Boeing & Douglas: A History of Customer Service

The history of The Boeing Company and the Douglas Aircraft Company is, in essence, the history of commercial aviation. Founded in 1916 and 1920, respectively, the two companies led America and the world in airplane development, challenging each other decade by decade, and marking the progress of flight from open-cockpit biplanes to jumbo jets. The uniquely American spirit evinced by the two companies -- a sense of imagination and daring combined with Yankee ingenuity -- is nowhere more clearly illustrated than in the history of their customer service achievements from the early years of this century.

The principle of customer service (the idea that selling an airplane involves more than simply an exchange of hardware for cash) dates from the earliest days of both companies. The first such activity at Boeing took place in 1917, just prior to the company's first sale. The United States had recently entered World War I, and the U.S. Navy was interested in the Boeing Model C seaplane. With flight tests scheduled across the country in Pensacola, Florida, the company was forced to break down, crate, and ship two of the Model Cs by rail -- sending along spare parts, a factory engineer, and a pilot to complete the package. The following year, when the New Zealand Flying Club purchased the company's original B & W seaplanes, training and spares were made part of the deal.

Similarly, the first transactions of the fledgling Douglas Aircraft Company virtually assumed customer service. The company's first airplane, the Douglas "Cloudster," was successively refitted by Douglas engineers as its ownership passed to various commercial firms in Southern California. More-over, the round-the-world flight accomplished by the Douglas World Cruisers in 1924 -- establishing the company's reputation in a single stroke -- necessitated the strategic placement of company engineers and spare parts at different locations around the globe, anticipating the modern arrangement years before it took shape.

Passenger service, as such, did not exist in the early 1920s; rather, it grew out of the development of airborne mail service. In 1925, President Calvin Coolidge signed legislation forcing the Post Office to transfer established routes to private operators. Douglas capitalized on the opportunity by selling its M Series mail planes to the newly formed airline companies. Boeing went one step further, winning the contract to fly the mail between Chicago and San Francisco with its fleet of Model 40As -- each containing a tiny compartment for passengers.

"From the start of the mail operation," declared William Boeing in an interview years later, "I looked ahead to the time...when passengers would become of primary importance." He was right. By the close of the 1920s, airline travel had caught on in America, and passengers had become an important source of revenue. The Boeing Company expanded, setting up a holding company that included airplane manufacturing, airmail contracts, and a passenger service known as United Air Lines. The corporation also opened The Boeing School of Aeronautics in Oakland, California, a program aimed at raising the standards of flying and ground-school instruction, and providing United Air Lines with capable pilots.

In 1933, The Boeing Company introduced the world's first modern passenger transport, the Model 247. A sleek, all-metal transport with an enclosed cockpit, the 247 contained seats for 10 passengers and featured thick upholstered chairs, an insulated cabin, a lavatory, and individual overhead lighting. The phenomenon of the Model 247 caught the attention of America's young airline companies. When its commitment to United prevented Boeing from filling orders fast enough, Transcontinental & Western Air (TWA) turned to Donald Douglas.

Douglas offered to build something similar to the Boeing 247 -- only faster and larger. TWA quickly accepted the proposal. The Douglas DC-1, which would eventually be refined as the legendary DC-3, immediately attracted new customers, making the 247 obsolete less than a year after its first flight. In 1934, the Roosevelt administration ordered the annulment of all airmail contracts, effectively divorcing The Boeing Company and United, and restricting the former to the manufacture of airplanes. With the advent of the Model 247 and the DC-1, 2, 3 series, however, the competition to supply the world with aircraft had well and truly begun -- with Boeing and Douglas facing off on the western coast of the United States and spurring each other to new levels of innovation, decade by decade.

The Douglas Aircraft Company was the first to formally establish a "Service Department," an organization created in 1935 -- "to aid the operators of Douglas planes in every way and to have our service men visit repair stations to instruct the operators in care and maintenance." The success of the Douglas DC-2 had brought the company a rapidly widening customer base, with commercial operators of Douglas planes based in both North and South America. This prompted a 33,000- mile tour of Douglas repair and maintenance bases by the new Service Department head, Chet Cole, whose travels that year took him as far away as Lima, Peru.

