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Douglas, Donald

Donald Douglas

Born April 6, 1892

Brooklyn, New York

Died February 1, 1981

Santa Monica, California

Aircraft engineer, industrial executive

Donald Douglas is one of the most famous aircraft builders in the history of aviation. Although he never personally obtained a pilot's license, Douglas became fascinated with the idea of flight after he saw Orville Wright (18711948) fly a plane in 1909. He was a brilliant engineer and a shrewd businessman but he also had the rare gift of vision. Douglas was a pioneer in the technology that would introduce global air transportation and change world travel. While ocean liners required weeks to span the globe, airliners measured distances in hours.

In 1924 Douglas was responsible for the design and production of the first airplane capable of cross-continental flight, the Douglas World Cruiser. His company produced a continuing line of civil and military aircraft including the legendary DC-3. His commercial airliners set the industry standard for reliability and safety. His combat aircraft, consisting of relatively small attack bombers, helped win World War II (193945) by sinking many Japanese ships in the Pacific.

A born leader

Donald Willis Douglas was born on April 6, 1892, in Brooklyn, New York, the second son born to William and Dorothy Hagen-Locher Douglas. William was a cashier in a Wall Street bank and passed on his love of sailing to his sons. From his mother, Donald inherited his determination and enthusiasm for life.

Young Donald was intrigued by early attempts at flying, but when powered flight became a reality on December 17, 1903, he followed closely the advances made by the Wright brothers. He was present on July 30, 1909, when Orville Wright made his final tests to qualify the Wright Flyer for acceptance by the U.S. Army. His fascination with flight was confirmed. Upon graduation from Trinity Chapel preparatory school in the spring of 1909, Donald decided he could best advance his two great loves, airplanes and the sea, by attending the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. His older brother, Harold, graduated from the academy in 1911, but the following year Donald dropped out, convinced that aeronautical engineering was the right course for him.

Donald Douglas transferred to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the nation's top engineering school, and became its first aeronautical student. Having lost his three years of credit from the academy, he vowed to graduate from the four-year MIT program in two years. He succeeded, receiving his degree in 1914.

Moving on up

Douglas began his professional career in aviation working as chief engineer for the Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Company in Los Angeles, California. The company was building military planes near Griffith Park. While working at Martin, Douglas met a young registered nurse, Charlotte Marguerite Ogg. The couple soon married. They had four sons and one daughter.

In 1916 Douglas took a leave of absence to become the chief civilian aeronautical engineer for the U.S. Army Signal Corps. The experience became an education in federal paperwork and its accompanying delays. Aviation was still in its infancy in the United States, whereas in Europe rapid strides were being made. Despite Douglas's best efforts, the government failed to understand the future importance of air power and continued to show an official lack of interest. Frustrated, Douglas left Washington, D.C., after a year, knowing that America had entered World War I (191418) woefully short of planes and pilots.

In 1918 Douglas returned to work for Glenn Martin, this time in Cleveland, Ohio, where Martin had moved his operations. With the nation still at war, Douglas drew on his Washington contacts to help his company win a production contract for its newly developed twin-engine bomber, the Martin M-1. The airplane helped the Martin Aircraft Company survive after the end of the war, which saw 90 percent of the aircraft industry go out of business.

A company is born

Though it had been more than a decade since the Wright brothers' patent was approved, few yet dared to risk investing in what was still essentially a cottage industry (up-and-coming businesses with little investment). Years of research and testing, along with a great deal of money and determination, would be required to move the venture forward. Despite the challenges, Douglas still wanted to establish his own company. A motivating factor in his decision was a conviction that the airplane had a bright future as a mode of civilian transport. To most business-people in 1920 the aircraft industry did not look promising for investment, as few people flew and still fewer built airplanes.

The ABCs of Military Planes

The military services labeled their aircraft types with a combination letter and numbering system, such as P-47, B-17, A-29, or C-130. The letters indicated the type of missions the plane was designed for. The following list provides some examples:

PTPrimary Trainer
BTBasic Trainer
ATAdvanced Trainer
PPursuit (fighter)

With less than one thousand dollars in his pocket, Douglas moved his family to Southern California in 1920. He soon joined forces with wealthy Los Angeles sportsman David R. Davis to establish the Davis-Douglas Aircraft Company. Davis wanted to gain fame by becoming the first person to fly nonstop across the United States. Douglas designed a plane that was dubbed the Cloudster. It was the first plane able to carry a payload exceeding its own weight. Although it failed in its intended mission, the Cloudster became the basis of the U.S. Navy's first torpedo bomber. Davis withdrew from the partnership and Douglas set up his own company, the Douglas Aircraft Company. Douglas soon earned a reputation as a master aircraft builder. He attracted the best talent in the country to work for him. The company grew steadily, building planes for the army air corps, the army, and the U.S. Post Office in the 1920s. In the 1930s he began work on the famous DC (Douglas Commercial) series of transport and passenger planes, including the DC-3, which revolutionized air travel. The 21-passenger DC-3 had great dependability and flew very economically with its sleek, low-wing design. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (18821945; served 193345; see entry) presented the prestigious Robert J. Collier Trophy to Donald Douglas in 1936 for the plane's design and called it the greatest achievement in U.S. aviation.

