Vought Aircraft Industries, Inc.
Vought Aircraft Industries, Inc.
Incorporated: 1917 as Lewis and Vought Company
Sales: $1 billion (2001 est.)
NAIC: 336411 Aircraft Manufacturing; 541710 Research and Development in the Physical, Engineering, and Life Sciences
Vought Aircraft Industries, Inc. is the world’s largest independent aerostructures manufacturer. The firm traces its origins back to the pioneering designer Chance Vought. From its heritage as a manufacturer of innovative naval aircraft, Vought has evolved into a major aerospace subcontractor, supplying large, complex aerostructures for many commercial and military aircraft. The Carlyle Group, a Washington, D.C.-based defense industry investment firm, owns about 90 percent of the company.
Launch During World War I
Chance Vought, born in 1890 as Chauncey Milton Vought, became known as one of the most creative American aircraft designers during World War I. He designed his first complete plane (the PLV) in 1914, only a couple of years after becoming a pilot himself. Vought landed jobs at Simplex Aircraft and, later, the Wright Company, where he was chief engineer of the legendary firm for a short time.
With backing from sportsman Birdseye B. Lewis, Vought founded Lewis and Vought Company in Long Island, New York, on June 18, 1917, to make aircraft needed during World War I. The VE-7 “Bluebird” trainer was the company’s first product. While serving on General Pershing’s staff, Lewis died in a plane crash in France in 1918. The Lewis and Vought firm would survive the drop-off in demand that accompanied the end of the war.
Pioneering Naval Aviation Between the Wars
In the 1920s, Vought pioneered the field of naval aviation. In 1922, a VE-7SF fighter made the first carrier take-off from the USS Langley. In May 1922, Lewis and Vought was reorganized as the Chance Vought Corporation, with Chance Vought’s father being brought in as company president. In 1926, the 02U-1 Corsair entered production. It had been designed by Rex B. Beisel, who by then had already joined the staff at Curtiss.
During World War I, Vought met Pratt & Whitney founder Frederick Rentschler and began using his firm’s Wasp engine in his designs. When Boeing Airplane and Transport acquired Pratt & Whitney Aircraft, Chance Vought Aircraft was brought into the new United Aircraft and Transport Corporation, incorporated on February 1, 1929, along with propeller manufacturer Hamilton Aero.
Chance Vought died from septicemia (blood poisoning) on July 25, 1930, at the age of 40 (aviation pioneer Glenn H. Curtis had passed away just two days earlier). His replacement as chief engineer was Rex Beisel, who rejoined the company in September 1931.
United Aircraft and Transport was dissolved on September 26, 1934. Within a few months, Chance Vought, Pratt & Whitney, Sikorsky, and Hamilton Standard were all made part of the new United Aircraft Manufacturing Company.
Winning Wings in World War II
Vought continued to make a small number of naval aircraft until the outbreak of World War II. The SB2U Vindicator, a light bomber, first flew in 1936 but was obsolescent by the start of the war in spite of its low-winged monoplane configuration. Two other designs were more successful. The OS2U Kingfisher began production in 1940 and excelled in its role as an observation aircraft. The F4U Corsair would become one of the most respected fighters of the era and Vought’s best-known aircraft.
In 1938, Rex Beisel had launched a design effort for a new fighter specification calling for use of a powerful 4,000 horsepower engine; when the F4U Corsair began flight tests it was the first American fighter to top 400 mph. The famous gull-winged fighter was the plane that decisively bested the Japanese Zero as the two fought for domination of the Pacific skies. The Corsair was flown by Col. Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, USMC, leader of the legendary Black Sheep Squadron. In a ten-year production run that ended in December 1952, 12,571 Corsairs were made.
The legendary Igor Sikorsky had been part of the design team for the F4U Corsair. Sikorsky Aircraft had joined the United Aircraft and Transport Corporation on July 30, 1929. This was combined into United Aircraft’s Vought-Sikorsky Division on April 1, 1939.
Towards the end of the war, Vought was developing the XF5U “Flying Pancake,” a twin-engine flying wing designed to excel at low speed flight and carrier operations. In 1948, the program was canceled by the Navy, which was by then emphasizing jet fighters. Vought developed one of the first naval jets, the F6U Pirate. Its successor, the revolutionary but troublesome F7U Cutlass, borrowed heavily from German jet technology.
