Given that the success of corporations depend upon its people, it is not surprising that the life of a corporation often mirrors that of human beings. If corporations are examined in this light, one can see certain characteristics in their early years that forecast how they will develop in their later years. It might just be that there is a lesson to be learned by considering aircraft companies that differed as the grew, and applying the lessons learned to the current situation obtaining in the airlines of the United States.
As an example, let us compare the Curtiss Wright Corporation and the Douglas Aircraft Corporation in 1930, the year that work began on this Rare Bird, the Douglas XO-35/XB-7.
The Curtiss Wright Corporation was at the peak of a period of expansions and merger. The two most famous American names in aviation, Curtiss and Wright, had been joined together on June 26, 1929. (The arrangement of the names saddened Orville Wright. Although no longer having any official connection with the Wright Aeronautical Corporation, he believed that it should have been called the Wright-Curtiss Corporation, in deference to the Wright’s precedence in the field.)
But the merger of these two companies was but the tip of a corporate iceberg. The Wright element built both the famous air-cooled Whirlwind radial engine series and its follow-ons, as well as the well-proven Curtiss liquid cooled in-line engines. As the late, great Peter Bowers tells us in his book on the company, Curtiss-Wright comprised The Curtiss Aeroplane & Motor Company, The Curtiss-Caproni Corporation, The Curtiss-Robertson Airplane Manufacturing Company, The Keystone Aircraft Corporation, The Moth Aircraft Corporation, The Travel Air Manufacturing Company, The Wright Aeronautical Corporation, The Curtiss-Wright Fying Service, The Curtiss-Wright Sales Corporation and The Curtiss-Wright Export Corporation.
At about the same time, The Douglas Company became The Douglas Aircraft Company, Incorporated, but it remained fully under the control of Donald Douglas himself. Douglas surrounded himself with great engineers—names such as John Northrop, Ed Heineman, Arthur Raymond and others. He approved investigation of new techniques, including all-metal structures and more, taking the risk of investing in new designs which did not guarantee a market, much less a profit.
In contrast the management of the gigantic Curtiss-Wright Corporation became dominated more by financial aspects than by aviation considerations. It was led by white-collar giants such as Clement Melville Keys, who rose from being a teacher of classics at Ridley College in Ontario to a Wall Street tycoon who became president of Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company in 1920. This is not to say that the various companies comprising Curtiss Wright did not have tremendous talent. They did. But it cannot be denied that financial considerations began to dominate decisions at Curtiss, rather than the sheer love of aviation. One of those decisions was to practice the art of stretching existing designs. The result was almost two decades worth of Curtiss Hawks and Curtiss Falcons. They were slightly modernized over time, but retained their basic outline of fixed gear, fixed pitch propeller, open-cockpit biplanes using an obsolete mixed structure of wood, steel and fabric. These aircraft sold well to the U.S. military and to foreign governments because they were relatively inexpensive. Their capital costs had long since recovered, and new engines and equipment such as radios could be incorporated without great expense. The last of this extended family of warplanes was the handsome but hopelessly antiquated export version of the BF2C-1 that was delivered in 1938 to Thailand.
Using a health analogy, these obsolete designs and the practice of stretching them rather than doing adequate research and development were the platelets that eventually clogged Curtiss’ corporate arteries.
As a simple example, when Douglas stunned the airline world with its remarkable DC-1, the best response Curtiss could make was the elephantine Curtiss Condor II, a rotund biplane with retractable landing gear. It was only a slightly modernized version of the 1928 Condor transport, which was itself a development of the 1926 Curtiss B-2 Condor bomber. The all-metal, cantilever wing, retractable gear Curtiss CW-20 Commando did not fly until 1940. It became the great C-46 transport that fought in many wars.
The response of Douglas to competition was quite different. In June, 1929 the U.S. Army Air Corps ordered the Fokker XO-27, a twin-engine aircraft which featured the then-radical retractable landing gear. Intended for observation work, the new aircraft was a direct threat to both Curtiss and Douglas, who had between them long supplied most Army observation aircraft. One of the two Fokker prototypes was designated XB-8 to test what its potential as a light bomber might be.
Twelve more aircraft were ordered, six as YO-27s and six as YB-8s. The latter were later re-designated Y10-27s. All used the Curtiss Conqueror engine of 600 horsepower, and had a top speed of 160 mph. At the time, Curtiss had a lock on the U.S. military market for liquid cooled engines, but their line of Conquerors was growing long in the tooth. With the emphasis being placed on the Wright series of air-cooled radials, there was little development work done on new Curtiss liquid cooled engines.
Douglas submitted a bid for an aircraft similar to the upstart Fokker and received contracts for one XO-35 and one XO-36. The latter was re-designated as the XB-7 when it became obvious that the Douglas would greatly outperform the existing flock of Keystone biplane light bombers.
Both the XO-35 and the XB-7 called for a crew of four. The pilot sat as was customary at the time in an open cockpit, with gunners manning single .30 caliber Browning machine guns in the nose and behind the wing. A radio operator sat in relative comfort in an enclosed station within the fuselage. The bomber could carry 1,200 pounds of bombs.
