noticed a heavy tingle of vibration from the engines, but it was swallowed in the tingle of his own excitement.

They sailed east over the Cascade Mountains, Sanders thoroughly pleased with his racing perch until a sudden air shock nearly catapulted him overboard. He decided this craft called for safety belts all the way.

They averaged 158 miles an hour on the long trip to Dayton, stopping at Cheyenne and Chicago. Sanders thought of the one-hundred-mile-an-hour Keystones the Air Corps had just bought. Relics now, he felt.

No official welcome awaited them at Wright Field. They had trouble, in fact, finding a place to park their new offering. But when the Army test crews got it in the air, they knew they had hold of something.

There was concern about the vibration of the 575-horsepower Hornets, but the bomber’s top speed of 185 miles an hour seemed to answer all arguments. That was five miles faster than most pursuits. The ship would be invulnerable until faster pursuits could be built.

It wasn’t long before a contract was drawn for seven of the planes, to be called B-9s—Air Corps Bomber Number Nine.

Boeing B-9 Bomber flying in formation with a Boeing P-26 Fighter.

The bomber’s success spurred interest, too, in Boeing’s new monoplane pursuit, though the Wright Field engineers decided they’d prefer to have the pursuit wings braced with wires instead of internally braced. Given the name P-26, the new pursuit held the promise of a large order.

Salesman Fred Collins kept seeing in the B-9 bomber a future twin-engine transport. He carried the picture in the front of his mind when he visited bases along the Boeing Air Transport line. Flying in the slow-droning 80 did nothing to erase it.

Slim Lewis, who’d liked the Monomail, was in agreement with Collins. “Why not?” said Slim. “It’s the sort of thing we need.” Slim Lewis talked with Thorp Hiscock. Hiscock, who had his own enthusiasm for advancement, talked with D. B. Colyer, operations vice president of Boeing Air Transport. Colyer sent a note to Phil Johnson: “I think the idea is worth a good study by the engineers in Seattle.”

The engineering department undertook the study, on top of the one under way on new tri-motored transports, a biplane improvement of the Model 80 and a monoplane more like the Ford and the Fokker.

The tri-motor plans were completed in July 1931. Phil Johnson sent them to the operating heads of the four lines making up the United System.

Reactions were varied but unenthusiastic. One thought biplanes more comfortable than monoplanes, though the latter were faster. One thought too much importance was being given to speed. Another thought the opposite. One thought passenger and cargo space should be interchangeable.

When the twin-engine monoplane was roughed up—a ten-passenger low-wing plane—Johnson sent the plans to the same four.

Two of them thought the tri-motored monoplane would be better. One suggested a single engine with twice the power. One thought the twin-engine plane would have a quieter cabin, but would have to be able to fly well on one engine.

While the transport plans were making the rounds in July, Phil Johnson was opening offices in Chicago for a consolidation of the four airlines in the United Aircraft & Transport group: Boeing Air Transport, National Air Transport, Pacific Air Transport, and Varney Air Lines.

Combined under the name United Air Lines, they became the largest air transport organization in the country, operating 120 planes, 32,000 miles a day, with Phil the president. Newspapers called the youthful executive “King of the Air at thirty-seven.” Phil retained the presidency of Boeing Airplane Company but designated Claire Egtvedt, now well recovered from his physical setback, vice president in charge of the plant.

Once again, Egtvedt gazed from the driver’s seat at the question, “Where are we going?” He thought especially about the new transport. Two things he had learned. Airplane development was coming fast, uncomfortably fast, and would pass by the company that hesitated.

But to be successful, the new idea had to be right; the one that met a need. Vision was seeing what was right.

Was the answer all in the engineering figures? The figures that showed the twin-engine plane wouldn’t have enough single-engine ceiling for passenger safety? They couldn’t be ignored, but figures could rule you if you didn’t rule them.

Was it to be found in conflicting opinions and advice? Advice served best when it stimulated thought; it wasn’t authority. Wasn’t the right idea the one that looked right to the eye, measured right to the mind, felt right to the heart?

Claire Egtvedt thought of the Monomail. It was a beautiful thing. It held more promise than anybody knew, if it weren’t for the propeller problem. He thought of the twin-engine B-9 bomber. It had followed logically out of the Monomail. Now it was shattering all the old concepts of bomber design.

