The Boeing Company traces its roots back to many, many innovations over the years, to many far-sighted individuals, to choices as bold as its pilots were daring. However, perhaps the single most interesting and significant root of the modern company, the aerospace and technology monolith, traces its way back to a single abandoned well buried in the center of Germany.
Russ Banham, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated investigative reporter and corporate biographer, detailed the impact of that discovery on the modern Boeing in a recent presentation at the company’s Long Beach commercial aviation offices.
Russ Banham, pictured at The Boeing Company offices in Long Beach, authored the company’s celebration of its centennial, “Higher: 100 Years of Boeing.” (Photograph by the Business Journal’s Larry Duncan)
As part of the company’s celebration of its centennial, Banham, author of “Higher: 100 Years of Boeing,” signed copies of his book for employees at the Lakewood Boulevard location. And in an interview with the Business Journal, Banham offered his views of the company’s history, based on a year of unfettered access to Boeing’s archives and interviews with some of the people who made the company what it is today.
The tale of the well – and any discussion of Boeing’s history – has to start with Bill Boeing, who was enraptured with flight from the moment he saw his first aircraft. Boeing went into business building planes in 1916, started manufacturing aircraft for the government during World War I and built a wide-ranging firm that was broken up by the federal Air Mail Act of 1934. Boeing divested himself of his interests in the company afterward.
“He was [heartbroken] over the split up,” Banham said. “This is an industry that is inherently risky. It is a boom-bust industry. The various founders – they’re sort of like poker-playing gamblers. They’re willing to bet the company – I don’t know how many times in my research I came across all of them saying, ‘We bet the company.’”
Claire Egtvedt took the reins of the company, and as war in Europe loomed, Egtvedt decided to turn the company away from the small fighter planes it was known for at the time and toward large, multi-engined aircraft. Egtvedt, Banham wrote, realized that not only would the country need the large, multi-engined bombers that served with distinction in World War II, but that Boeing’s “expertise in these airplanes would play an important role in its later development of passenger airliners.”
Boeing’s B-17 Flying Fortress formed the basis for its 307 Stratoliner passenger airplane. Its B-29 Superfortress led to the C-97 Stratofreighter, the platform for the 377 Stratocruiser. The die had been cast for creating commercial aircraft that incorporated the lessons learned from military applications.
That pattern began anew right at the end of World War II. Boeing had a top-secret aeronautics lab not far from Washington, and as Banham said, the U.S. government figured that, if it had one, the German military had one too. A team was formed to scour Germany for that lab. That team was headed by Theodore von Karman, a Hungarian refugee who had fled to the U.S. prior to the war.
As the Nazi government collapsed, Adolph Hitler ordered the secret research facility, known as the Luftfahrtforschungsanstalt, destroyed. As the scientists left the facility, Banham said, they dumped their research documents into a dry well. But the facility remained intact. Its superintendent, Banham said, was in no rush to demolish it. When von Karman entered the facility, the superintendent greeted him personally – they had known each other prior to the war. He directed the team’s attention to the dry well.
Among the papers dumped into the well was a document on wind tunnel research into swept-wing aircraft. While everyone looked at it, von Karman recognized how significant that information was for another project Boeing was working on – the B-47, a multi-engined jet bomber. He secretly composed a seven-page letter that was rushed back to Boeing’s headquarters.
Design work on the B-47 was halted, and the aircraft was redrafted with a radical-for-the-time swept-wing configuration. It was another bold gamble, and one that paid off dramatically. In his book, Banham said that on the six-engined aircraft’s demonstration flight before Air Force brass in 1947, fighter planes sent to catch it couldn’t. The B-47 simply outran anything else in the country’s aircraft inventory. Boeing won the contract. Ultimately, more than 2,000 B-47s were built.
And the cycle of military-to-commercial aircraft design took place once again, with that swept-wing and jet technology helping develop the Boeing 707, the company’s first jet airliner. It too was a gamble, dramatically more expensive than the familiar propeller-driven airliners of the day. And it too was a gamble that paid off beyond expectations. It became the first commercially successful jet airliner, widely heralded as the harbinger of the Jet Age.
Douglas Aircraft Company, which had led in propeller-driven airliners, never really caught up, Banham said, and after a merger with McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, it was eventually incorporated into Boeing. More than 1,000 707s were built, vaulting the company into a leading position in commercial aviation that it holds to this day, Banham said.