The Boeing Company followed suit in 1936 with the birth of its "Service Unit," headed by engineer Wellwood Beall. Doubling as the company's "Far Eastern Sales Representative," Beall had traveled to China the previous year, concluding a successful sale of Boeing P-26 "Peashooter" pursuit planes to the Chinese government. Accordingly, Beall found it necessary to establish a field representative in Canton to oversee airplane maintenance and the training of Chinese pilots. With this sizable international sale, the Boeing Service Unit thus became a functional necessity for the company, providing a critical link between Seattle and its distant customers.

The 1930s saw the rapid growth of both companies. The rest of the country had been mired in the Depression for several years, and the mid-30s marked the beginning of America's financial recovery. Substantial orders flowed into Douglas and Boeing. Pan American Airways placed an order with Boeing for six Model 314 Clippers, the long-range flying boats that provided luxurious accommodations, including sleeping room for 40 passengers. At Douglas, new airplane construction was already taking place at a record pace. The enormous success of the Douglas DC-3, combining passenger comfort with a utilitarian design, made it the worldwide standard for commercial air travel.

The year 1938 saw Europe plunge into the Second World War -- with important ramifications for the service organizations of both companies. Resources devoted to training, spares, and maintenance publications increased dramatically as the Allied war machine called for support from America. A steady stream of Boeing and Douglas field representatives began flowing to battle fronts on several continents to support their companies' respective aircraft.

Back in Seattle, employees began working around the clock to build Allied bombers -- the B-17 "Flying Fortress" and its successor, the B-29 "Superfortress." The first military unit to send B-17s into battle was Britain's Royal Air Force. Boeing field reps flew to Europe in 1941 with a two-fold mission: to keep the bombers flying and to relay information for design improvements back to company engineers. Often stationed in battle zones, they wore dogtags, helmets, and fatigues, and frequently carried weapons. Their major concern, however, was the shortage of parts. Reported one Boeing field rep in a letter home: "This isn't a war of tanks and planes -- it's a war of spare parts!"

Douglas field reps were already stationed in many corners of the globe by the time war broke out in Europe. Douglas planes had begun "flying the hump" over the treacherous Himalayas in Asia even before the outbreak of hostilities. Douglas reps soon found themselves on battlefronts in Europe and Africa to boot. The DC-3 and DC-4 -- and their military versions, the C-47 Skytrain and C-54 Skymaster -- had a reputation for rugged reliability and were being used by the Allies in every imaginable capacity. Moreover, employees in Southern California were also turning out several models of Allied attack aircraft -- the DB-7/A-20 Havoc, the A-26 Invader, and the SBD Dauntless.

The training of American pilots and mechanics during the war grew to unprecedented levels. Thousands of young men with limited flying or maintenance experience poured into training facilities at Boeing and Douglas. In Seattle, the famed Boeing Fortress School was established. Instructors from the Boeing Mobile Technical Training Unit took this course to every theater of the war. In California, each of the major Douglas sites set up training facilities for the military.

The Second World War thus wrought several important changes in the service departments of both companies. The rapid growth in the number of field representatives, the establishment of permanent training facilities, and the increasing complexity of aircraft systems spurred departmental reorganizations. In 1941, the Douglas Service Department reorganized itself under the aegis of Product Support. In the spring of 1943, the Boeing Service Unit reorganized, dividing itself into four principal groups: maintenance publications, field service, training, and spares. Today, these same four groups still exist as the primary functions of the Boeing Customer Support organization.

Following the war, a new spirit of partnership began to emerge between the aircraft manufacturers and their customers. Customer service engineers from the two companies began working alongside design engineers, speaking for the needs of the airlines and handling service issues from their customers' viewpoint. Spares, already a special point of focus during the war years, made another leap forward in growth.

