Boeing at 100: The rich history of Seattle's aviation pioneer

(First flight: 16 November 1916 ) The first "all-Boeing" aircraft design, the Model C seaplane was built as a trainer for the US Navy. Boeing built 50 Model Cs, including one used by Boeing himself to deliver the first air mail. (Photo: Boeing)

First incorporated in 1916 by budding pilot and aviation enthusiast William Boeing, the company has become synonymous with the U.S. airline manufacturing industry, and also relies heavily on its military successes, present and past, for its corporate identity.

Like many aviation ventures, the Boeing Company started as a love story between a young man and an airplane. It was 1909, at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle. William Boeing, the 28-year old son of a wealthy German mining and lumber magnate, was enthralled. He was a tinkerer, a perfectionist who often toyed with designing boats. Fascinated by vehicles that could sail the sky, Boeing was determined to learn all he could about this new endeavor called "aviation."

"At that time I was merely desirous of learning to fly," Boeing told writer Harold Crary. "In August (1914), I started a course under the tutelage of Lloyd Smith. On completing the course, I ordered for my personal use a plane known as Model TA from the Martin factory. The machine was delivered to me in October of 1915, and, being convinced that there was a definite future in aviation, I became interested in the construction as well as the flying of aircraft."

Perhaps his interest in building aircraft was spurred by a crash that partially wrecked the Martin hydroaeroplane. Martin told Boeing it would take months to fabricate the necessary replacement parts, Boeing told his close friend, Lt. George Conrad Westervelt (USN), "We could build a better plane ourselves and build it faster."

LISTEN: A boy and his airplane: How William Boeing fell in love with aviation


Westervelt went to work on designing the plane he and his friend, Bill Boeing, called the "B&W" - for Boeing and Westervelt. But before they began to assemble it, Westervelt wanted to make sure it was safe. That led to a radical new procedure that is employed by aircraft designers to this day. Westervelt, an MIT grad, sent a scale model of the plane to his alma mater for evaluation. The model spent six hours in the university's wind tunnel before Westerveldt pronounced it airworthy.

Boeing aeronautical engineer Sarah Musi sits in the company's archival bunker, her hands encased in white cotton gloves. Gingerly, she unfolds an ancient piece of paper covered with lines and plot points. It is the first-ever wind tunnel data from the B&W test.

"This was new," Musi says, her eyes gleaming. "Nobody in the United States was doing this. From tribal knowledge and memory, aircraft designers would fly first and test later. That is not what we're about today."

"Now, we spend years in wind tunnel testing before we build anything. Back then, they spent all of six hours. But even that was more than anyone was doing at the time."

The design proved stable. Based on that, Boeing and Westervelt started work on their boxy-looking biplane on floats. Exactly a month later, Boeing established Pacific Aero Products on July 15, 1916, employing 21 men and women who, on average, earned 23 cents an hour.

Less than a year later, business was booming. Pacific Aero Products, newly renamed the Boeing Airplane Company, began building the Model C, a floatplane designed to train Navy pilots. By the end of World War I, Boeing employed 355 workers. But peace time meant hard times for the fledgling company. The Boeing Airplane Company began making furniture, cases for photographs, even materials used to manufacture women's corsets.

LISTEN: WWI Ramp up and near death of the company

In the meantime, Boeing was trying to convert the process of building military aircraft to making planes for civilian purposes. At times, Boeing had to use money from his successful timber business to keep the aircraft operation going. There was little market for the Model C in a market flush with military surplus planes. So Boeing and pilot Eddie Hubbard flew 60 letters to Vancouver, British Columbia for the Canadian Exposition - in the process, inventing "air mail."

In 1919, the Boeing B-1 (also known as the Model 6) flying boat took to the sky, the first outright civilian design in the company's short history. Only one was built, but it was the beginning of a new phase for Boeing. The following May, the Model 8 made its first flight and soon became the first aircraft to fly over Mt. Rainier.

In 1925, convinced that an air-cooled engine would be more efficient and practical than one cooled by water, the company used it in the design of the Model 40, built to replace the worn-out de Havilland DH-4s carrying mail. With the Model 40, Boeing won a government contract to fly mail between Chicago and San Francisco, a route later flown by the tri-motor Model 80.