“Eventually, the information on the swept-back wing – someone would have found that information. But what it did was change the fortunes of Douglas. Douglas was the preeminent passenger aircraft manufacturer with the DC series of planes – great planes. But as soon as Boeing came out with the 707 – that was the end. That was it,” Banham said.
Boeing’s success, Banham said, was built upon the fearless pursuit of radical innovation. The company’s current position as a global technological giant puts it in a unique position to continue that strategy, with a great potential for success.
“I would say that it has great technological leadership. It is leveraging the cost-effectiveness and dynamism of global supply chains. There’s a sharing of intellectual property throughout the organization. There’s a focus on always having a decisive advantage,” Banham said.
“So if you start with that as the basis of what the business is going to be about, to not just make small incremental advances but truly revolutionary advances, truly disruptive innovations, all that should guide success ahead for Boeing.”
It Began With William Boeing
(The following is from the 2003 Salute To Boeing Southern California publication produced by the Long Beach Business Journal.)
Although The Boeing Company established its roots in Seattle, Washington, the initial seed for the aerospace firm was planted in Southern California in 1910. With the nascent aviation industry not even a decade old, bold aeronauts from around the world were gathering in Dominguez Hills, California, near Long Beach, for the first national air meet on American soil. Almost 15,000 people attended the event’s opening ceremonies to experience the wonders of powered flight.
One man in attendance that day would contribute greatly to the U.S. aviation industry in the future. His name was William Boeing. As he watched the pioneering aviators take to the air, the wealthy timber merchant’s interest in aviation was piqued.
William Boeing and his first airplane, the B&W, built in 1916.
After the show, Boeing returned to Seattle determined to learn more about powered flight. Over the next five years, he regularly discussed aviation principles with fellow flight enthusiast George Conrad Westervelt.
In 1915, Boeing returned to California to take flying lessons from another aviation pioneer, Glenn Martin. Shortly thereafter, Boeing and Westervelt agreed to design and build a new, more practical airplane. The two men commenced building a twin-float seaplane in Boeing’s boathouse. They completed the seaplane in 1916, naming it the B&W, after their initials. That same year, Boeing started a company called Pacific Aero Products, which was renamed the Boeing Airplane Company a year later. The firm grew quickly, expanding from 28 employees in 1917 to 337 by the end of 1918 – largely on the strength of a U.S. Navy order for 50 Boeing Model C seaplanes.
Affectionately called the Red Barn, this former shipyard was the first home of The Boeing Company. The firm grew quickly, going from 28 employees in 1917 to 337 by the end of 1918 – largely on the strength of a U.S. Navy order for 50 Boeing Model C seaplanes.
The 1920s brought further success for the Boeing Airplane Company with its construction of fighter planes and mail planes. Boeing’s Model 15 (PW-9) prototype and its derivatives made the company a leading producer of fighter planes for the next decade, culminating with 586 aircraft in the P-12/F4B series. Meanwhile, the company’s Model 40A won the U.S. Post Office contract to deliver mail between San Francisco and Chicago, which prompted the company to form a new airline called Boeing Air Transport. In its first year, the airline carried 837,211 pounds of mail, 149,068 pounds of express packages and 1,863 passengers. By 1928, with 800 employees, Boeing was one of the largest aircraft manufacturers in the country.
William Boeing (right) and pilot Eddie Hubbard deliver the first international airmail into the U.S. in 1919. The pair flew from Vancouver, Canada, to Seattle using a Boeing C-700. (Historical photographs courtesy of The Boeing Company)
William Boeing’s aviation career ended abruptly in 1934. In the middle of the Great Depression, in response to claims that aviation enterprises were colluding to prevent competitive bidding for airmail contracts, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Air Mail Act of 1934 into law. In addition to imposing stronger overall regulations on airmail contracts, the act prohibited airmail contractors from holding an interest in virtually any other aviation enterprise. The antitrust legislation split Boeing’s company into three entities: United Airlines, responsible for air transportation; United Technologies, responsible for manufacturing operations in the eastern U.S.; and the Boeing Airplane Company, responsible for manufacturing operations in the western U.S. and Canada. Boeing, who maintained that he never conducted anticompetitive business practices, was disheartened by the legislation and its effect on his company. He resigned as chairman of the corporation and left the aviation business forever to raise horses. While his exit from the industry was not as memorable as Boeing would have hoped, the legacy he left certainly is.