Boeing B-9 Bomber with Mt. Rainier in the background.

The twin-engine low-wing transport flowed from these as inevitably as a river flows from its source. “Let’s work to get the ceiling up,” he told Monteith. “Let’s see, too, if we can get an airplane that’s better from the passenger viewpoint.”

Monty was in good mood. Wright Field had just load-tested a wing of the B-9 and found it the most rigid wing they’d seen. His doubt about monoplane structure was fading. “O.K.,” he said. “One thing I’d like to do is give the passenger wider seats and more space between them. I shudder to think how we cram them into the seats we’ve been using.”

In Chicago, Phil Johnson looked out at the new sign, UNITED AIR LINES, to him a symbol of leadership. Phil had been brought up with planes and engineering. It was natural for him to want to lead in equipment. He pictured United bringing out the ideal transport, jumping way out ahead of the others.

When Johnson and Egtvedt got together, obstacles flew out the window and thoughts soon centered on the monoplane they would call Model 247—twin-engined, all-metal, low-winged, streamlined at every corner, with retracting landing gear.

Johnson wasn’t satisfied with the speed and climb performance of the design so far. “Clean it up some more. Cut down the weight,” he urged.

Monty asked Bob Minshall to spearhead the new effort, with Frank Canney as his project engineer. Egtvedt suggested they hold it to eight passengers and use only one pilot, to keep the plane small and light as possible, but Phil balked at the single pilot.

Meetings were called at the Cheyenne maintenance headquarters and the operating people contributed their ideas. After the sessions, Erik Nelson reported, “We’ve got to get in ten passengers and still keep the weight from going up.”

When the design looked right and the cruising speed came up to the 150 miles an hour the operating people had set as a minimum, Phil Johnson’s enthusiasm grew. He sold Fred Rentschler, United Aircraft president, on replacing the whole United fleet with the new planes, in a bold bid for supremacy.

The Board agreed. A $3 million order was placed for sixty of the 247s, to be constructed in secret. The first plane would go in service by the end of 1932.

Details of design were completed, and production got started. There was a schedule to meet; no time to lose. Employment went up to 1,200. The work came on top of Army and Navy orders for 110 P-12E pursuits and ninety two F-4B4 fighters. Throughout the generally bad business year of 1932, the plant on the Duwamish was bustle and hum.

In October 1932, the B-9 bombers were being considered for a quantity production order. Glenn Martin had now built a somewhat similar plane, but it didn’t seem to be much competition. There were reports it was full of bugs.

The only complaints about the B-9 were the engine vibration and a twisting of the long slender body. The body could be fixed and the equipment laboratory at Wright Field was working on a new rubber engine mount that would help the vibration.

In December, with everything set for news of the contract award, a big Martin delegation marched into the procurement office at Dayton. The verdict came soon. “The Martin B-10 has won the competition. You can stop work on the B-9.”

“How come?” Bob Minshall asked Jake Harman, the bomber project engineer.

“You’d be amazed what Martin did in two months,” said Lieutenant Harman. “Practically rebuilt the whole airplane. Put on an enclosed cockpit, a larger wing, new engines. Yours shake like the devil. They put the bomb racks inside and got their top speed twenty-two miles above yours.”

Then too, Martin had gotten his bid down a few dollars under the Boeing bid. This, thought Minshall, must have been the main reason Martin won. It couldn’t have been that Boeing was slow on its feet at the end of the race and let Martin improve on Boeing’s design.

Martin B-10s won a larger contract with its enclosed cockpit and internal bomb racks.

The shock of the B-9’s defeat was snubbed short by excitement over work on the Model 247 transport. Dick Carr was running the plant twenty-four hours a day to make Phil Johnson’s deadline. The 247 would put United Air Lines way out in the lead.

Erik Nelson on a visit to the Douglas plant had seen a full-scale wooden model of a twin-engine monoplane built along lines similar to the 247, but it would take them months to get it in production. No one seemed concerned about the Douglas threat. The 247 was going to be a superb ship.

At noon, February 8, 1933, the new transport, silver-bright, lifted off Boeing Field and winged out over Puget Sound. “They’ll never build ‘em any bigger,” said Monteith.

Monty probably would have thought twice before he’d have put that remark in writing. It hadn’t come from pondering the airplane of the future. It came out of the exuberance of the occasion, his way of saying that the great new transport, revolutionary in form, was the last word.