"It is a matter of great pride and satisfaction to me to realize that within the short space of 12 years, an infant company with a personnel of less than a dozen men, has grown to be the largest plant in America, devoted solely to the manufacture of aircraft, and at the present time employing approximately 1,000 men," Boeing told reporters in 1928.


Boeing executives quickly realized that the future of flight was in all-metal aircraft rather than the canvas, wood and wire planes that prevailed until the late 1920s. In 1930, the company built the first two Monomail aircraft - fast and sleek, but underpowered. Without a better powerplant and a constant speed propeller system, the Monomail was considered a failure. But the company profited from the knowledge it gained and in 1933, Boeing introduced the Model 247, considered the world's first "modern" airliner.

Built completely of metal, the 247 included a fully cantilevered wing, retractable landing gear and de-icing boots. In an era of spotty engine performance, the 247 could fly on just one power plant in an emergency. It was faster than the best fighters of the era, capable of carrying 14 passengers and a crew of three from New York to San Francisco in less than 20 hours.

Boeing executives knew the 247 presented a tremendous advantage and decided to keep that advantage to themselves. UATC ordered the first 60 247s off the drawing board, meaning its competitors would not have access to the new design for years. Infuriated, companies like TWA turned to the Douglas Aircraft Corporation and its DC-2 design. It was a blow from which the 247 never really recovered. Boeing built just 75 of them. Douglas built more than 800 DC-2s and DC-3s.


By the late 1920s, Boeing's Seattle-based company had its hands in just about every aspect of aviation, from manufacturing to maintenance, from flight training to scheduled air service. It was one of a number of burgeoning airlines that competed for passengers and for government contracts to carry the mail. By 1928, Boeing had garnered more than a third of the nation's commercial air routes.

The airlines became profitable, thanks in large part to contracts with the Postal Service to carry airmail. But in 1934, as the nation's financial crisis deepened, profitability was viewed with deep suspicion and regulators pounced on the young airline industry.

LISTEN: Boeing quits as a result of the 1934 Airmail Act

William Boeing went to Capitol Hill to defend himself and his wide-ranging company before a Senate committee investigating the air mail scandal. Although the Senate investigators found the airlines in general and Boeing in particular had done nothing wrong, Boeing's company was to be broken up. His aviation dreams shattered, the aviation pioneer sold his interests in the company that bore his name and retired to a life of horse breeding and real estate. William Boeing died September 28, 1956.

Boeing's company was divided up into United Aircraft, which included Pratt & Whitney, Sikorsky Aviation and Hamilton-Standard Propeller; United Air Lines; and the Boeing Aircraft Company.


In spite of Boeing's initial success with the Model 247, the company's failure to serve customers beyond its own airline (later United) forced the rest of the air transport industry to look to the Douglas DC-2 and DC-3. Broken up by the Air Mail Act of 1934, Boeing fortunes lagged. Its military business faded away to almost nothing. The company was again forced to lay off employees. The specter of financial ruin was just over the horizon.

LISTEN: The best airplane almost nobody bought: The 247

But in August 1934, the U.S. Army Air Corps realized it needed a new multi-engine bomber, capable of flying long distances at altitudes of more than 10,000 feet. Chairman Clair Egtvedt decided to go all in, committing the company's dwindling resources to design and construction of the Model 299. When the prototype rolled off the factory floor, bristling with machine guns and capable of delivering 4,800 pounds of explosives, Seattle Times reporter Richard Williams dubbed it the Flying Fortress, a nickname that stuck forever.

Lethal looking though it was, the Model 299 still had to prove itself. It was the only four-engine bomber to compete in a fly-off with the Douglas DB-1 and the Martin Model 146 at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio in the fall of 1935.

Boeing historian Mike Lombardi motions to a model of the B-17 in a glass case that covers part of one wall in his archive. "It was bigger and much more streamlined than the competitors. It could fly faster and farther than the Martin and Douglas twins entered in the fly-off. It was a shoo-in," he said. Then, fate intervened.

When Army test pilot Major Ployer Peter Hill insisted on taking the Fortress prototype up for a second evaluation, October 30, 1935, the crew forgot to remove the gust-locks from the controls. The aircraft crashed, killing Hill and Boeing test pilot Les Tower. Unable to finish the fly-off, Boeing lost the competition. The Army instead ordered 133 Douglas B-18 Bolos.

