Volume 05, Issue 1
Flying through the ages
With delivery of the final 717, a commercial-airplane legacy takes to the sky
BY TOM BRABANT AND LARRY MERRITT
In July 1920, in the back of a Los Angeles barber shop, 28-year-old aviation engineer Donald Wills Douglas and aviation enthusiast David R. Davis opened the Davis Douglas Company. Together they built a biplane called the Cloudster, the first aircraft that could lift a load equal to its own weight.
Fast-forward 86 years to today. Later this month, the 156th and final Boeing 717 will be delivered to AirTran Airways. That delivery will mark the last commercial airplane built in the storied Long Beach, Calif., Douglas factory—and will conclude production of heritage Douglas and McDonnell Douglas commercial airplanes.
The Long Beach commercial jetliner legacy is rich in aviation history and technological achievement. And it will live on through manufacturing innovations that are practiced throughout today's Boeing—as well as through the many airplanes that were built in Long Beach.
'First Around the World'
That legacy began with Douglas and Davis' Cloudster, whose capabilities grabbed the attention of the U.S. Navy and Army. (When Davis sold his interest in the partnership soon after the airplane's debut, the company was renamed the Douglas Company.) Soon there were orders for military versions of the aircraft, including the Douglas World Cruiser, which in 1924 became the first aircraft to circle the globe. Douglas adopted "First Around the World" as its company slogan and developed a logo symbolizing aircraft circling the Earth.
When Transcontinental and Western Air Inc. (TWA) asked Douglas to design a commercial transport to replace its aging fleet of Ford and Fokker trimotors and to compete head-on with United Air Lines' new Boeing Model 247 airliner, Douglas designed an all-metal, twin-engine transport that exceeded all requirements. Called the DC-1—Douglas Commercial Model No. 1—it was the first in a long line of Douglas airliners. Of all the DC models, the DC-3 is perhaps the most renowned. It was the first airliner to make money for its operators by transporting people, independent of mail contracts. And its military applications over the ensuing years would change the course of history (see "The Start of Something Big" in the December 2005/January 2006 issue of Boeing Frontiers).
When war broke out in Europe in 1939, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt asked the country's aviation industry to gear up to build 50,000 aircraft a year. Douglas responded with "We can do it," and the company broke ground on the Long Beach plant in November 1940.
World War II forever changed the face of U.S. industry. For the first time, women entered the factory workplace in large numbers. In January 1942, Douglas employed 500 women. By the end of the year, that number had jumped to more than 30,000. Many personified "Rosie the Riveter" with assembly-line jobs, but some moved into engineering and air traffic control, also positions previously unavailable to women. Thanks to their efforts, more than 4,000 C-47 Skytrains, the military version of the DC-3, were produced at Long Beach, along with numerous other military aircraft.
After the war, Douglas made additional strides in commercial aviation. It produced the DC-6B, which airline operators at the time proclaimed "the most efficient airliner ever built," and the DC-7C, which as the world's first true long-range commercial airliner was fully deserving of its "Seven Seas" nickname.
By 1955, Douglas had begun work on its first jetliner, the DC-8. The decision to build the four-engine DC-8 also brought about relocation of all Douglas commercial work from previous locations to Long Beach.
Douglas broke ground on the $20 million DC-8 assembly facility in April 1956. The 1-million-square-foot structure consisted of two production buildings—today's buildings 80 and 84—and was completed in just 13 months. The new facility made it possible to produce both commercial and military aircraft in Long Beach simultaneously.
The DC-8, or the "Big Eight," as it came to be known, closed out the decade with a number of orders from some of the world's largest airlines. Within two years of the DC-8's first revenue flights, Douglas engineers were designing their next new airplane, a small twinjet airliner dubbed the DC-9.
The successive developments of the DC-8 and the DC-9, along with construction of major new engineering and manufacturing facilities, entailed an enormous expense. By 1966, now with Donald Douglas Jr. as president and Donald Douglas Sr. as chairman, the company found itself in the unfortunate position of having many opportunities but few financial resources to meet them. After several months of appraisals and consultations with bankers and financial advisers, Douglas decided its only solution was to merge with a strong partner.
The decision to merge with the McDonnell Company of St. Louis was announced in January 1967. Four months later, the McDonnell Douglas Corporation was created with James S. McDonnell as chairman and chief executive officer, Douglas Sr. as honorary chairman and Douglas Jr. as president of the Douglas Aircraft Company Division.
DC-9 proves itself
Meanwhile, the DC-9, which first flew in 1965, proved itself with rugged construction and design that subsequent generations of Douglas twinjets would follow. By the time the DC-9 Super 80 made its first flight in 1979, the DC-9 platform was bigger, quieter and more fuel-efficient. After entering service as the Super 80, the airplane in 1983 was renamed MD-80—the first commercial model identified as a product of McDonnell Douglas. By the time the last one was delivered in 1999, more than 1,100 MD-80s had been built, making it the most successful Douglas commercial airplane.
Within a year of the merger with McDonnell, the DC-10 was launched as the corporation's first entirely new product. The DC-10 was the first Douglas twin-aisle airplane, and its distinctive trijet design made it readily identifiable. The airplane was to compete in the lucrative "jumbo jet" market along with the Boeing 747 and the Lockheed L1011, which was introduced just a few months after the DC-10.
In the 1990s, the DC-10 was superseded by the MD-11, and the MD-90 joined the MD-80 production line. The MD-11 was designed for maximum noise reduction and fuel efficiency, and featured a two-crew flight deck and aerodynamic improvements including winglets. The MD-90 incorporated a modular assembly technique: The concept was developed to allow the airplane to be built on the same assembly line as the MD-80. Not only was the MD-90 the longest rear-engine twinjet ever built, it was also an exceptionally quiet and environmentally friendly airplane.
Before first flight of the MD-90, work was under way on a shorter, lighter twinjet, the MD-95, intended to be a modern successor to the DC-9. Renamed the 717—after McDonnell Douglas' merger with The Boeing Company in 1997—the airplane was built as a low-cost, 100-passenger airliner for the burgeoning regional jet market. Although demand for an airplane in the 717's category never fully materialized, the program might best be known as a pioneer in advanced production techniques and supplier partnerships. The 717 hallmarks of Lean manufacturing and Employee Involvement have been incorporated into several other Boeing Commercial Airplanes programs and production lines.
The men and women who have been part of these programs through the years have done more than contribute to aviation history: They helped shape the world. Today 2,727 Douglas and McDonnell Douglas commercial transports fly with 320 operators around the globe, ensuring the legacy will continue well into the 21st century.
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