But his remark was revealing. Not only did the 247 seem the ideal size, but there was a law of “diminishing returns” which said the bigger you made the airplane, the more difficult the problem of structural strength. Good airplanes couldn’t get much larger.

There was another rule of thumb that said the lift of an airplane would increase as the square of the speed, and the speed would go up as the cube of the power.

To double the speed of a given plane, you’d need eight times the power, because of the increased drag at the higher speed. Obviously speeds weren’t likely to go much higher.

But he who writes the text must take heed lest he fall into its pages; lest the rule that applies under given circumstances be taken as a limit to progress. Real law, universal, eternal law, is what makes good things possible, not impossible.

Where now was the limited view that the biplane was superior to the monoplane because of greater wing area? That the twin-engine monoplane transport would be impractical?

The 247 brought a revolution in airline schedules, in comfort and revenue, especially when an improved new Wasp engine was installed.

The new Wasp was supercharged to deliver its 550 horsepower at 8,000 feet altitude instead of 5,000. It was geared down to put more power in the propeller. And Hamilton Standard had come through with a controllable propeller that could be shifted to steep pitch in flight, to put the power to work.

The ceiling of the plane went up to 27,000 feet; it could fly at 11,500 feet on one engine. Top speed went to two hundred miles an hour, and United advertised three mile a minute schedules.

William E. Boeing was selected as winner of the Guggenheim Medal for “successful pioneering and achievement in aircraft manufacture and air transportation.”

This was Bill Boeing’s hour of triumph. He had promised himself retirement at fifty. He was fifty-one now. With his goal in mind, he had been gradually selling his stock in United Aircraft & Transport.

In August 1933, Boeing withdrew from active participation. Fred Rentschler became vice chairman and Phil Johnson moved to New York as president of the sprawling organization. Claire Egtvedt walked with thoughtful step to a new desk as president of Boeing Airplane Company.

The sixty-plane series of 247 transports coming through the plant was stimulating but now the production job was half done. What was to follow it?

United Air Lines Boeing 247 in flight.

Transcontinental and Western Air had wanted to buy the airplane and begin taking delivery after the twentieth ship had been delivered to United. But TWA was a competitor of United. “We’re going to buy somewhere else if you won’t sell,” Jack Frye, the TWA president, had said.

Egtvedt put the proposal to the United Aircraft board in New York. The answer was No. They would have to finish the sixty before taking new orders.

Now Douglas was building a similar plane for delivery to TWA next spring. The Douglas would have a bigger cabin—sixteen passengers instead of ten—and wing flaps to slow down the landing speed. Other airlines, forced by competition, were falling in line behind TWA for the new Douglas.

As Martin had done with the bomber, Douglas was doing with the transport. Where did that leave Boeing? Back with pursuits?

Egtvedt was thoroughly disturbed. He’d decided there was more employment, more dollar value, more engineering opportunity in the bigger planes.

Besides, the P-26 monoplane pursuit, now in full production, was hampered in speed by its external wire bracing. A new internally braced experimental model was under way for submittal to both the Army and the Navy, but it was being tortured by design changes, and other pursuit builders were making a strong bid for the market.

Competition was a fierce thing. It wasn’t just a matter of getting ahead, but staying ahead. “We’ve got to start on a larger transport and a new bomber,” Egtvedt said.

He proposed that the United Aircraft board allocate funds for these. But United Aircraft & Transport was in deep trouble in the winter of 1933-34. The new Democratic administration was clawing through the files of the Post Office Department.

Former Postmaster General Walter F. Brown had sought to build a systematic air transportation pattern through the air-mail routes. A special Senate investigating committee now charged that many of his routes had been granted without competitive bidding.

At the hearings, United protested that it had only one such route, a branch line from Omaha to Watertown, South Dakota, which they had been asked by the Post Office to operate. Other lines protested the charges. The hearing-room temperature grew torrid.

Bill Boeing fumed as he sat in the witness chair answering Hugo Black’s questions about the value of Boeing stock, which had mirrored the booming growth of the company. What did that have to do with air-mail contracts, Boeing asked himself. Hadn’t they taken their contracts under straight competitive bidding? Hadn’t the Post Office been afraid to take their bid at first because it was so low? Weren’t they entitled to reward for pioneering and success?

