Boeing's new course - Ten decades of Boeing

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Boeing's long and complex story has encompassed virtually all aspects of military and civil aviation.

Boeing has not always been synonymous with airliners. From the 1940s to the 1960s, the company was the pre-eminent producer of bombers. Then, Douglas was the dominant builder of airliners, as well as attack aircraft, while McDonnell was rivalling North American as the leading manufacturer of fighters. Boeing today is a combination of all four companies, plus the helicopter and satellite heritage of Hughes. It has been an interesting journey.


William Boeing's first aircraft, the B&W seaplane, flew in 1916 and his company, Pacific Aero Products, was renamed Boeing Airplane a year later. Its first contract came from the US Navy, for 50 Model C seaplane trainers. Donald Douglas's first aircraft, the Cloudster, flew in 1921. It was followed by the DT torpedo bomber for the US Navy. Douglas World Cruisers - modified DTs - flew round the world in 1923-4.

First growth

Boeing Air Transport began flying mail for the USPost Office in 1927, using Model 40As, and in 1929 Boeing and Pratt & Whitney came together as United Air Transport (UATC), which included Chance Vought, Northrop, Sikorsky and Stearman, and covered everything from engines and propellers to airlines and airports. Similarly, North American Aviation (NAA) was formed as a holding company in 1928.

Boeing entered the fighter business in 1923 with the PW-9, leading to the mainstay US fighter between the wars, the F4B/P-12 series (1928), and the first US monoplane fighter, the P-26 (1932).

New deal

Only two were built, but Boeing's Monomail (1930) pioneered the all-metal, cantilever-wing, retractable-gear monoplane design used in the Model 247 (1933), the first "modern" airliner. That year, Douglas flew its first airliner, the DC-1, beginning a competition between the companies that lasted 60 years. But while Douglas succeeded with the DC-3 (1935), Boeing struggled to sell the Model 307 (1938), the first pressurised airliner.

In 1934, new US anti-trust laws broke up UATC, and Boeing Airplane was re-established. NAA relinquished its holdings to become a manufacturer, and its first aircraft, the BT-9 trainer, flew in 1935. McDonnell Aircraft was formed in 1939.

To war...

Bombers turned Boeing from a loss-maker to a leader in the Second World War. Production of the B-17 (1935) began in 1940 and 12,731 rolled off lines at Boeing, Douglas and Lockheed, to be joined by 3,970 B-29s (1942) built by Boeing, Bell and Martin. But Douglas was the big winner, building 7,477 A-20 Havocs (1939), 5,936 SBD Dauntlesses (1940) and 2,502 A-26 Invaders (1942), plus thousands of C-47 (1941) and C-54 (1942) transports. North American was not far behind, building 9,498 B-25 Mitchells (1940) and 15,586 P-51 Mustangs (1941), plus 15,498 T-6 Texan trainers (1938).

...and peace

Boeing, Douglas and North American laid off 255,000 people in 1946, as the end of the war decimated their workforces. Douglas responded with the DC-6 (1946), the first post-war airliner, but Boeing's Model 377 Stratocruiser (1947) was less successful. And while Boeing's fighter line ended with cancellation of the F8B (1945), Douglas launched a successful line of attack aircraft with the AD/A-1 Skyraider (1945).

McDonnell was about to take off. Its first aircraft, the XP-67 fighter (1944), was a failure, but the FH-1 Phantom (1945) launched a long line of jet fighters. North American's first jet fighter, the FJ-1 Fury (1946), led to the F-86 Sabre (1947), more than 6,000 of which were built worldwide.

Jets arrive

Boeing was still the bomber company, and German windtunnel data on swept wings resulted in the revolutionary B-47 (1947), which led to the B-52 (1952). In a bid to diversify, Boeing applied its experience to the Model 367-80 - the "Dash 80" flying in 1954 as a prototype for both the KC-135 tanker (1956) and 707 airliner (1957). Douglas was slower to move to jets, flying the DC-8 in 1958, and the 707 won the sales war - and commercial aircraft dominance for Boeing.