Training programs and facilities also adapted to the new era. At Boeing, the Fortress School gave way to the "Stratocruiser School," as the introduction of pressurized cabins ushered in new technology. This, in turn, gave way to the "College of Jet Knowledge" in the 1950s. Pilots from all over the world arrived in Seattle to make the evolutionary leap from piston-driven airplanes to jets.

With the introduction of commercial jetliners, the globe rapidly began to shrink. Field represen-tatives from Boeing and Douglas soon found themselves facing new challenges in remote locations. Both companies deemed it necessary to establish "special forces" teams to recover and repair planes that had crashed in remote sites. At Boeing, the new organization was dubbed "AOG" (Airplane on Ground); and the first team was dispatched to Guadeloupe in the French West Indies in 1960. A Boeing 707 had been damaged in a runway mishap and was initially pronounced a total loss. The AOG team arrived and proceeded to rebuild the 707, completing the job in just 29 days.

At Douglas, the new organization was referred to as "RAM" (Recovery and Modification). Established in the late 50s, the Douglas team -- like their Boeing counterparts -- were renowned for tackling the impossible. One notable example was the crash of a DC-9 in Jakarta, Indonesia in 1969. The Douglas crew arrived to find the airliner buried nose-deep in a rice paddy and virtually inaccessible. Requisitioning every water buffalo for miles around, they harnessed the animals in teams and hauled the jet out of the mud.

From a historical perspective, it is entirely fitting that Boeing and Douglas are now united under one roof. Americans everywhere -- and particularly the men and women who helped to build the two great companies -- can take pride in the extraordinary heritage wrought by their forebears. The Boeing B & W, the Douglas Cloudster, the World Cruiser, the Model 247, the DC-3, the Stratoliner, the B-17, the SBD Dauntless, the DC-6, the Dash 80 -- the litany of history-making airplanes reminds us that Boeing and Douglas didn't just take part in the evolution of flight, they literally wrote the defining chapters.

Each chapter of the story bears the same essential theme -- that of rising to a particular challenge, overcoming great obstacles, and stepping forward into the future. And despite the vast technological changes that have taken place in the airplane industry, the Customer Support mission has remained the same: To assist the operators of Boeing and Douglas planes to the greatest possible extent, delivering total satisfaction and lifetime support.


The year was 1915 -- America had not yet entered World War I, Prohibition was still four years away, and a significant but unremarked event was taking place in suburban Los Angeles:

William Boeing journeyed from Seattle for flight instruction at the Glenn Martin flying school, and Donald Douglas arrived from the East to join the Martin Company as chief aeronautical engineer.

Within five years, the two men had formed their own companies and were soon competing head-to-head in one of the most significant business rivalries of the 20th century -- leading America and the rest of the world into the Aerospace Age.


William Edward Boeing, born in 1881 and christened "Wilhelm," was one of three children, the son of an educated German immigrant. Little is known of William Boeing's early life apart from the fact that he was just eight when his father died, that he was sent to Switzerland for part of his education, and that at some point he anglicized his first name and asked friends to call him "Bill." He entered Yale University to study engineering but left one year short of graduation in 1903, bound for the Pacific Northwest.

Boeing established himself in Grays Harbor and began trading and selling timber lands on the Washington coast. Like his father before him, he swiftly made his fortune in this enterprise. In 1910, he traveled to Los Angeles to witness the first American air meet, featuring the French ace Louis Paulhan. Fascinated, Boeing tried to obtain a ride in one of the planes, but circumstances prevented it.

By 1914, he was quartered in Seattle, where he frequented the University Club, smoking cigars and discussing the issues of the day. There he met Conrad Westervelt, a Naval engineer with a strong interest in aviation who was temporarily assigned in the Northwest.

According to an interview with its founder, The Boeing Company began as a holiday lark on a hot Fourth of July morning in 1914. Boeing and Westervelt celebrated Independence Day by purchasing rides in a seaplane flown by a barnstorming pilot off Lake Washington. Flying machines were still a novelty in 1914, and their design had advanced very little from the box kite prototype the Wright brothers had launched from Kitty Hawk 11 years earlier.