On February 9, 1934, President Roosevelt cancelled all airmail contracts and ordered the Army to take over the mail. Twelve Army pilots lost their lives in two months of operation that followed.

Then the job was given back to the airlines but Postmaster General Farley decreed that for five years no airline executive who attended former Postmaster General Brown’s route-planning meetings could contract to carry the mail. Phil Johnson had to resign to permit United to regain its contract.

Then a law was passed prohibiting air-mail contractors from being associated with any aviation manufacturing companies. That meant the United Aircraft & Transport Corporation would have to be split up. Bitterly, Bill Boeing sold out the rest of his stock and left the airplane business.

A committee in Hartford decided to form three new companies from the fragments of United Aircraft & Transport.
- One was United Air Lines.
- Another took in Pratt & Whitney and the other Eastern manufacturing companies.
- The third, in the West, weakest in capital funds and lowest in backlog of business, comprised Boeing Airplane in Seattle, Stearman Aircraft in Wichita, Kansas, which had been acquired by United in 1929, and a small subsidiary in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Claire Egtvedt, presiding over the western remnant, recalled the grim days of the flat spin. This one seemed bigger and flatter.

Side View: Boeing 247 Transport.
The Boeing 247 was a giant step for Boeing, replacing this antiquated Boeing Model 80 tri-motor biplane.

Project A

That spring of everything seemed to be going backward. Everything. Profits from the 247 transport had been squeezed down almost to the red line and the P-26A pursuits were coming out at a loss, with costs increased under NRA and a succession of design changes.

Both these contracts would soon be finished, then there’d be nothing. Good men were being laid off by the scores.

The attempt to build a successor to the P-26 pursuit was failing. The new experimental Navy fighter and Army pursuit didn’t sell. “The big planes take so much effort we can’t give the attention to pursuits,” said Monteith. “We just can’t spread our design people that thin.”

There was no chance of getting back in the bomber business without a new model.

Egtvedt wanted to build an experimental prototype of a new twin-engine bomber along with a prototype of an advanced twin-engine transport—one incorporating wing flaps and having a larger capacity than the 247. By building the two types out of the same basic design, it would be possible to offer both the Army and the airlines lower prices.

But getting money for experimental work was the problem. When the legal and financial separation of the United Aircraft companies was completed and United’s capital was reallocated, the Boeing Airplane Company would have $582,000 cash. The money needed to meet payroll and obligations for the remainder of the year totaled $743,000. There was some more money due for P-26s but the contract was in controversy and might be several years in the Court of Claims.

Egtvedt was completely wrung out. The whole organization had been working from the heart; surely effort like that couldn’t lead to failure. “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity,” he reflected. Things might look black, but this couldn’t be the end of the line. It took a certain faith to know that what looked like a setback might be the setting for a greater gain.

Down in Engineering and out in the shops were the men who had brought about a marvelous advance in the airplane, the people who were the Boeing Company. There wasn’t any thought of defeat in them.

They came in from the shops and suggested a plan of alternating work, one group on for two weeks, then off while the other group worked the next two, to preserve the staff. Then, when the plan was put in effect, a lot of them came down on their time off and worked without pay.

That was how things stood when Claire Egtvedt got a call from Brigadier General Conger Pratt, chief of the Air Corps Materiel Division at Wright Field: “Can you be here personally for an important meeting May 14? It’s a secret matter and I’d rather not say more on the phone.”

There were stair steps leading to progress in Dayton, in Washington, elsewhere, paralleling the steps that had been taken in Seattle. To those who climbed them, there was a new view.

Some were too busy to climb them; others, content, stayed below. Some thought them too dangerous. But there were those who had a high goal in their hearts, as had George Leigh Mallory, the British mountaineer, who explained why he wanted to climb Mount Everest: “Because it is there.”

The Army Air Corps was made of men like Mallory. They chose to fly. Fast, high, into the challenge of the sky.

The uniform of a second lieutenant was awkward on the lean figure of Jake Harman when he left the University of Idaho to attend Army flying school. There was an eager gleam in Jake’s eye. “I want to fly bombers,” he said, when everyone knew that pursuits were the thing for a young fellow to get into.