These were handsome planes, with a high gull-wing faired into the fuselage, and supported by an intricate structure of struts which held the two Curtiss Conqueror engines. The retractable landing gear system was simpler than that of the Fokker, with the wheels retracting directly up into the engine nacelle. The wheels protruded slightly, so that they would reduce the damage in the event of a wheels-up landing, an event to be expected from a universe of pilots brought up on fixed-gear aircraft. The structure was all metal, with fabric covered wings and corrugated metal covered fuselage and tail surfaces on the prototypes. The service test models used smooth metal covering, and fabric covering on the movable portions of the tail surfaces
The first XO-35 went to Wright Field in early 1931, while the somewhat more complex XB-7 followed in July, 1932. The performance was quite good. The Y1B-7, the most developed version, was equipped with three-bladed propellers and a 675 horsepower Conqueror engine and had a maximum speed of 182 mph. All the bombers served initially with the 31st Bomb Squadron at March Field.
A service test quantity of five Y10-35 observation planes and seven Y1B-7 bombers was procured, but no further production ensued, for they were eclipsed by the appearance of the new Martin B-10, clearly the best bomber available. Yet the gull-winged Douglas aircraft were quite novel for their day, and their elegant in-flight appearance was often enhanced by good-looking paint schemes. They came into their own when on February 9, 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt rashly cancelled the commercial air mail contracts, and ordered Major General Benjamin D. Foulois, Chief of the Army Air Corps, to take over air mail operations throughout the United States.
Foulois possessed neither properly equipped aircraft nor properly trained pilots for the task. Among the disparate types at his disposal were single engine planes such as the Curtiss A-12, Boeing P-12, Thomas Morse O-19C, Douglas O-25s and O-38s, and multi-engine types such as the familiar series of Keystone bombers. Among these twin-engine Douglas aircraft stood out as especially suitable for the demanding task of flying at night and in weather.
No less than twelve of the Douglas aircraft participated, including the XO-35 prototype, five of the service test O-35s and all six of the B-7s. They served in the Western Zone, carrying the mail from Cheyenne Wyoming to the West Coast over the most difficult terrain in the United States. One B-7 was lost on a practice flight on February 16, 1934. A young 2nd Lieutenant, James Earthman, found himself trapped in a snowstorm near Jerome, Idaho. As he made a circling approach, Earthman stalled the aircraft and crashed. One can only wonder how much flying time Earthman had, how many hours in the rather sophisticated B-7, and how much instrument experience he possessed—probably very little in each case.
Flying the air mail was demanding, and a total of four B-7s (including Earthman’s) were lost, an average of one per every fifty-three flying hours. The O-35s had better luck, with all of them surviving the air mail experience, and with the last one not being surveyed until February, 1939.
The Douglas company moved from its experiments with the O-35s and B-7s into a new and highly successful market with its remarkable series of DC transports and a wide variety of warplanes. Curtiss got a second wind when it hired Donovan Berlin to design a new all-metal fighter, the Model 75, but it was nearing the end of its corporate road. The Model 75 led to the P-36 and P-40, the last production fighter of the company. After WW II, Douglas went on to further successes, while Curtiss excused itself from manufacturing aircraft. It is only fair to point out that in time, Douglas suffered from somewhat the same malady of management that had killed Curtiss. Douglas was absorbed into McDonnell Douglas, a firm which prospered for a while before being acquired by Boeing.
Lets return to the idea put forward in the first paragraph. Just as aircraft companies grow old and corporately senile, so it is with airline companies. As management gets more and more detached from the love of flying and more and more attached to the balance sheet, the company and the public suffers. There is no apparent way to legislate against this, and it remains for newer companies such Southwest (which sets the current standard), Jet Blue and others to provide the public with new means to travel. The older companies are now attempting to emulate younger companies by providing “no-frills” service. But the basic problem is not in the frills—it is instead in the corporate consciousness, and when that corporate consciousness does not include a pervasive love for airplanes, it probably does not have a chance. So, just as Curtiss faded from the scene, along with so many others, we can expect to see the current field of airline giants go belly-up in the not too distant future. It is a sad fact of life, even sadder because it is totally unnecessary. With today’s equipment, ground facilities, navigation equipment and highly trained personnel, airlines should be able to turn a profit and please people in the process, despite the current concerns about safety. What is missing is the same thing that was missing with Curtiss and the other aircraft dinosaurs: adequately motivated , (NOT, REPEAT NOT, EXCESSIVELY COMPENSATED) management.
STATISTICS OF DOUGLAS Y1B-7
Wingspan 65 feet
Length 45 feet 11 inches
Height 11 feet 7 inches
Empty Weight 5,519 pounds
Gross Weight 11,177 pounds
Maximum Speed 182 mph
Service Ceiling ` 20,400 feet
Range 411 miles
Engines Two Curtiss Conqueror V-1570 of 675 horsepower