Douglas, Donald Wills, Jr.

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Douglas, Donald Wills, Jr.

(b. 3 July 1917 in Washington, D.C.; d. 3 October 2004 in Hemet, California), head of the Douglas Aircraft Company from 1958 until its merger with the McDonnell Company in 1967 who oversaw the introduction of the DC-8 and DC-9 passenger jets and then became a pioneer in the development of large, mixed-use commercial and shopping malls.

Douglas was the oldest of three sons of Donald Wills Douglas, founder of Douglas Aircraft Company, and Charlotte (Ogg) Douglas. By the time he enrolled at Stanford University, he was the designated heir to one of America’s great aircraft companies, expected to follow in his famous father’s footsteps. After graduating with a BS in mechanical engineering in 1938, Douglas studied aeronautical engineering at the Curtiss-Wright Technical Institute. Those were heady days in the aviation industry; the prospect of war enlarged military budgets and energized the spirit of innovation. Douglas’s father had just rolled out what was to prove his most famous design, the DC-3, and for Douglas it was a great time to be learning the business from the ground floor up. Beginning in the strength of materials section, he rotated through nearly every branch of Douglas Aircraft Company until 1943, when he was promoted to manager of flight testing. In this position he supervised the final development of the Dauntless dive bomber and the C-54 transport, among others.

After the conclusion of World War II, Douglas became director of testing and oversaw the certification of the DC-6 and DC-7 airliners, the first great postwar passenger aircraft. In 1951 Douglas was made a vice president and two years later was elected to the board of directors. By this time he had begun to focus on military sales, becoming a leader in the development of what would become the theory of rapid deployment; his speech on global air logistics at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers annual meeting in 1954 marked a watershed in this concept.

Douglas’s recognition that the future would focus on speed above all else put him in conflict with his father, who expected only incremental change in the foreseeable future and thus remained committed to propeller, or at most turboprop, propulsion. In 1957 Douglas became president of the company and committed wholeheartedly to jet aviation. By that time, however, Boeing Aircraft had both a one-year lead in design and air force development funding for a jet tanker on which Boeing’s passenger jet, the 707, could be based. The DC-8, which also had a slightly narrower main cabin, would never catch up with the 707, selling only about 550 planes, half of Boeing’s total. When in 1965 Douglas tried to introduce larger versions of the plane, its engines proved to be so noisy that the Port Authority of New York threatened to revoke the DC-8’s landing and takeoff privileges.

Instead Douglas decided to focus on a smaller version, named the DC-9, designed for short- and medium-range flights. It was a smaller aircraft designed to be simple to operate and maintain; its fuel system, for example, contained 60 percent fewer parts than the equivalent system in the DC-8. The first model rolled out in January 1965, and the plane would prove to be one of Douglas’s greatest contributions to passenger aviation, selling nearly one thousand planes. The DC-9’s initial rollout, however, brought with it difficulties in engine procurement, and the immense costs of initial production and certification led to a severe profit squeeze at Douglas Aircraft. In June 1966 the company announced a quarterly loss; in October it was forced to omit a dividend; in December it asked the government to guarantee $60 million in bank loans; and in January, Douglas announced a loss for 1966 of $27.5 million. Douglas Aircraft had no choice but to seek a merger, approved in April 1967, with the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation; although Douglas retained his title, he had to accept a 35 percent salary cut and stood by helplessly over the next few years as his brothers, and later his grandnephew, were laid off.

Douglas’s tenure as president was not a wholly negative experience, however. In 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, and the race into space began. Later in life Douglas recalled that “sinking feeling.... In those days the Soviets weren’t exactly our friends. So it worried the heck out of you that they’d get ahead.... and shoot missiles at us.” Six years later Douglas broke ground for a new factory in Huntington Beach, California, where the company would build the S-IVB rocket, third stage of the Saturn V that powered Apollo, the main body of Skylab, and sections of a proposed Manned Orbiting Laboratory; in later years technicians on the “campus” would work on projects from Mars landers to laser-wielding satellites. Douglas knew the Huntington Beach area well from hunting and sailing with his father; he recalled, “I could just visualize how much the business was expanding and.... that some of our vehicles might have to go by ship. So we came to Huntington Beach.” Douglas Aircraft transformed a sleepy residential area into one of America’s high-tech industrial centers. It was an experience that would serve Douglas well when he turned to the duties of real estate developer. For the space business, however, it was a short day in the sun; by 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the moon, funding for space exploration was already winding down.