“Because they are air power.” Jake had been reading Billy Mitchell. But when he got to flying Keystone bombers at Langley Field in 1929 he felt cheated. One day when Harman was pushing along over the landscape a pilot in a Ford tri-motor passed him by with a pleasant wave.

This was absurd, Jake thought. He couldn’t even keep up with a passenger plane.

When the squadron commander sought Harman’s help brushing up on mathematics to enter Air Corps engineering school, and then suggested that Harman apply also, there flashed before him the hope that he might some day help get better bombers.

“Would they take me, a lousy second lieutenant?” he asked.

“Put down a good reason and I’ll see you get in.”

Jake Harman gave as his reason: “To see to it that the Air Corps gets some fast, long-range bombers.” Major Hugh Knerr, who had been writing up the needs of bombardment aviation, encouraged Harman.

When three years later Jake found himself the bombardment project officer at Wright Field, at the time the Boeing B-9s and the first Martin B-10s were coming in, he thought he’d better try to make good that goal. “We’re getting the speed, now let’s go after the range.”

Side View: Boeing B-9 Bomber.

Range was synonymous with size. To carry a bigger gas load, you had to have a bigger wing, a bigger airplane.

How big could you go? The subject became a favorite one at the field in 1933. Jan Howard, the chief engineer; his assistant, Al Lyon; Jimmie Taylor, chief of the aircraft branch; Hugh Knerr, who’d been sent to Dayton “to do something about his squawks” and was now heading the field service section, would kick the subject around. Harman got in on the discussions.

Did the long-standing notion still apply that you couldn’t make a plane much bigger because you’d have to put so much weight into the structure that you’d end up with a white elephant? Now there were all-metal structures to work with; more strength.

The U. S. Military had previously underwrote a giant bomber, the XNBL-1 "Barling" Bomber. It was a political white elephant but by 1933 large aircraft design methods were quite advanced and it was time for another experiment.

What about control? Could a pilot handle the control surfaces on a big plane? How big? What about power? The power plants were always the limiting thing. You took what range you could get, after you found how big a structure the engineers would permit, and how big a power plant was available. And you didn’t get any range.

“Why not go at it the other way around?” Harman asked. “If we want to get a long-range bomber, why not lay down a plan of what we need instead of what we think we can get? Start from there.” Brash, perhaps, but Harman was hankering to try it. So were the others.

They prepared a list of future bomber categories:
- (1) Wing span, 75 feet; gross weight, 15,000 pounds; that took in the present B-9 and B-10;
- (2) 100-foot span, 40,000 pounds gross;
- (3) 150-foot span, 60,000 pounds gross;
- (4) 200 feet, 150,000 pounds;
- (5) 250 feet, 200,000 pounds;
- (6) 275 feet, 250,000 pounds;
- (7) 325 feet, 300,000 pounds,
and so on up the ladder.

Fantastic? Who could say? How could they ever know without setting up some projects to find out?

In the fall of Major Jimmie Taylor budgeted a project for a 5,000-mile bomber in category Number Three, skipping Number Two, reaching into the future as far as he dared.

“Here’s your chance,” he told Harman, “if the budget goes through.”

Jake Harman’s pencil flew as he worked up the requirements: an airplane that would carry 2,000 pounds of bombs 5,000 miles, five times the range of the B-9 and B-10. A thirty-ton airplane, four times as heavy as the latest bombers. Labeled “Project A,” it challenged all the limitations on airplane design.

The budget request was O.K.’d by General Pratt and sent on to Washington. It asked only for money for the engineering, but $600,000 would be required for the building of such a plane. One airplane.

When Brigadier General Conger Pratt endorsed the proposal, he knew something of the Washington situation. He had spent some stormy years there as chief of operations just after Billy Mitchell was court-martialed. For a time he worked for Benny Foulois, now chief of the Air Corps.

Two of Pratt’s assistants had been Tooey Spaatz and Harold George.

Spaatz was now in California in command of the First Bombardment Wing. Out there, he had spent many a night talking air power with Colonel Hap Arnold, CO at the field, Hap Arnold who had gotten in trouble when he upheld Billy Mitchell too vigorously.

Captain Hal George was now head of tactics and strategy at the Air Corps tactical school in Montgomery, Alabama, where Billy Mitchell’s writings were the center of discussion. “In future warfare,” General Mitchell had said, “aircraft will project the spear-point of the nation’s offensive and defensive power against the vital centers of the opposing country. Woe be to the nation that is weak in the air.”