Douglas's attack aircraft line continued with the A3D/A-3 (1952) and the A4D/A-4 (1953), of which 2,960 were built. North American followed the F-86 with the supersonic F-100 (1953), but its fighter line ended there. The F-107 (1957) lost to the Republic F-105 and the F-108 was cancelled in 1959. McDonnell fared better, following the F3H (1951) and F-101 (1954) with the F4H/F-4 Phantom II - 5,195 of which were built.

Into space

Boeing built the Bomarc surface-to-air missile (1952), but Douglas produced the USA's first operational SAM, the Nike Ajax (1951). Douglas and North American's Rocketdyne division worked together on the Thor intermediate-range ballistic missile (1957), while Boeing developed the Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile (1961).

While Douglas developed the Thor into the Delta launch vehicle (1960), McDonnell was selected to build the Mercury capsule, which carried the first American into space in 1961, and later the Gemini spacecraft (1965). Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and North American built the Saturn V (1967), while North American produced the Apollo spacecraft that carried human beings to the moon in 1969.

Hughes Space & Communications was estgablished in 1961 and built the first geosynchronous communications satellite, Syncom (1963).

Winners and losers

McDonnell merged with Douglas and North American merged with Rockwell Standard in 1967, as competitions and cancellations reshaped the industry. Douglas was losing the jetliner battle to Boeing as the 727 (1963) and 737 (1967) built on the success of the 707. Both companies lost the C-5 airlifter competition to Lockheed, leading Boeing to "bet the company" on development of the 747 (1969).

Douglas exited the fighter business when the F6D was cancelled in 1961, and Boeing, controversially, lost the TFX competition to General Dynamics and Grumman in 1962. Termination of the XB-70 bomber in 1964 was a near-fatal blow to North American, while cancellation of the X-20 Dyna-Soar in 1963 and the Manned Orbiting Laboratory in 1969 set back Boeing and McDonnell Douglas (MDC), respectively.

Starting badly

The 1970s did not start well for Boeing. The 2707 supersonic transport was cancelled in 1971 and a commercial recession drove employment below 60,000. McDonnell Douglas, having introduced the DC-10 in 1970, fared little better, and employment also fell below 60,000 by mid-decade.

MDC's military side was healthier, with the F-15 flying in 1972, followed in 1978 by the F/A-18. But both companies suffered when the Advanced Medium STOL Transport competition was cancelled in 1979. Rockwell saw the B-1A bomber cancelled in 1977.

Boeing's E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System flew in 1977, extending the life of the 707 line, and MDC gave the DC-9 (1965) a new lease of life when it introduced the MD-80 in 1979.

Getting better

The 1980s were better all round. Boeing introduced the 767 (1981) and 757 (1982) with their common cockpits, McDonnell Douglas won the Dual-Role Fighter competition with the F-15E, and Rockwell received a contract for 100 B-1Bs. The Rockwell-developed Space Shuttle made its first orbital flight in 1981.

MDC acquired Hughes Helicopters in 1984, and with it the AH-64 Apache (1975). Boeing had acquired Vertol in 1960, and its sole product was the CH-47 Chinook (1961), but in 1989 the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor, jointly developed by Bell and Boeing, entered flight testing.

Coming together

McDonnell Douglas started the 1990s on a high, introducing the MD-11 widebody (1990) and MD-90 narrowbody (1993) airliners and C-17 airlifter (1991). But the 1991 cancellation of the A-12 attack aircraft, elimination from the Joint Strike Fighter competition and then cancellation of the MD-12 large airliner in 1996 all helped to precipitate a crisis.

Boeing was on a roll, meanwhile, introducing the 777 in 1994 and delivering its 3,000th 737 in 1998. The company surprised everyone by making the JSF shortlist in 1996, the year it launched the strategy to balance its civil and military revenues by buying Rockwell's aerospace and defence business. A year later, Boeing and McDonnell Douglas merged in a $13.3 billion deal.


Boeing continued its diversification into 2000 by acquiring satellite builder Hughes Space & Communications and aviation data provider Jeppesen, and by standing up Connexion by Boeing and Air Traffic Management as business units.

In 2001, Boeing lost the JSF competition, but a year later clinched two key network-centric warfare programmes - the Future Combat System and the Joint Tactical Radio System. Plans for a bigger 747X gave way to the high-speed Sonic Cruiser, which was dropped in favour of the super-efficient 7E7. A new Boeing had arrived.