Drawn into war

When Japanese warplanes attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, the U.S. Navy was crippled. Americans expected an attack on the Pacific Coast to follow at any time. The shores were patrolled constantly in search of the enemy. General Douglas MacArthur (18801964), head of the U.S. armed forces in the Pacific area at the time, was stationed in the Philippines. Believing that the Japanese were focusing on the U.S. mainland, MacArthur took no defensive measures to ensure that planes and equipment at Clark Air Field in the Philippines were out of harm's way. Nine days after Pearl Harbor the Japanese staged a full-scale attack on the Philippines, wiping out American air power in the Pacific.

After the two attacks, the Army Air Force had only eleven hundred planes fit for combat. Many of those were slow and outdated. The best available fighter planes could not even reach the cruising altitude of enemy bombers. At the start of 1942 America was fighting two air wars, in Europe and in Asia, and it was not prepared for either.

As a result, World War II saw a huge increase in airplane production. Home front factories and shipyards worked twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week to deliver the necessary equipment to its military forces. One Douglas factory alone was producing a plane every hour. Over the course of the war, Douglas built nearly 30,000 planes with its wartime work force of 160,000 employees.

Boeing Aircraft

On August 1, 1997, McDonnellDouglas merged with Douglas's old rival, Boeing Aircraft, to form the world's largest aerospace company. It was one of the few aviation pioneers still in business in the twenty-first century and was one of only two major commercial aircraft manufacturers in the world in 2003. The newly combined company primarily competed with the Airbus Industrie, a European consortium, for major projects.

William Boeing, a Seattle, Washington, timber magnate and ship manufacturer, believed he could build a better plane than what he saw in 1914. At that time, he flew as a passenger in an early Curtiss Flying Boat off nearby Lake Washington. In 1916 he and a partner, Conrad Westervedt, produced the B&W floatplane. It performed well enough for them to incorporate their new business as the Pacific Aero Products Company. The company was contracted to manufacture airplanes during World War I (191418). It would continue as a military supplier throughout its history under its new name, the Boeing Airplane Company. However, little demand for planes existed after the war. The company turned its efforts to manufacturing boats and furniture. It used its existing aircraft to become the first to fulfill a U.S. Post Office Foreign Air Mail contract, delivering mail between Seattle, Washington, and Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. In 1929 Boeing consolidated its operations into a holding company (a company that manages other companies) called United Aircraft and Transport Company. This situation lasted only until 1934, when the federal government took legal action to break up holding companies based on antitrust concerns (limiting competition in the marketplace). Boeing Air Transport went back to its roots manufacturing airplanes.

In 1931 Boeing developed the Boeing 247 that went into service in 1933. It is considered one of the first modern airliners because of its all-aluminum exterior, faster speed, low-mounted wing, and retractable landing gear. With the advent of transoceanic flights, Boeing introduced its 314 flying boat in 1939. Military application for the large aircraft was suddenly needed when the United States entered World War II (193945) in 1941. In response, the company developed large bombers, the B-17 and the B-29, to meet military needs.

The jet engine was developed during World War II but its cost was prohibitive until a commercial use could be established. In the 1950s Douglas and Boeing contended to build the first American jet passenger airliner. Boeing took the lead with its four-engine 707 in 1958. The smaller capacity model 727 and 737 would follow in the 1960s. The Boeing jets would be used around the world for decades.

Five hundred DC-3s were delivered to Pearl Harbor. Throughout the course of the war, various military versions of the plane served in every conceivable transport role on every front. They bore roughly 70 percent of the total Allied air traffic throughout the war. When the last DC-3 was built in 1946, the total production amounted to 803 civil airliners and 10,123 military versions to carry troops and cargo.

Changing times

After helping his company play a critical role in the war effort, Douglas shifted his focus to commercial aviation, missile production, and space vehicles in the following two decades. He remained president of the Douglas Aircraft Company until 1957, when Douglas passed day-to-day operations over to his son, though continuing in his role as chairman of the board. In the 1960s Douglas's competitor Boeing gained dominance in the commercial aviation market. Douglas had lost its big market share.

In 1967 Douglas merged his company with St. Louis, Missouri-based McDonnell Aircraft Corporation. Douglas served as honorary chairman of the board of the newly formed McDonnellDouglas Company. After his retirement he remained active in the aerospace community, receiving many honors from across the world. Douglas Aircraft was also inducted into the International Aerospace Hall of Fame in 1967.