Said Hal George to the young air officers, “Future wars will begin with air action. The enemy’s industrial fabric will be a more vital target than his armed forces.”

This kind of talk was having its effect. Not that Washington was in agreement on the strategic role of the airplane. Far from it. But there had been some steps in this direction.

Martin B-10s practice bombing. Boeing B-9s and Martin B-10s had about a 1000 mile range.

In 1931, General Douglas MacArthur, the Army Chief of Staff, had put the fire extinguisher to a long-smoldering dispute between Army and Navy by obtaining from Admiral William V. Pratt, Chief of Naval Operations, an agreement that Army air forces would defend the coasts of the U. S. and its overseas possessions.

It was MacArthur’s thought that a GHQ Air Force, directed out of Army headquarters, would perform this role, adding to the Army’s capability and ending the feud over a separate air force.

“We’ll buy that,” said Air Chief Benny Foulois when the General Staff put the plan on paper the following year. “But we’ll need funds for long-range observation planes. We should keep enemy aircraft carriers at least 250 miles from our shores.”

Of course there was no enemy. Japanese troops had burst in on Mukden to wrest Manchuria from China, but that was in the Orient where anything might happen. The League of Nations had censured the aggressors.

There were also weird goings-on in Germany. A party leader named Adolf Hitler, who had written a book about his “battle” while imprisoned in Munich for insurrection, had battled his way to the chancellorship. He was saying something about the Third Reich, about rebuilding the empire of Frederick the Great. The new chancellor had dissolved parliament. But that was the Germans’ scrap. America was safe on its own continent.

As an exercise, Benny Foulois in 1933 asked his assistant, Brigadier General Oscar Westover, to fly a trial mission in defense of the Pacific Coast. After the maneuvers were over, Westover assessed the results.

Observation and pursuit planes used in the tests appeared “woefully obsolete,” he reported to the General Staff. Modern bombers, with their speed and defensive fire, could go it alone. If flown in formation, with silencers and camouflage, “no known agency could frustrate” their mission.

It was soon after this that the double-sealed secret envelope containing General Pratt’s proposal for a long-range experimental bomber crossed the desks of Foulois, Westover, Spaatz. General Pratt proposed that Boeing and Martin be invited to submit proposals.

These two companies, Pratt thought, were probably the most capable of handling such a project. If the proposals looked good, they’d be given design contracts. Then the better design would be chosen and a contract awarded for building the plane. Wright Field was willing to put all its experimental money into this one project, Pratt said.

Foulois presented the proposal to the General Staff. The project would further the plan for a mobile GHQ air force, he pointed out. A range of 5,000 miles would protect Alaska and Hawaii. The General Staff agreed.

Claire Egtvedt stepped into Conger Pratt’s carpeted office in Dayton on May 14, 1934, as onto a ship for a foreign land. Nine or ten chairs flanked the General’s desk. Various officers were arriving and sitting down. Captain Al Lyon said he was acting for Major Howard who was away. C. A. Van Dusen of the Martin Company was there.

“The purpose of this meeting,” General Pratt began formally, “is to discuss a procedure under which the Air Corps will consider proposals for construction of a long-range airplane suitable for military purposes. An airplane weighing about thirty tons that will carry 2,000 pounds of bombs a distance of 5,000 miles.”

Egtvedt caught his breath at the audacity of the plan. He looked over at Van Dusen who was blinking his eyes; at Captain Lyon, who was smiling over their surprise.

The General continued: “Before I go further, may I ask if you gentlemen are interested in discussing such a project?” Egtvedt nodded. So did Van Dusen.

“Good,” said General Pratt, and he outlined the data, especially cost estimates, that he’d like to have submitted by June 15 in order to determine upon the award of a design contract.

June 15. One month away. Egtvedt shut his eyes to fix a swirl of thoughts. Out of hazy outlines he could see a great thing taking form in the plant, a thing that no one would believe, a super-airplane. Boeing should build it. Hadn’t they been heading toward it all along?

He told General Pratt that the Boeing Company proposal would be on his desk on June 15.