Still, the Army's aviation leadership knew a winner when they saw one. They were able to order 13 of the Flying Fortresses, designated YB-17 for "further evaluation," according to Lombardi.

In August, 1937, a dozen YB-17s went into service with the 2nd Bombardment Group at Langley Field, Virginia. Although the dark clouds of World War II were gathering over Europe and Asia, the YB-17 still had its opponents both in the military and on Capitol Hill. So the 2nd embarked on a public relations mission. Ten of the new bombers were tasked with intercepting an Italian passenger ship in the Atlantic Ocean, the equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack. But with pinpoint accuracy, the squadron found the cruise liner, exactly as the Army had predicted. Their success went a long way toward establishing the reputation of the Flying Fortress. Two years after the disastrous fly-off at Wright Field, the Army began to order them in significant numbers.

LISTEN: Hail Mary: The B17 gamble and birth of the checklist

By the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii December 7, 1941, there were fewer than 200 B-17s in service. "Boeing and its partners built almost 16,000 bombers in the four years that the world was at war," says Lombardi. "That in itself was an incredible feat. The aircraft were revolutionary, but the processes by which they were built were also amazing. I argue that's pretty much the way we do things today." At the beginning of the war, he says, it took Boeing months to build a single B-17. At the end of the war, the company was building 364 aircraft a month at its factory in Renton. That amounted to approximately a dozen every day.

LISTEN: The War Years and the miracle of production


Work on jet-powered aircraft began just a couple of years before WWII broke out and the most significant progress was made in Germany, which developed a number of jet fighters and even a jet-powered bomber. Determined to overtake the war-weary Europeans on jet research after the cessation of hostilities, Boeing engineers redoubled their efforts on an Army specification for a jet-powered reconnaissance bomber informally issued in 1943. Initially, Boeing based its design on the B-29, replacing the Superfortress's four radial engines with four jet engines. But wind tunnel tests showed the new jet engine mounts on the Model 424 induced far too much drag. Another variant, the Model 432, mounted the engines inside the fuselage forward of the wings.

"These new engines had so much potential for speed," says Lombardi. "But for some reason, (Boeing engineers) couldn't get it. Something about the way we designed airplanes had to change."

The "aha!" moment came in May 1945. Boeing's top aerodynamicist, George Shairer, was in Germany at the end of the war, part of General Hap Arnold's Scientific Advisory Group tasked with evaluating Nazi technology and bringing back to the U.S. whatever they found useful. At a secret German aeronautics laboratory in Braunschweig, Shairer saw wind tunnel models for supersonic jet designs and recalled a pre-war aviation conference where an Italian engineer presented a swept-wing aircraft design concept.

"Stop the bomber design!" he wrote the Boeing office in Seattle.

But while Boeing's engineers knew they had a breakthrough with the swept-wing concept, they were still plagued by the question of how to mount the engines. Their initial idea of mounting them inside the fuselage was rejected because of the possibility of fire. Further, in order for the swept-wing design to work, the leading edges of the wings had to be clean and unbroken.

Boeing Chief Engineer Ed Wells puzzled over the idea as he commuted back and forth between his offices in Seattle and Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio. It was on a train back to Seattle that he came up with the solution: mount the engines in pods beneath and slightly forward of the swept wings.

Wind tunnel tests soon confirmed the idea. Based on Wells' discovery and Shaierer's "aha!" moment, the first B-47 rolled off the line at Boeing Plant 2 on Sept. 12, 1947.

Lombardi points to a model of the B-47 in his archive, then to the B-52, the KC-135 and the 707. "To this day, our airplanes still look like the B-47," he exclaims.


Even with that innovation, Boeing did not build the first commercial passenger jet. Britain's De Havilland flew the first prototype of its DH-106 Comet July 27, 1949. The Comet entered service in 1952 and at first, was a commercial success.

However, the DH-106 had a tremendous weakness no one had foreseen - metal fatigue that led to Comet crashes in 1953 and 1954. The entire Comet fleet was pulled from the flight line in the fourth quarter of 1954 as de Havilland frantically searched for solutions.