Chance Vought relocated to Dallas in 1948, taking over the “B” Plant formerly occupied by North American Aviation. The move was initiated by the Navy, which did not want both of its main aircraft suppliers (the other being Grumman) located on the East Coast. Involving 1,500 employees and 50 million pounds of equipment, it was the largest industrial move to date, yet the production lines were barely disturbed.
Chance Vought became an independent company again on July 1, 1954. The company was spun off (first as a subsidiary in January 1954) owing to concerns that it might gain unfair advantage from Pratt & Whitney’s dealings with other manufacturers.
The F7U Cutlass was succeeded by the F8U Crusader, later designated F-8, which first flew in March 1955 and remained in production until 1965. This fighter, used by the navies of the United States and France, was unique in employing a variable-incidence wing to facilitate carrier landings. The U.S. Navy’s first single-engine supersonic fighter, the F-8 remained in the fleet for 31 years.
Part of a Conglomerate in the 1960s and 1970s
Chance Vought was renamed Chance Vought Corporation in December 1960, but was soon a takeover target of Ling-Temco Electronics, which had been formed through the acquisition of the former Texas Engineering and Manufacturing Company by Ling-Altec Electronics. Antitrust suits failed to stop the merger with Vought, and the Ling-Temco-Vought Corporation was formed on August 31, 1961, in a leveraged buyout. Fred Detweiler, who had become head of Vought after Rex Beisel stepped down in the early 1950s, resigned in protest. Texas industrialist James J. Ling, the man behind his namesake company, himself was forced to step down as CEO by his creditors and was succeeded by Robert McCulloch.
The Chance Vought Corporation name survived until a reorganization of Ling-Temco-Vought on October 20, 1963. Chance Vought operations formed the bulk of the LTV Aerosystems Corporation, formed in 1965 as a subsidiary of Ling-Temco-Vought.
In spite of the success of the new A-7 attack jet, the parent company accrued massive debts in the late 1960s, and Ling was forced to relinquish his chairmanship of Ling-Temco-Vought. Vought head and former test pilot W. Paul Thayer became Ling-Temco-Vought’s new CEO in 1970. He sold off holdings such as Braniff Airways Inc. and Okonite Co. to reduce debt.
When Ling-Temco-Vought was renamed LTV Corporation in the early 1970s, it had three operating divisions: LTV Aerosystems, LTV Electrosystems, and LTV Ling-Altec. By this time, LTV Aerosystems was comprised of Vought Aeronautics Company, a few other units, and Vought Helicopters, Inc., a unit set up in 1969 to market Aérospatiale helicopters in North America. This subsidiary was sold to Aérospatiale in 1974 and renamed Vought Helicopter Corp.
In 1972, the Vought units were reorganized as the Vought Systems Division of LTV Aerospace, which itself was renamed Vought Corporation on January 1, 1976. The parent company LTV Corporation had become a $4 billion diversified conglomerate, with significant holdings in steel and food processing. With revenues exceeding $500 million and pretax profits of $41 million, Vought Corp. accounted for 12 percent of LTV’s sales in 1975.
At this time, Vought’s only prime contracts were the A-7 Corsair II attack jets being produced for the Navy and the Army’s Lance missiles. Business Week reported that the A-7 program had brought Vought $3.3 billion in business between 1964 and 1977.
A New Focus in the 1980s
By 1980, reported Aviation Week & Space Technology, Vought’s corporate strategy had shifted to becoming a major prime contractor in missiles, projected to be a growth market for the coming decade. Vought had already produced more than 3,000 Lance missiles, used by the United States and several European armies. Subcontracting work had already become a significant part of Vought’s business. Vought was conducting unique research in the areas of hypervelocity (low-explosive projectiles achieving speeds of up to 5,000 feet per second) and lethality.
With a solid focus on the future, Vought will continue: producing products of superior quality; creating an atmosphere that supports our reputation as an employer of choice; maintaining strong financial performance; providing customers a competitive advantage.
LTV Corporation made an attempt to acquire 70 percent of rival Grumman Corp. in 1981, but the sale was blocked on antitrust grounds. Two years later, CEO Paul Thayer left LTV for a stint as deputy secretary of defense. A restructuring in April 1983 renamed Vought Corporation as LTV Aerospace and Defense Company, and it was organized into two divisions: Missiles and Advanced Programs, and Aero Products. These were renamed the Missiles and Electronics Group and the Aircraft Products Group at the end of September 1986.
