BEGINNING OF AN ERA
“She was born to fly, and she belongs up there with the angels.” Carl Cover-Douglas Aircraft Company
This is a rare photo of the DC-1 with the rear wheel fairing designed to improve its aerodynamics. This modification was soon removed because the improvement was negligible. Some Douglas engineer kept trying because it was tried again on the DC-2 and the DC-3. (Photograph McDonnell Douglas/Boeing Company)
August 2, 1932, thirty-eight year old Donald Douglas sat in his office reading his mail. One letter he opened would prove to be the most important letter he received in all his years in aviation. Later he called it, “The Birth Certificate of the DC Ships.”1 The letter, signed by Jack Frye, vice president of operations for Transcontinental and Western Air, Inc. (TWA) was simple and to the point. TWA wanted to purchase ten or more tri-motored transport planes. The letter included general specifications and asked if Douglas was interested. There was also a sense of urgency in the letter because Frye wanted to know how long would it take to turn out the first plane for service tests.
The specifications called for an all-metal, tri-motored monoplane with a gross weight of 14,000 pounds, a range of 1,000 miles, and a top speed of 185 miles per hour. It also called for a capacity to carry twelve passengers, two pilots, and take off fully loaded on two of the three engines. Nowhere in the letter was there mention of cost.
The letter intrigued Douglas. He knew the specifications came from questionnaires Frye had sent to his pilots and executives after the Knute Rockne accident.
Frye was an aggressive executive, and proud of his airline. Texas born, Frye was the youngest airline executive in the country, and he had earned his wings. He had been a cowboy, Hollywood stunt flyer, and flight instructor in the early 1920s. Frye saw the need to get people to places in a hurry, and formed his own airline. His Standard Air Lines became a ferry service for Hollywood moguls and stars to their southern California vacation spots. Frye did so well, Western Airlines purchased his airline and when TAT merged with Western Airlines forming Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA), Frye became a vice president.
Although the country was in the midst of the Depression, Douglas had thought about expanding into the commercial market. Even though cars were not selling, banks were failing, and there were thousands of people on unemployment lines, executives were still working and flying, and TWA was looking for a new design. Douglas also had misgivings about entering this market. He would have to gamble the future of his company with no assurance it would be successful. The Depression economy was tenuous. Between 1930 and 1934, he built 162 Army 0-38 observation planes. They were his meat and potatoes. But the narrow profit margins from government contracts were not enough in the difficult times of the Depression. (In 1933, Douglas built his first fighter plane for the Navy, the XFD-1, a two-seater biplane with an enclosed cockpit and fixed gear.) Douglas knew he could not go on building military planes forever, the peacetime military budget was divided among too many companies. (Note: Ironically, military orders continued to be the backbone of the Douglas Aircraft Company. Not until 1958 did civilian orders reach half the amount of government orders.)
Douglas would have to act on Frye’s proposal quickly. He was sure it had gone to the Martin, Sikorsky, and the Consolidated Aircraft companies, and he suspected Curtiss-Wright, Ford, and Fokker were working on new designs also.
When Arthur Raymond, Douglas’ assistant chief engineer arrived in Douglas’ office, he recalled, “I felt an urgency in the air. I remember watching Doug study a piece of paper in front of him. Without a word, he looked up, and passed the paper to me.
“I read Frye’s letter, and Doug asked me if we could build an airplane to the specifications in the letter. There isn’t a plane in the world that can do all this, I told him. I wasn’t sure the specifications were realistic.”
Frye had specified a trimotor design because it was axiomatic the capacity for flying with one engine dead between the two highest points on their route would require three engines. “Right from the start we ruled out a trimotor,” Raymond said, and considered a bimotor meeting the engine out requirement. The ability to fly with one engine dead was a very important consideration in commercial aviation in those days.”
A week later, the design team emerged with a written proposal, and Raymond and Harry Wetzel boarded a train for New York, with a list of general specifications.
“We traveled by train for two reasons,” said Raymond. “We had much ground to cover, and hundreds of details to lay out. I needed secluded time to work out my performance figures, and, because we really wanted to get there. The ghost of Knute Rockne was still lingering.”