An enthusiastic sailor throughout his life, Douglas cherished a silver medal he won for sailing in the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Douglas died on February 1, 1981, at the age of eighty-eight. In keeping with his lifelong love for the sea, his ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean.

For More Information


Heppenheimer, T. A. A Brief History of Flight: From Balloons to Mach 3 and Beyond. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2001.

Howard, Frank, and Bill Gunston. The Conquest of the Air. New York: Random House, 1972.

Morrison, Wilbur H. Donald W. Douglas: A Heart with Wings. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1991.

Van der Linden, F. Robert. The Boeing 247: The First Modern Airliner. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1991.

Verges, Marianne. On Silver Wings. New York: Random House, 1991.


"The North American Way." Fortune (March 1941): pp. 99103.

Web sites

"Chasing the SunDonald Douglas." Public Broadcasting System. (accessed on July 21, 2004).

"Donald Douglas." U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission. (accessed on July 21, 2004).

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Donald Wills Douglas

Donald Wills Douglas

The American aeronautical engineer Donald Wills Douglas (1892-1981) developed and manufactured aircraft that dominated the world market for many years.

Donald Wills Douglas was born on April 6, 1892, in Brooklyn, New York. From an early age young Donald showed an interest in the then brief history of manned flight. After high school, he attended Trinity Chapel School for college, where he was editor of the school magazine. He was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1909, where he became enthusiastic about the infant field of aviation. During this time he even got to see the Wright Brothers demonstrating their latest plane. In 1912 he entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; after two years of early wind tunnel research he became the first man to receive a bachelor of science degree in aeronautical engineering from that school.

Douglas first worked in 1915 at the Connecticut Aircraft Company on the Navy's first dirigible. That same year he joined Glenn L. Martin's aircraft firm as chief engineer. The following year he went to Washington as chief civilian aeronautical engineer for the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Within a few months he resigned over a dispute with the War Production Board and returned to the Martin Company. In 1916 he married Charlotte Marguerite Ogg, with whom he had five children.

In 1920 Douglas quit the Martin Company to set up his own firm in Los Angeles. He was president of the Douglas Company until 1957. He was the first of many manufacturers to go into production permanently in Los Angeles, where the availability of capital, skilled labor, and flying weather for most of the year made an attractive package for the aeronautical industry.

Douglas's first effort was to produce a single-engine airplane, nicknamed the "Cloudster," capable of flying nonstop across the country. The "Cloudster" never made it fully cross-country, but it was the first plane capable of lifting a payload equal to its own weight, and the design was sold as a luxury aircraft. He successfully sought a contract from the U.S. Navy for airplanes and eventually became the leading manufacturer of naval aircraft. In 1932 Douglas and other firms were asked by Transcontinental and Western airlines to design a craft capable of traveling 1,080 miles with 12 passengers at a speed of up to 185 miles per hour. Douglas accepted the challenge and produced the DC-1 (for Douglas Commercial), which was first flown on July 1, 1933, and was able to carry 12 passengers at a cruising speed of 170 mph. An all-metal, twin-engine plane, it was one of the first to establish the usefulness of wing flaps in commercial planes. This aircraft (only one was built) was a prototype for the succeeding members of the DC family.

The most famous Douglas plane, the DC-3 in 1936, carried 21 passengers at a cruising speed of 190 mph. It was so successful that within 2 years after it first appeared, it was carrying 95 percent of the nation's civil air traffic. That same year Douglas was awarded The Robert J. Collier Trophy, aviation's highest honor, for the DC-2. During the late 1930s Douglas worked on designs for a four-engine transport, eventually designated the DC-4. Both the DC-3 and the DC-4 became the workhorses of military transport during World War II. After the war, the DC-4 became the major aircraft of the new international commercial air-routes. Douglas was an expert at the art of "stretching a design." The DC-4 was elongated to become the DC-6 and later the DC-7. The DC-7 was the first airliner that permitted nonstop coast to coast scheduling. In 1955 Douglas, whose planes were flying over half the world's passenger miles, developed the jet-propelled DC-8. It was followed by the medium-range DC-9 in 1966. It was said at the time that the DC-9, in terms of popularity, was the reincarnation of the DC-3.

The merger of the firm in 1967 with McDonnell Aircraft, to make the McDonnell-Douglas Corporation, strengthened its position in the aerospace industry. The site of the original Douglas Company plant is now The Museum of Flying. Donald Douglas passed away in 1981.

Further Reading

The standard biography of Douglas is Frank Cunningham, Sky Master: The Story of Donald Douglas (1943). Douglas's most famous airplane, the DC-3, is covered in Charles J. Kelly, The Sky's the Limit: The History of the Airlines (1963). A book on the success of the DC-3 is Douglas J. Ingells The Plane That Changed The World (1966). The best history of the industry generally is John B. Rae, Climb to Greatness: The American Aircraft Industry, 1920-1960 (1968). □

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