Bill Boeing went first -- exchanging his rimless eyeglasses for a set of goggles and taking his position beside the pilot. The two sat on the front edge of the lower wing, in front of a backward-facing pusher propeller. Boeing braced his feet against the footrests, his hands gripping the edge of the wing. There were no seat belts.

The pilot revved the engine, the frail craft raced across Lake Washington -- then lifted off into the air. Boeing was absolutely thrilled by the experience. The plane touched down, he exchanged places with Westervelt, then immediately went back up again when Westervelt landed. The two men spent the rest of the day repeating the experience. Between flights, they closely examined the construction of the rickety airplane. By mid-afternoon, they were already planning how to design a better craft.

A reserved man with a strong sense of privacy, Boeing was nonetheless possessed of great foresight and daring, and believed utterly in the future of aviation. In 1916, when the company's first test flight was scheduled and the pilot was inexplicably late, Boeing climbed into the cockpit and took the plane up himself -- explaining later that he "did not want to endanger anyone else." When a glut of ex-military planes forced a slump in the market following the close of World War I, he depleted his personal fortune to keep Boeing workers employed.

The Boeing Company was parted from its founder in 1934, when the Roosevelt administration dictated the divestiture of aircraft companies and airline carriers. But the company retained his stamp -- daring to make great leaps forward when it introduced jetliners in the 1950s and becoming a pillar of American technological leadership in the process.


Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1892, Donald Wills Douglas was the younger son of William and Dorothy Hagen-Locher Douglas. As a young man, his interests centered on writing verse poetry, ocean sailing, and the new science of aviation.

In 1908, only five years after Kitty Hawk, Wilbur and Orville Wright announced the trial demonstration of a flying machine built to the U.S. Army's specification at Fort Meyers, Virginia. Captivated by the news, the 16-year-old Douglas persuaded his mother to accompany him to Virginia to witness the trials. This event appears to have cemented his desire to become involved in aviation.

A banker by profession, however, William Douglas insisted on a rigid, formal education for both his sons. Accordingly, Douglas enrolled in the Naval Academy in 1909, following his brother, Harold, who was already a sophomore. The younger Douglas spent much of his free time building airplane models powered by rubber-banded propellers. In one instance, he attempted to build a rocket-powered model -- the resulting smoke causing a panic when he launched it from the window of his room.

After three years at Annapolis, Douglas resigned as a midshipman, seeking to continue his studies at an institution with a greater emphasis on aero-nautical engineering. He enrolled at MIT, finishing the four-year mechanical engineering course in two years and graduating in 1914. He remained at MIT the following year as an assistant in aeronautical engineering, working on wind tunnel design and consulting on a dirigible for the U.S. Navy.

In August 1915, at the recommendation of his instructors at MIT, Douglas accepted the position of chief engineer for the Glenn L. Martin Company in Los Angeles. He was 23 years of age.

In 1916, Douglas accepted a position with the War Department as the head of the Aeronautical Branch of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. By 1920, he had established his own company. In 1924, the U.S. Army Aviation Service mounted the first around-the-world flight, commissioning Douglas biplanes for the journey. Upon the successful completion of this feat, Douglas united his Scottish family crest -- the winged heart -- with a globe-encircling design to form the Douglas Aircraft Company logo.

A man of many interests, Donald Douglas won the silver medal in sailing (six-meter class) at the 1932 Olympics. It was his passion for flight that burned the brightest, though; he led his company by example, inspiring all who worked with him. Upon the death of company vice president Harry Wetzel in 1938, Douglas might have been speaking of himself when he wrote:


During the 1930s, Boeing service representatives quickly established a reputation for resourcefulness in the field. The author of this reputation was, in great part, the company's first field rep -- Herbert "Nemo" Poncetti.By the early part of the decade, military pursuit planes had became The Boeing Company's bread and butter. Following the success of the P-26 Peashooter with the U.S. Armed Forces, the company decided to market an export version of the diminutive pursuit plane.