Raymond and Wetzel arrived at Pennsylvania Station in New York, and proceeded directly to the TWA office on Lexington Avenue. They laid the three-view drawings before Frye and Richard Robbins, TWA’s president. Frye called in his technical advisor, Charles Lindbergh. Raymond recalled the initial meeting. “Lindbergh looked over the bimotor proposal. The single engine performance concerned him. Lindbergh said, “If an engine should fail on take off, we want to be able to climb out with a full load on the remaining engine.”
“Lindbergh broke the silence. He looked at me, and said, “If you can do it, we’ll buy the design. If not, we’ll go elsewhere.”
Here is the DC-1 in flight. Note the “NC” number is taped over and in its place is the experimental “X” designation, along with the “Y” service test designation. . For about a month the DC-1 flew with the Hornet engines and was temporarily redesignated the DC-1A. TWA removed the Hornet engines and reinstalled the Cyclones in November 1933. (Photograph McDonnell Douglas/Boeing Company)
Raymond knew it was now his decision. The fate of the Douglas Aircraft Company rested not on Donald Douglas but on him. Raymond knew he had to pick up the challenge, or return to Santa Monica empty handed. “I remember looking up from the drawing and straight at Lindbergh. ‘We can meet your requirements’, I said.”
“After several days,” said Raymond, “Jack Frye asked me to go to Kansas City to work out detailed specifications. I must have made an impression on them. Harry went back to Los Angeles by rail, but I decided this time it was polite to fly, at least as far as Kansas City.”
A TRI-MOTOR TO KANSAS
Raymond had another reason for traveling on a TWA Ford Tri-Motor. How would he know what to build for TWA unless he knew what they had? The Ford was the major piece of equipment in the TWA inventory. Raymond knew what TWA was looking for, something like the Ford, only better. The trip, however, radically changed Raymond”s idea of what to design.
A Ford Tri-Motor similar to what Arthur Raymond flew in (Henry M. Holden)
When Raymond boarded the Tri-Motor, he received the usual “Comfort Pack,” cotton for his ears, smelling salts if he felt faint, and an airsick cup. Raymond recalled his flight in the aluminum belly of the Ford. “I took off from Newark at nine a.m., and bumped along all day at a low altitude, arriving over the Mississippi at dusk. It was amazing! I had seen the Atlantic and the Mississippi on the same day.”
“It was raining and after dark when we landed at Kansas City. When we touched down I got a spray of muddy water on my feet from the S-shaped fresh air ventilators. I made a mental note not to use that system on our design. I knew then, why people took the train.”
BEGINNING OF AN ERA
On June 22, 1933, Donald Douglas rolled the new DC-1 out of the hangar. The DC 1 was larger than the Boeing 247, had all the aviation and passenger improvements the Boeing had, and a few new ones. Two Wright “Cyclone” engines on the airplane each delivered 710 hp, more horsepower than the original Ford Tri Motor engines combined. It had split flaps under each wing that acted as air brakes, helping to reduce the landing speed to 58 miles per hour, lower than the TWA requirement.
On the day of its first fight, everyone connected with the DC 1 was anxious. After many days of fine-tuning and adjusting the engines, everything seemed ready.
Carl Cover, vice president of sales, and chief test pilot for Douglas, would pilot the plane, and Fred Herman would act as copilot. The two men were both good pilots and they were all business as they climbed aboard.
Cover ran up the engines, and checked the instruments again. Everything looked okay. The engines were sending vibrations, and sounds echoing through the hollow fuselage. Carl Cover and Fred Herman hardly noticed.
Cover applied left rudder and swung the plane onto the runway. Again, he ran up the engines, keeping his feet firmly on the brakes. The aircraft strained at the invisible leash.
On July 1, 1933, at exactly 12:36 PM, 332 days after Douglas received Jack Frye’s letter, the main gear of the DC 1 left the ground. It was the beginning of the end for the Condors and other wood, fabric and wire airplanes. Douglas looked at Raymond. “Well she’s off,” he said calmly.
Here the DC-1 is shown undergoing static tests of its wing loading. A distinctive feature of the DC-1 wing and one that had its roots in the Northrop technology was the straight-chord center section with straight trailing edges on the outer panels but swept-back 15 degrees on the leading edges. Photograph courtesy McDonnell Douglas/Boeing Company).