Convinced they could out-design the Comet, Boeing's design team went to work on the Model 367-80 - the "Dash 80." It incorporated the lessons learned in production of the B-47 and the B-52 bombers. The wings were swept. The engines were encased in underwing pods. What it lacked were customers.

"There was no interest from any of the customers in building this jet," says Lombardi, rummaging through stacks of documents in his archive. "To build it will cost around $15 million. So the CEO, Bill Allen, realizes that it's time once again to roll the dice. The company goes ahead and funds the Dash 80 project on its own."

It was a difficult decision for Allen. But pushed by designer Ed Wells and others, he was convinced that jetliners were the future of civilian air transport. "They told Allen 'if we build it, they will come,'" quips Lombardi. So, in April 1952, Boeing began building the Dash 80 - soon dubbed the Model 707.

Lombardi stops rummaging through his mounds of notebooks, having found what he was looking for. It's a notebook of magazine advertisements.

"They're ads with moms with their children, husbands with wives. They convey safety and luxury and speed. What a wonderful manipulation of the public," he laughs. "After all, before this, the advertisement in the commercial airplane market was all business to business. But it worked. Suddenly, everybody says, 'I want to fly that.'"

But perhaps the icing on the cake was test pilot Alvin "Tex" Johnston's demonstration flight over Lake Washington in a Dash 80 on August 7, 1955. Although tasked to fly straight and level, Johnston took the Dash 80 into a barrel roll.

Asked later by Boeing President Bill Allen just what he thought was doing, Johnston said simply, "I was selling airplanes." He kept his job and the marketing efforts worked. Later that year, Pan American Airways ordered 20 Boeing 707s and 25 Douglas DC-8s. Other airlines rushed to get their orders in line, including American, Braniff and Continental. Foreign carriers were also quick to get their orders in. Among them: Lufthansa, KLM and Air France.

LISTEN: The barrel roll and the jet age

Boeing pulled away from the competition as it focused on commercial jet development. In 1960, the manufacturer began work on its first three-engine aircraft since the Model 80 four decades earlier. The mid-range 727 became a workhorse, even more popular than the 707. The 727 made its first flight February 9, 1963, entering service with Eastern Airlines just a year later. In all, Boeing built 1,832 of them.

In 1967, the Boeing 737 flew for the first time. Designed as a short- to mid-range airliner, there are now so many 737s that an average of 1,250 are airborne at any given moment of the day, with two taking off or landing every five seconds.


Boeing continued to innovate in passenger aircraft design in the late 1960s with the 747 making its first flight February 9, 1969. Designed as the world's first wide-body jet, the "Queen of the Skies," also known as the Jumbo Jet, is still in production today, although the numbers of new 747s are fast-dwindling.

In order to make the 747 project a reality, Allen again bet the company. He had to borrow huge sums of money to complete the 747 development program and the plant in which the Jumbo Jet was to be constructed. Boeing's debt at one point during the 747 project exceeded $2 billion. Yet the airplane's popularity carried it through the tough times, making it one of the most enduring and iconic planes ever built.

LISTEN: The 747: Boeing bets the ranch


The Space Race during the 1960s was, like World War II, an effort that pulled U.S. aerospace manufacturers together so that few were left completely out of the picture. Boeing built the first and most powerful stage of the Saturn V moon rocket, the S-1C. At 138 feet tall and 33 feet wide, the S-1C's five F-1 engines delivered an astounding 7.5 million pounds of thrust. The company also created the famed Lunar Rovers, light weight moon buggies that carried astronauts several kilometers from their lunar landers as they explored the surface of Earth's closest neighbor.

But perhaps Boeing's biggest contribution to the Apollo program, says Lombardi, was its ability to manage the big picture.

Lambasted by the media and the public after the 1967 Apollo 1 disaster (a pre-launch fire inside the crew module which killed astronauts Virgil Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White), with the deadline for landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade just three years away, and realizing the Soviet Union was pushing ahead with its own space program, NASA Director James Webb needed help marshalling the hundreds of Apollo contractors and their thousands of employees. He turned to Boeing and Allen delivered, sending approximately 2,000 of his "best managers," according to Lombardi, to help get the space program back on track.