In the late summer of 1934, Wellwood Beall, the company's Far Eastern Sales Representative, sailed to Canton, where he concluded a sale of eleven Peashooters to the Chinese Air Force. Coming off the production line in Seattle, the planes would be torn down, crated, and shipped to the Far East.

It would be necessary, Beall realized, to have a Boeing man onsite who could uncrate and assemble the airplanes. Moreover, the company would need someone who could train Chinese pilots to fly the machines and Chinese mechanics to service them. By a stroke of luck, while traveling through Shanghai, Beall stumbled across Nemo Poncetti, a man with a broad background in engineering and a love for airplanes. Beall offered him the job at once.

Beall's judgment was precisely on target -- Poncetti was the ideal field rep. Having accepted the job, Poncetti set sail for Seattle to learn about the airplane. His education completed, he returned to China in late 1935, exhibiting a resourcefulness for keeping planes in the air that soon became the hallmark of the Boeing Field Service.

One of a small group of foreign instructors to reach China in the 30s, Poncetti was installed at the Central Aviation School in Canton. Following his introduction at the school and the attendant formalities -- which included being presented to Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-shek -- Poncetti quickly got down to the task of reassembling the Peashooters and instructing Chinese student pilots.

On one particular occasion, one of his students ground-looped his plane, leaving Poncetti the task of building an entire new wing from thin air. Although the details of the story have been lost, the field rep somehow managed it. Under his tutelage, the Chinese pilots soon became a crack group of fliers.

During Poncetti's sojourn in China, Boeing formally established the Service Unit within the Engineering Department -- where he was officially assigned upon his return to Seattle. In the war years that followed, Poncetti accepted assignments in North Africa and Italy, serving with distinction. Following the war, he returned to Seattle, switching to the Bomarc and Minuteman missile programs in the 1960s.

Retiring in 1969, Poncetti was celebrated by dozens of friends and acquaintances from his long tenure as a field rep. When pressed, he declared that he had enjoyed every minute of it. Recalling his first assignment in China, however, he noted: "I must admit I enjoyed working with the airplanes in the early days more than anything else."


During the Second World War, customer service took on an entirely new level of meaning -- as illustrated by the Douglas and Boeing machinists who took part in the top-secret mission referred to as "Project 19."

By the summer of 1941, the British were facing disaster in North Africa. German Field Marshall Rommel's armored divisions were besieging Tobruk, threatening to gain control of the Suez Canal. A battle-damaged Royal Air Force urgently needed a repair base in the region. Desperate for aid, Britain called upon America -- who, as yet, had not entered the war.

By Presidential directive, a secret meeting was convened with representatives of the nation's top planemakers. The upshot: a top-secret repair base, designated "Project 19," would be established at Gura in the Eritrean hills, 60 miles from the Red Sea port of Massawa. High on the mountain plateau lay an abandoned Italian airplane plant, complete with luxury barracks, well-equipped machine shops, and new hangars.

Recruitment and management were assigned to Douglas Aircraft. Under an oath of strictest secrecy, volunteers were drawn from the principal U.S. airplane manufacturing centers -- Seattle, the Midwest, and Southern California.

The Boeing and Douglas men who rode the first trucks from Massawa, winding up hundreds of curves to Gura, saw a mile-high desert valley that reminded Californians of the upper Mojave. They also saw a pitted airstrip, surrounded by a rubble of bombed-out barracks and shop buildings -- the remains of the Italian plant, blasted by Allied bombers months earlier.

Awaiting them was a field littered with ruined aircraft, along with crates of battered wings, fuselages, empennages, and engines. The Americans regarded them with dismay. Their task was to make these aircraft battleworthy. But how, they asked themselves. And with what tools? Bereft of even the barest necessities, they responded with the only resource available to them -- Yankee ingenuity.

Tools were improvised and salvaged from ship cargoes. Barrack walls and roofs were patched, bomb craters filled in. There were forests of propellers to be straightened, but no hydraulic press to do the job. The machinists contrived a simple vice to hold the bent props, then proceeded to unbend them manually with the longest available two-by-four.