Back in Seattle, a secret area was set off in Engineering and a preliminary design was drawn for a 150-foot-wing span, four-engine giant monoplane labeled XBLR- I: EXperimental Bomber, Long Range, Number 1, Air Corps Project A.

The use of four of the new 1,000-horsepower Allison engines would make the airplane possible, though they would provide a bare minimum of power for the weight.

The Boeing XB-15 would be a structural design challenge as well as a proving ground for many systems.

The plane would be so different from anything yet built that there could be no leaning on old engineering. Everything would have to start from scratch. Samples of all the critical parts would have to be built and tested.

The entire staff of design engineers and aerodynamicists went to work on it. “Strange,” said Monteith, shaking his head, “a year or two ago I would have said this was ridiculous.”

The plans went together like something in a dream, to make the mid-June deadline. On June 28 a design contract proved that it was no dream and the Project A plane was given the new name XB-15. Jack Kylstra was made project engineer.

A place was set aside to build a full-scale wooden “mock-up” model of the control cabin and other parts as required by the contract. If the mock-up and the design data looked good enough, there’d be a chance to build the plane.

Representatives from Wright Field came out to consult. There were things in the design to tax the imagination: a wing with a passageway big enough to get out to the four engines in flight; six machine-gun turrets; a flight deck instead of a cockpit, with places for flight engineer, navigator, radio operator and two pilots; sleeping quarters for the crew; kitchenette with hot plates and coffee percolator; a 3,800-pound landing gear.

“There won’t be any power left to fly the airplane when we get through driving all this equipment,” said Jack Kylstra.

“Put a gasoline engine in the back end to generate 110-volt electricity,” Lieutenant Bill Irvine suggested. “That oughta run your percolator.” His idea went into the plans.

While the designing of the “improbable” XB-15 was getting started, United Air Lines was looking seriously at the Boeing proposal for a new twin-engined transport, to compete with the Douglas DC-2.

By now the proposed plane had grown to twenty passengers, from the ten in the 247. But its performance wasn’t good enough. Not a big enough step forward.

Thorp Hiscock, now in charge of technical development for United, gave the plans some study. Since the day he proved the two-way radio to be possible, Hiscock had been busy ten to fifteen hours a day in his laboratory proving other things possible, such as automatic pilot equipment and de-icers.

“Why not go to four engines?” Thorp Hiscock asked. Then he added, “I’ve been talking with General Electric about superchargers. We’ve been supercharging the air for the engines for a long time.

I think it’s time we sealed up our cabins and supercharged the air for our passengers, so we can take them above 15,000 feet.”

On June 30, 1934, the Boeing twin-engine transport design work was put aside and plans for a four-engine transport were started, with a side study on cabin supercharging.

To Claire Egtvedt, things were now coming clearer. “Our business is manufacturing big airplanes,” he thought. “We opened up this field; we should stay with it.”

The idea of a transport and a bomber of parallel design still appealed to him, and when the design of a twenty-four-passenger four-engine transport was started, he suggested that the engineers keep in mind a bomber of equivalent size. It would be about halfway between the twin-engine B-9 and the giant experimental Project A.

Engineering ticketed the potential bomber Model Number 299 and the transport Model 300. They started design work first on Model 300, but Egtvedt’s thought went more and more to the four-engine bomber—the still empty file labeled “Model 299.”

Everyone understood that Project A, the XB-15, was an experiment. Its purpose was to learn how to build a maximum-size airplane, and it might be years before planes like that could be built in quantity for Air Corps use.

The present contract was for design only. They wouldn’t know for a year whether they would get a contract to build even one airplane. Yet Project A had been so arousing, so agitating to the imagination, that it was hard to think any more of a twin-engined bomber like the B-9, or the successor to the B-9 they had been planning to offer the Air Corps for production.

Egtvedt thought of “Bull” Reeves: "The airplane isn’t a dreadnought." Now those ringing words took on new meaning. The airplane can be a dreadnought. Aluminum replaced the grey steel walls of “Bull” Reeves’ cabin.

The sound Egtvedt heard was no longer the throbbing of the ship’s motors on the third deck below, but the roar of Wasp engines on long wings. The fleet was a new kind of fleet. The dreadnoughts were in the sky. Not water-bound. Powerful. Eagles of America’s freedom. Egtvedt shook himself. Was he dreaming?

The XB-15 project greatly expanded Boeing’s design abilities.
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