"Had Bill Allen not stepped up, had Boeing not stepped in, the Apollo program would likely have been canceled or worse. It might have ended in disaster," says Lombardi.


With the conclusion of the war in Vietnam, the Arab Oil Embargo, as well as the Recessions of 1969 and 1973 and the waning of the space program, Boeing's fortunes tumbled in a way the company had not seen since the end of the Second World War, when it laid off approximately 70,000 workers. In 1968, the company's Commercial Airplane Group had employed approximately 83,700 workers. Just three years later, that number dwindled to just 20,750. For decades the biggest employer in Seattle, Boeing's decline hit the Puget Sound region extremely hard. The local unemployment rate jumped to 14-percent. Almost two out of every ten homes in the area were vacant - either for sale, for rent or abandoned altogether. At one point, a billboard popped up near SeaTac Airport: "Will the last person leaving Seattle - Turn out the lights."

But Boeing was far from finished. Production of the 727, 737 and 747 continued. The company introduced the 757 narrow-body and 767 wide-body aircraft during the 1980s and participated in development of the Space Shuttle during that same decade. By 1991, Boeing's contribution to the Northrop B-2 Stealth Bomber project employed approximately 10,000 workers in Washington and California. In 1994, Boeing introduced its most advanced aircraft ever, the 777, the company's first "fly-by-wire" aircraft. But that was not enough to stave off increasing competition from the company's main rival, European-based Airbus.

Still, however, Boeing's defense business lagged. Unable to drum up its own business with the military, Boeing first acquiring Rockwell's defense and aerospace business in 1996, then, a year later, reached a $13-billion stock-swap deal with McDonnell Douglas. With those mergers, Boeing acquired the B-1 bomber, F-15 and F/A-18 and the C-17 cargo aircraft programs. For the time being, Boeing's foothold at the Pentagon seemed assured. But analysts and even Boeing insiders agree that the mergers nearly killed the company.


The McDonnell Douglas merger led to a staggering culture clash.

"Up until then, Boeing was run mostly by engineers or those who backed them," says aviation analyst Scott Hamilton, president of Leeham Co. in Sammamish, Wash. The company's new CEO, Harry Stonecipher, "was widely quoted as saying he didn't even know what it cost to build airplanes. His priority became returning money to shareholders. He and the McDonnells were the new company's biggest shareholders."

LISTEN: Merged to death?

Decidedly not an engineer, Stonecipher's practice of promoting near-term profits over long-term sustainability stunned many in the Boeing workforce, according to another aviation analyst, Richard Aboulafia with the Teal Group in Washington, D.C. "Just in terms of the way (Boeing's) governance was structured, it was appallingly bad."

To prove their points, both Aboulafia and Hamilton point to the 787 Dreamliner project.

The Dreamliner project was crippled by technical woes from the start. Its first flight was delayed for two years. Flight testing took another two years. Since that time, the aircraft have suffered a plethora of maladies.

"As things stand now, the 787 disaster has wrecked the company for a generation," contends Hamilton. "All the while, they'll be playing second fiddle to Airbus."

But both analysts point out Boeing is in an oddly good position right now for a company that has slipped into second place in commercial aircraft development.

"It's a bit bizarre," Aboulafia says. "I mean, in terms of orders and deliveries, they've never had it so good." Indeed, the company has a backlog of orders that should carry it well into the next decade. "But because its short-sightedness (on the 787), they have this big drag on profits that could have helped in new product development."

On that, Hamilton agrees. "Can Boeing bounce back? Of course they can. Can they afford it? Yes. Right now, they're spending $6 billion a year in buying back shares from stockholders. IF they reduce or stop that for just a couple of years, they can afford to develop that next new plane that will put them on top of Airbus again."

William Boeing, Claire Egvtedt and Bill Allen were all risk takers. Each of them saw a reason to bet the company on future technology and in each case, they won.

"They're not doing that now," says Hamilton. "They're still hugely gun shy after the 787 debacle." But both analysts say that sort of risk-taking is exactly what Boeing needs for the company to remain the world's biggest corporation in its second hundred years.

This story was written for a feature in Aviation International News in partnership with KOMO NewsRadio.

close video ad
Unmutetoggle ad audio on off