November 2004 
Volume 03, Issue 7 
Historical Perspective

Doodlebug takes to the air


James S. McDonnell’s 1929 DoodlebugOn Nov. 15, 1929, a young pilot took a new aircraft up for its first flight. First flights are special for any pilot, but for 30-year-old James S. McDonnell, this flight was even more significant. He had designed and helped build the plane.

His incentive: The $100,000 prize offered by the Daniel Guggenheim Foundation for an airplane that could demonstrate "a real advance in the safety of flying." The competition was announced in 1927, spurred by interest generated by Charles Lindbergh's flight to Paris earlier that year.

A graduate of Princeton and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, McDonnell had earned his wings in the U.S. Army Air Service in 1923 and was one of the few aeronautical engineers in the United States who was also a qualified pilot.

As the chief engineer at the Hamilton Aero Manufacturing Company in Milwaukee, McDonnell worked after-hours designing a plane he was confident would win the Guggenheim prize. In 1929 Hamilton became part of Bill Boeing's giant United Aircraft and Transport Corporation. Longing to run his own firm, McDonnell resigned. With the help of two fellow Hamilton engineers, he began building his competition entry in a hangar at the Milwaukee County Airport. The trio-McDonnell, James Cowling and Constantine Zakhartchenko-called themselves J.S. McDonnell & Associates, and they named their plane the "Doodlebug."

Advanced for its time, the design featured many innovations. The Doodlebug was a monoplane, not a biplane. Its wings were fitted with leading-edge slots and trailing-edge flaps for short takeoffs and landings. Its wide-track landing gear used pneumatic shock absorbers for operation from soft fields.

After a successful first flight, McDonnell took off for Mitchell Field in New York, site of the competition. He and his associates believed they had a plane that would meet all contest requirements, and once the prize was won they hoped to mass-produce the Doodlebug as Henry Ford had manufactured the Model T.

McDonnell planned to make the 900-mile flight in the shortest time possible, landing only for fuel. His night-flying aids were two flashlights taped under the wings. Thick fog, blinding snow storms and a leaky gas tank forced him to land more often than he had planned. But the flight validated the plane's capabilities. McDonnell found he could land in less than 40 feet (12 meters) and take off in 180 feet (55 meters); most light planes at that time needed 400 feet (122 meters) to take off and 200 feet (61 meters) to land.

From New York, pleased with the Doodlebug's performance, McDonnell wired his associates: "We will win the Guggenheim yet."

On Nov. 23, after the first of two required demonstration flights, it looked like the Doodlebug would do just that. The judges declared it the best-so far-of all entrants.

On the second flight, coming out of a dive, the Doodlebug's tail collapsed, and the plane went out of control. McDonnell had one leg out of the cockpit ready to bail out, when he stopped. "I still had my motor left and most of my ship," he said years later. "If I had jumped, I would have had nothing." Even though the plane's controls were jammed, he managed a safe crash landing.

Guggenheim officials gave J.S. McDonnell & Associates until Dec. 23 to get their plane back in the air, so McDonnell had it shipped back to Milwaukee for repair. Three weeks later, one day before the deadline, McDonnell took off for New York. But over Waukegan, Ill., a connecting rod in the Doodlebug's engine broke. Once again, McDonnell walked away from a crash landing, but any chance of winning the Guggenheim was lost.

Undaunted, McDonnell repaired the Doodlebug and spent a year demonstrating it throughout the country, racking up some 26,000 air miles. Although the plane's spectacular short-takeoff-and-landing capabilities impressed observers, McDonnell failed to find financial backing for production.

In 1931, McDonnell sold the Doodlebug and began looking for a job, putting on hold his dream of running his own company.

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