They made a crude but accurate level steel table and a homemade protractor to check the pitch and curve of the blades. They improvised a balancing stand and pit. From junk steel, aluminum, and rubber, they built a working bench to test the flow of oil through pitch controls.

One day on the docks of Massawa, the Americans discovered a new German milling machine, crated and bound for Japan. With part of the group creating a suitable diversion, the milling machine was gleefully liberated, then trucked over the hills to Gura. As the days went by, proper machine tools arrived, one by one, to replace the original makeshifts.

Soon, the members of Project 19 were fixing every kind of American plane that limped or was hauled in from nearby North African fighting fronts. They serviced and assembled P-40s, C-47 Skytrains, C-54 Skymasters, B-24 Liberators, B-17 Flying Fortresses, Havocs, Hudsons, and a host of others. Those that couldn't be repaired were dismantled for spare parts.

On October 23, 1942, the third and final battle of El Alamein commenced with continuous attacks from RAF aircraft. Many of the Allied planes had been patched together by Project 19. By November 4, the Axis forces in the Western Desert were in full retreat. No fuel had succeeded in reaching Rommel's forces for six weeks. Air interdiction -- made possible by Project 19's field maintenance and repair -- had tipped the balance in the Allies favor.

On March 9, 1943, a group hanging around the wireless heard the news first: Rommel had abandoned North Africa. Soon after, in groups large and small, the exodus back to the U.S. began -- some by airplane, some aboard ship by way of Australia. One day in late 1943, a small group of machinists -- the last remnant of 2,500 civilians and 500 soldiers -- nailed the final crate, heaved it on the bed of the last truck, and rode the six-wheeler down the escarpment road to the Red Sea.


The DC-2 -- or the "Dizzy Three," as it was known in Douglas circles -- was truly a one-of-a-kind airplane and illustrated the ingenuity of Douglas field representatives during the 1930s and 40s.

Originally a DC-3, the plane in question was one of several Douglas models owned by the China National Airways Corporation (CNAC). In the spring of 1941, the plane was flying a scheduled route between Hong Kong and Chungking when it received word by radio that Japanese fighters were in the area. The pilot hurriedly set the aircraft down in a field near Kiuchuan, and the crew sprinted for cover. Moments later, a flight of Japanese Zeroes swooped down and sprayed the DC-3 with machine gun fire. When the shooting was over, the plane's fuselage was riddled with bullet holes, and one wing had been completely blasted off.

The plane's captain, H.L. Woods, radioed back to the CNAC base. "The plane's a wreck," Woods reported, "but if we can get a new wing, I think I can fly her out of here." Captain Charlie Sharp, another American pilot flying for the CNAC, takes up the story from there:

"The hell of it was, we didn't have a spare DC-3 wing, and we didn't know where to get one. We did, however, have a spare DC-2 wing. It was five feet shorter, and it wasn't designed to support the loads of the DC-3 -- but we thought it just might work. And we needed that airplane in the worst way."

With the help of Douglas field representatives, they bolted the DC-2 wing to another DC-3's underbelly and flew it across the 900 miles of mountainous terrain to Kiuchuan. There, a ground crew bolted the DC-2 wing to the fuselage of the damaged airliner. Astonishing every witness on the ground, the plane bumped across the field and lifted off without a hitch. Concluded Sharp, "We called her the DC-2."

During the war years of the 30s and 40s, there were so many in-the-field modifications that even Douglas field representatives couldn't keep track of them all. The DC-3 (or C-47) served as an aerial pack-horse in a multitude of roles -- becoming, in turn, an ambulance plane fitted for litter patients; a "flying tank car" hauling gasoline, milk, or water to stranded ground forces; an airborne photo lab used by reconnaissance groups; and a "flying wrecker," refitted as a complete airborne machine shop.

William Winship
Writing & Editing Resources
Boeing Shared Services Group

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