When one considers prominent German-Americans, names such as Eisenhower, Nimitz, Kaiser and Kissinger come to mind. However, another German-American, not often cited, may leave perhaps a greater legacy.
William E. Boeing was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1881 to Wilhelm Boing from Hagen-Hohenlimburg Germany and Marie M. Ortmann from Vienna, Austria. The senior Boeing was a mining engineer, who became wealthy as a result of holdings of timber lands and mineral rights near Lake Superior. After study abroad in Switzerland, Boing added an e to his name, to make it sound more Anglo. He then entered Yale, but left before graduating to join the family timber business in 1903. Buying a large tract of forest on the Pacific side of the Olympia Peninsula in Washington, Boeing began building boats as well as acquiring several lumber operations.
During a business trip to Seattle in 1909, Boeing saw his first plane and soon developed a keen interest in aviation. Within a few months, Boeing was taking flying lessons at the Glenn L. Martin Plant in Los Angeles and had ordered a Martin TA Hydoraeroplane. Martin even sent one of his test pilots up to Seattle to give Boeing lessons on site. When the test pilot crashed the aircraft during a test flight, he informed Boeing replacement parts would not be available for months. The problem frustrated Boeing, who had just received his pilot’s certificate. After studying both the plane and the parts distribution at Martin, Boeing approached a friend of his, Commander George Conrad Westervelt, USN. When Boeing suggested to Westervelt that they could build their own plane in less time, Westervelt agreed and they formed their own aircraft company – B&W. Their first aircraft, the B&W seaplane was an instant success with Boeing purchasing an old boat factory on the Duwamish River outside Seattle.
When the United States entered World War I, Boeing and Westervelt received a government contract for fifty of the B&W seaplanes, with Boeing changing the name of fledgling company to Pacific Aero Products Company. By the end of the war, Boeing began to emphasize commercial aircraft, in addition to providing a government sponsored air mail service.
The air mail service was a result of the commercial aviation market flooded with surplus World War I aircraft, which were relatively inexpensive compared with the cost of new models. Boeing had to diversify at this point, selling furniture, and a series of flat-bottomed boats called sea sleds. Within a few years, Boeing began to realize a profit from the overhaul of government aircraft and the sale of a few new models. During the 1920s and early 1930s, Boeing would become a major producer of fighter planes for the Army Air Corps.
In 1925 federal law allowed public bid for air mail contracts. Boeing received the contract, but needed a fleet of twenty six planes to serve the Chicago to San Francisco route by July 1, 1927. As a guarantee, Boeing drew $500,000 of his own money to serve as a bond for the effort. These aircraft were composed of Boeing’s latest design, the Model 40, which had an open cockpit for the pilot with an enclosed cabin for two additional passengers. The mail service proved to be an unexpected market coup for Boeing, allowing him to haul passengers for a fee and start a new airline, Boeing Air Transport. It wasn’t long before Boeing cornered the market in both aviation sectors.
In 1929 Boeing acquired Pacific Air Transport, merging it with both the Boeing Airplane Co. and Boeing Air Transport. The new company was named United Aircraft And Transport Company. Later the same year, United purchased both the Pratt&Whitney engine and Hamilton Standard Propeller companies, as well as Chance Vaught Aircraft. To expand its airline service, Boeing acquired National Air Transport the following year.
By 1934 Boeing’s success began to draw the attention of the federal government. In June of that year the Air Mail Act was passed by Congress, by which aircraft manufacturers had to divest themselves of any airline services. As a result of this split, Boeing’s holdings were formed into three companies: United Aircraft Corporation, which manufactured aircraft in the eastern United States (now United Technologies Company), Boeing Airplane Company, manufacturing aircraft in the western United States and United Airlines, which served the air routes.
A week after the Air Mail Act was passed Boeing resigned as chairman and sold his stock in the firm. However, shortly after his resignation, William Boeing received the coveted Daniel Guggenheim Medal for achievement in the field of aviation. During World War II, he came out of retirement to act as an advisor to the company to meet the demands of combat aircraft development. The company he started in 1916 went on to develop such influential aircraft as the B-17 Flying Fortress, B-29 Superfortress, B-47 Stratojet and B-52 Stratofortress. Boeing produced an equally impressive series of airliners, starting with the Stratoliner in 1939, the world’s pressurized airliner, the jet powered 707, 727, 737, and the Boeing 747, the world’s first Jumbo Jet. A recent first for Boeing was the successful development and production of the 787 Dreamliner, the first jetliner in service made of carbon-fiber materials. Boeing is now involved in the space technology sector, in addition to the production of aircraft. Not bad for someone who made the decision to build his own plane in 1916.
This article is the last of a series about the heroes of aviation.