Poor results in LTV’s steel and energy businesses forced the company to enter a long and litigious bankruptcy in July 1986. LTV Aerospace and Defense Co., however, was consistently profitable, posting operating earnings of $164 million on sales of $2.3 billion in 1985.
In the late 1980s, LTV was placing its hopes on the YA-7F, an upgrade of the A-7 Corsair II attack jet. This was the company’s last program as a prime contractor; the Air Force preferred the General Dynamics F-16. LTV Aircraft had sales of about $700 million in 1989.
New Owners in the 1990s
LTV’s bankruptcy resulted in the Aerospace and Defense division being offered for sale in May 1991. Martin Marietta and Lockheed together bid $355 million for the unit. A competing bid launched by Thomson SA, the French aerospace giant, raised political questions regarding foreign ownership in the defense industry.
In the end, LTV Aircraft went to Northrop and the Carlyle Group, which had also backed Thomson’s bid, for $230 million. The whole unit was renamed Vought Aircraft Company. Loral paid $244 million for the LTV Missiles and Space Division, renaming it Loral Vought Systems. Both transactions closed on August 31, 1992.
Vought Aircraft attained sales of $1 billion in 1992, while reducing staffing levels 30 percent in three years to 7,300 employees. The company had diversified its subcontracting business to a nearly 50-50 split of commercial and defense work. It was involved in a handful of major programs: the Boeing 747,757, and 767 on the civil side and the Northrop B-2 stealth bomber and McDonnell Douglas C-17 military transport. In June 1993, Gulfstream selected Vought to produce the wings for its new Gulfstream V business jet.
Vought President Gordon Williams credited the company’s improvement on a commitment to total quality management (TQM). He rated Vought as one of the top two composite material structures fabricators in the United States, next to Boeing. Vought had also invested in advanced, flexible manufacturing equipment for large aluminum and titanium parts.
Vought was fielding cooperative bids for two major military aircraft contracts. It was on the McDonnell Douglas-led team to develop a successor to the Grumman A-6 naval strike aircraft designated A/F-X. The Pampa 2000 was a venture with FMA of Argentina to field an entrant for the USAF/US Navy Joint Primary Aircraft Training System (JPATS) program.
The commercial aviation business suffered from a world recession and effects of the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s, and Boeing’s cutback prompted Vought to cut 1,500 jobs in 1993.
Northrop Grumman Corp. exercised an option to buy the Carlyle Group’s 51 percent share of Vought Aircraft Co. in July 1994. Northrop had earlier acquired Grumman Corp. for $2.2 billion. Northrop Grumman paid $130 million for Vought, which eventually became part of its Integrated Systems and Aerostructures sector.
Carlyle Buying Again in 2000
Northrop Grumman sold its aerostructures unit to the Carlyle Group in a deal worth $1.2 billion in July 2000. Carlyle renamed the business Vought Aircraft Industries. Sales at the unit had fallen from $1.6 billion to $1.4 billion in 1999, and Northrop Grumman preferred to focus on growth opportunities in defense electronics and information technology.
Vought Aircraft Industries cut 20 percent of its 6,000 strong workforce in late 2001 following a downturn in the civil aviation market and a downturn in Boeing business. At the same time, the company began closing a plant in Perry, Georgia, and moving its operations to its factory in Stuart, Florida. Grumman had opened the latter site in 1950 as a flight-testing facility.
Vought CEO Gordon Williams left the company to become chairman of the Carlyle Group in January 2002. He was succeeded at Vought by Tom Risley.
Principal Operating Units
Dallas; Hawthorne; Midgeville; Perry; Stuart.
- Lewis and Vought Company is founded.
- Vought joins Pratt & Whitney-led United Aircraft and Transport Corporation.
- Chance Vought becomes part of new United Aircraft Manufacturing Company.
- Vought-Sikorsky Division is formed as division of United Aircraft.
- Chance Vought moves to Dallas plant.
- Chance Vought becomes an independent corporation again.
- Grand Prairie plant is built.
- LTV Aerospace becomes Vought Corporation.
- Vought Corporation is renamed LTV Aerospace and Defense Company.
- Carlyle Group and Northrop acquire LTV Aircraft Division, which is renamed Vought Aircraft Company.
- Northrop Grumman acquires remainder of Vought from Carlyle.
- Carlyle Group buys Northrop Grumman’s aerostructures business and revives the Vought name.
CPI Aerostructures, Inc.; Goodrich Corporation; LMI Aerospace, Inc.
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—Frederick C. Ingram