The expansion of Douglas Aircraft into Orange County, California, brought with it changes in the type and composition of the company’s labor force that Douglas was eager to adopt and that made him a leader in the movement toward equal employment opportunity. In 1966 Douglas rejected “passively waiting for minority groups to put in an appearance.” He stated, “We must go to the schools and the minority neighborhoods and actively recruit people for employment.” The need was all the greater because Douglas’s new industrial “campus” employed far greater numbers of skilled workers and engineers than past industrial operations had employed. Whereas the plant that built the World War II vintage Dauntless dive bomber was staffed 50 percent by riveters, the Saturn IV-B plant needed only 5 percent of its workers to do such repetitive work. Such relatively unskilled positions as assemblers and jig builders gave way in Douglas’s new plants to electronics technicians, solderers, and machine tool operators. A Douglas spokesman concluded in 1963, “We just don’t have long assembly lines with single jobs to be performed.”

In 1967 Douglas Aircraft was absorbed by the McDonnell Company, and Douglas became a senior vice president, although he remained president of Douglas Aircraft of Canada. He turned his attention from the far off to the nearby, forming the Douglas Development Company to develop underutilized industrial properties and later forming a partnership to build Douglas Plaza on fifty acres of property near Orange County Airport. He founded an alternative energy company, Biphase Energy Systems (later renamed Douglas Advanced Technologies), in 1976. Douglas remained active throughout the 1980s, serving as an officer of Douglas Energy, Biphase Energy, Vuebotics Corporation, and Aerotech Consulting. After his retirement from his executive positions with McDonnell Douglas in 1974, he also remained a member of McDonnell Douglas’s board of directors for fifteen additional years and an active member of the Conquistadores del Cielo, an international association of aircraft industry leaders, both civilian and military, founded in 1937. His relationship with the new owners was not without controversy; in 1993 he sued McDonnell Douglas over a plan to cut off health benefits to as many as 20,000 retired Douglas employees. Interviewed in 1990, Douglas lamented, “There are good people at Douglas who work hard and care, but there isn’t the esprit de corps. It isn’t a family company anymore.”

Douglas was married three times. He married Molly McIntosh on 1 May 1939; they had two children. After her death he married Jean Cooper on 17 August 1950 and outlived her as well. Finally he married Linda Alstead on 16 November 1986. Douglas died on 3 October 2004 at Menifee Valley Medical Center; he had been in declining health since a fall in August of the same year.

Douglas’s father founded the aircraft company that bore his name and presided over the creation of one of the landmarks in aviation history, the DC-3. Douglas, a victim of changing times, presided over the creation of the DC-8 and DC-9, planes noted more for their immense costs of design and initial production than for their long-term influence on aviation history, and ultimately was forced to merge his father’s company with a larger one. His greatest achievement perhaps lay not in aviation but in real estate development; Douglas was largely responsible for opening up Orange County through building Douglas Space Systems Center in Huntington Beach in 1963 and the Douglas Development Company, a pioneer in the building of suburban shopping malls, a decade later.

Douglas always insisted on putting the Douglas Aircraft Company first, in such articles as “Why Aerospace Needs Flexible Men,” Business Week (22 June 1963); “Equal Opportunity Receives Backing Under Civil Rights,” New York Times (3 July 1966); and “From the Sea to the Stars: Douglas Crew Remembers Space Race,” Knight-Ridder–Tribune News Service (29 Dec. 2003). Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times (9 Oct. 2004) and Guardian (16 Oct. 2004).

Hartley S. Spatt

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