The Early Years of Boeing, 1916-1930

This former shipyard was the first home of The Boeing Company, which was founded in 1916.

The first B&W, completed in June 1916, was made of wood, linen, and wire.

The Model C training seaplane, built in 1916, was the first “all-Boeing” design and the company’s first financial success.

On March 3, 1919, William Boeing (right) and pilot Eddie Hubbard carried the first U.S. international airmail in this Boeing Model C from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada to Seattle, Washington.

The B-1 was a “pusher-style” flying boat, with its engine at the rear. It could carry a pilot and two passengers as well as mail or cargo. The hull was laminated wood veneer, and the wing frames were spruce and plywood.

Boeing Airplane Co., Seattle, Washington, 1922.

The PW-9 (Model 15), built between 1923 and 1929, was the first successful Boeing-designed fighter. It used arc-welded tubing rather than spruce and wire for its internal bracing.

The P-12 fighter, built for the U.S. Army in 1928, could hold a 500-pound bomb. It used bolted aluminum tubing for the fuselage’s inside structure rather than the typical welded steel tubing.

This fabric-covered mail plane, the 40A, was the first Boeing commercial success. Built in 1927, it carried mailbags and, load permitting, could hold two passengers.

With seating for 18 passengers, this fabric-covered transport of 1929 was an enlarged version of the Model 80-the first true Boeing passenger airliner-of the year before.

This article courtesy of Centennial of Flight

The Boeing Company, established by William Boeing, was the most successful company to get its start during the World War I era. Boeing, the son of a well-off Detroit family, moved to Seattle, Washington, in 1903 and launched a successful lumber business. He met and became friends with Navy Lieutenant Conrad Westervelt. Neither man had ever flown before but both had become interested in aviation after watching the 1910 air races at Belmont Park, New York. On July 4, 1914, the two took their first plane ride with a barnstorming pilot. From then on, they were hooked. Boeing was convinced he could build a better plane and decided to learn to fly and begin manufacturing aircraft. The next October, Boeing enrolled in Glenn Martin’s flying school and bought a Martin plane of his own to fly.

Together, Westervelt and Boeing built the Bluebill seaplane, better known as the B&W. Westervelt was reassigned to Washington, D.C., before the plane could be completed, however, and Boeing took the B&W up on its first flight on June 15, 1916. One month later, on July 15, Bill Boeing incorporated the Pacific Aero Products Company; a year later it became the Boeing Airplane Company. Two B&Ws were offered to the U.S. Navy, but the Navy turned them down. Boeing then sold the planes to the New Zealand Flying School—the company’s first international sale. New Zealand used the planes for express and airmail deliveries, and one made the country’s first official airmail flight on December 16, 1919. The plane also set a New Zealand altitude record, reaching 6,500 feet (1,981 kilometers) on June 25, 1919.

In 1916, Boeing hired Tsu Wong, one of the country’s few aeronautical engineers, as an aircraft designer. He also hired Claire Egtvedt and Phil Johnson, who would both later become Boeing company presidents.

As the United States entered World War I it became clear that the Navy would need training airplanes, and to fill this need Wong designed the Model C training seaplane for Boeing. This was the company’s first production order and its first financial success. Fifty-six were built—55 for the U.S. military and one for Bill Boeing, which he called the C-700. Boeing and Eddie Hubbard flew this plane on March 3,1919, on the first international mail delivery, carrying 60 letters from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, to Seattle, Washington.

When the war ended, orders for aircraft disappeared. The market was saturated with surplus biplanes. To survive, the company built 25 HS-2L flying boats for the Curtiss Company and also built bedroom furniture. The company’s lone B-1 flying boat probably set the record for the most miles flown by a plane up to then. Launched on December 27, 1919, Eddie Hubbard flew this plane more than 350,000 miles (563,270 kilometers). It outlasted six engines in eight years of international airmail runs between Seattle and Victoria, British Columbia. But in all of 1920, it was the only plane that Boeing sold. Bill Boeing, in the meantime, used his own funds to meet the payroll and cover the company’s expenses.

An order from the Army Air Service in 1921 to build 200 Thomas-Morse MB-3A pursuit fighter biplanes kept Boeing in business and put them on the road to financial success. Boeing underbid Thomas-Morse, which had to absorb the aircraft’s development costs but who retained no rights to the design. Boeing also demonstrated its efficient production methods that allowed it to profit while still charging the customer a lower price. For Thomas-Morse, however, the order spelled the beginning of the end for the company.