The plane was not more than a hundred feet off the ground when the left engine sputtered, and quit. Alarm registered in Cover’s brain. A moment later, the right engine did the same. The crowd below was watching intently and saw it happen too. Most were silent, just staring up at the drama unfolding before them. Douglas overheard someone say, “She’s going to crash.” His stomach knotted. The crowd expected a disaster.
Arthur Raymond recalled what he saw from the ground. “Those of us who watched the first flight got a thrill. The take
off from Clover Field was toward the ocean, and the land beyond the runway dropped off sharply. After gaining a bit of altitude, the plane began to sink as it went into a left turn, and dropped out of sight. Our hearts nearly stopped, but the turn continued. We saw it again, gaining some altitude. Again, it sank and rose. Obviously Carl could get a little higher each time, so we relaxed.”
They weren’t relaxing in the cockpit. Cover looked at Herman. He knew they had a problem, but how serious a problem, that he did not know. He needed some altitude to maneuver. Gently he lifted the nose skyward. As the plane started to respond, both engines sputtered. Cver knew he had only seconds to react. He was an experienced pilot, and his reflexes saved him. He pushed the control stick forward to gain airspeed. Both engines suddenly cut back in. Now his reasoning
took over his reflex action. He pulled back on the wheel, and started to climb, very slowly, and very carefully.
“Carl’s (Cover) familiarity with the plane in the moment of the crisis led to the answer,” said Raymond. He suggested they
look at the carburetors, but the Wright Engine Company engineers objected. They had other suspicions. When they finally relented, they discovered Cover was right. The carburetors were mounted backwards so, when the plane assumed a nose
up attitude, the carburetor floats would cut off the fuel flow to the engines. When the engineers turned the carburetors 180 degrees, the trouble cleared.
SINGLE ENGINE TEST
September 12 was the day of the all important single engine test. The engine run up was normal, and Allen taxied the airplane onto the runway at Winslow, Arizona, carrying water ballast for a full 18,000 pounds of gross weight. The contract had stipulated a test flight from, ” Los Angeles, eastward . . . , or Winslow, westward . . .”
As the plane started down the runway, Tomlinson called the airspeed, and runway markers. The plane bounced lightly as it began to un stick from the runway surface.
“Gear up!” Allen suddenly called. The idea was to get the gear up as quickly as possible to reduce the drag on the plane. When Tomlinson began pumping the gear handle, Allen reached over and shut down the right engine. The plane sagged and struggled to maintain flight. Observers said the propellers came within inches of the ground. Then slowly, the plane began to climb. The controllable pitch propellers acted as Hamilton Standard’s vice president, Al French, said they
would at high altitudes.
THE TWA TEST – FOR REAL
On November 15, 1933, Donald Douglas had his first ride aboard the DC 1. Clover and Tomlinson were flying Douglas from Santa Monica, to Newark, New Jersey, to meet with TWA’s president to renegotiate the DC 1 contract.
As the airplane climbed over the Andais Pass, one of the highest points along the Continental Divide, one engine failed. Douglas later said, “Here was the TWA requirement, for real, but you could hardly tell back in the cabin. It was like nothing happened.”
The DC-1 later became known as TWA’s flying Laboratory. During the early part of 1936, after TWA had withdrawn it from passenger service, they used it for high altitude research. The engines were changed to Wright GR 1820 F55 “Cyclones” with two speed blowers, with Hamilton Standard constant speed propellers. The flight crew used oxygen masks and auto pilot (since visibility through the frost Covered windows at 20,000 feet was impossible) to test deicing boots for the wings, and alcohol mixes for the propellers. Howard Hughes, the largest stockholder in TWA, thought so much of the DC-1 that he later bought it, and considered using the plane for a planned record breaking round the world flight. At the last minute Hughes opted for a twin engine Lockheed 14, and the DC-1 faded into the background.
© Henry M. Holden 1996, 2013
The fillets across the engine and fuselage was one of many attempts that failed to| improve the performance of the DC-1. (Photograph McDonnell Douglas/Boeing Company)
For the complete story on the Douglas DC-3 see “Legacy of the DC-3”