Boeing also modified and rebuilt De Havilland DH-4 fighters, moving their fuel tanks to a location where they were less likely to burst into flames and trap the pilot (thus the nickname the “Flying Coffin”). In 1921, the company also won an order for a new type of bomber that General Billy Mitchell favored, the Ground Attack Experimental, or GAX. Boeing produced 10 GA-1 models, based on the GAX.

Using the experience gained from the MB-3A, Boeing began to develop its own pursuit designs. The XPW-9, which would become the Model 15, beat out Fokker and Curtiss fighters in Army evaluations in 1923. The Army ordered 30 of the biplane, designated PW-9, and the Navy ordered 14, designated FB-1 through FB-6.

With these aircraft, Boeing became recognized as the leading designer of military aircraft and received in 1923 a Navy order for a trainer—the Model 21, or NB-1 and NB-2. The company delivered 70 Model 21s in 1924 and 1925. Early in 1928, Boeing also built and delivered 586 of two new fighter biplanes, the P-12 and the F4B, to the military. These planes used bolted aluminum tubing rather than welded steel tubing as in earlier models. The fuselages of later versions had aluminum coverings rather than fabric or wood. The model designed for the Navy could land on an aircraft carrier. The Army’s version could hold a 500-pound (227-kilogram) bomb.

The development of airmail led to Boeing’s first transport, the Boeing Model 40 biplane of 1925, to replace the DH-4. The Post Office had solicited bids for a new plane that would use the Liberty engine and be able to carry 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms) of mail. Although the Post Office bought one Model 40, initially Boeing lost out in its competition with the Douglas entry.

Not until early 1927, when the Post Office began turning airmail service over to private industry, did a modified Model 40, called the 40A, win another competition. This plane was redesigned for a lighter, air-cooled Pratt & Whitney Wasp radial engine; used a steel tube and fabric-covered structure; and had a redesigned fuselage that could carry two passengers. It was the first Boeing plane to carry passengers. Although an initial investment of $750,000 would be needed for the 25 new aircraft, Boeing was able to submit a low bid for the San Francisco-Chicago airmail route partly because it could take advantage of the income that two passengers would provide. Boeing Air Transport (BAT) was formed as a subsidiary to Boeing Airplane Company to handle the route. The decision was right—it proved to be a profitable venture. In its first year, BAT carried 837,211 pounds (379,753 kilograms) of mail, 148,068 pounds (67,163 kilograms) of express packages, and 1,863 passengers.

The growing popularity of passenger flight inspired Boeing to build the first plane specifically to carry passengers. The three-engine Model 80 biplane could carry 12 passengers, and an upgraded Model 80A could hold 18. The Model 80 first flew on July 27, 1928, and the 80A on September 12, 1929. An innovative feature was its removable wooden wingtips that allowed the plane to fit into the hangars along its route. Its cabin had hot and cold running water, a toilet, forced air ventilation, leather upholstered seats, and individual reading lamps. It also had a separate enclosed flight deck, which some pilots objected to, being accustomed to an open cockpit. Seeing the need to attend to the passengers full time on the Model 80A, Boeing was the first to hire females—all registered nurses—to work as flight attendants.

By 1928, Boeing had 800 employees. That year saw the start of Boeing’s expansion and consolidation of power with the purchase of Pacific Air Transport and its merger into BAT.

During this time, Bill Boeing had become friends with Fred Rentschler, president of Pratt & Whitney, whose engines were used on Boeing aircraft. In fall of 1928, Rentschler suggested merging Boeing Airplane Company and BAT with Pratt & Whitney into a holding company. Boeing agreed, and consolidation and acquisitions began.

On February 1, 1929, the United Aircraft and Transport Corporation (UATC) was incorporated. UATC was a powerful holding company that included the engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney and two aircraft manufacturers, Hamilton Metalplane Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which had become a division of Boeing earlier in the year, and Chance Vought Corporation, a manufacturer of naval aircraft. UATC also established the subsidiary Boeing Aircraft of Canada, which began building C-204 flying boats. UATC also acquired three airlines and on July 30, 1929, Sikorsky Aviation, which then specialized in amphibian aircraft, joined UATC. Standard Steel Propellers of Pittsburgh was acquired in September 1929, and merged with Hamilton to become the Hamilton Standard Division. Stearman Aircraft of Wichita also joined, which gave UATC a role in the personal plane market. The transport group consisting of BAT, National Air Transport, Varney, Stout Airlines, and others evolved into United Air Lines.

Over a very short time, UATC, with Boeing as a major holding, had become one of the strongest aviation companies in the world. It would soon become the target of congressional investigations into airmail and military procurement contracts.

—Judy Rumerman