McDonnell Douglas Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In combining the McDonnell Aircraft Company and the Douglas Aircraft Company, McDonnell Douglas became one of the largest airplane manufacturers in the world.

The Douglas Company

The McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Corporation was the creation of two pioneers in the commercial and military aircraft industry. Donald Douglas (1892-1981) began the Davis-Douglas Company in 1921. The aircraft company built both commercial and military planes, including the DT-1 and the DT-2 torpedo bombers for the U.S. Navy. The Douglas World Cruisers were the first passenger planes to complete an around-the-world flight. Douglas’s partner soon sold his interest in the company, and Douglas incorporated the Douglas Company in July, 1921. Douglas used some of the great airplane engineering minds of his time, including Jack Northrop, to develop commercial airplanes for the burgeoning airline industry. Northrop left the company, but Douglas continued, spreading his military aircraft development to include the C-1 transport and the Devastator torpedo bomber for the United States in World War II.

Upon buying the Northrop Company, Douglas became even further involved in the production of military aircraft. Douglas produced some of the best-known and most reliable fighters and bombers for the Allied air forces. The A-20 Havoc was one of the war’s most dependable bombers, able to withstand considerable punishment and fly after heavy damage from ground fire, flying many a crew member back safely. Some seven thousand of the planes were produced during the war. The Dauntless was a carrier bomber used in the Pacific theater and was effective and less likely to be shot down than many other bombers used in the theater. The A-26 bomber was used in three wars, including those in Korea and Vietnam, proving its effectiveness and durability.

The military projects were overshadowed, however, when compared to the company’s success in the commercial plane business. In 1933, the Douglas Company began the DC series of passenger planes. It was those planes, particularly the DC-3, built in the 1930’s, and the DC-9, built in the 1960’s, that revolutionized air travel for ordinary people. It was those planes that also made the Douglas Company an attractive takeover target for one of its competitors.

The McDonnell Company

James McDonnell (1899-1980) started his first aircraft company, J. S. McDonnell & Associates, in 1928 but saw it dissolve under the strain of the Great Depression. After working as the chief engineer for another company from 1933 to 1938, McDonnell started a new company, McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, in 1939 and took advantage of the need for military planes to meet the crises of the time. With the United States rearming and then fighting a war, McDonnell’s company, located in St. Louis, Missouri, began to provide parts for the American war effort. After the war, McDonnell became a major supplier for the military and the developing U.S. space program. The company built the F-4 Phantom, one of the fastest fighter jets of its generation. Its greatest contribution during the 1950’s and 1960’s was the development of rockets capable of lifting large payloads into orbit. In addition, McDonnell was a major player in developing the capsules for early crewed spaceflight. The company constructed the first Mercury spacecraft used for the United States’ first crewed orbit of Earth. Through the early 1960’s, McDonnell was one of the primary suppliers of spacecraft for the Gemini Program of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Missile technology created more growth for the company. McDonnell was responsible for building the Nike missile system, then the British Skybolt system. It also developed one of the first ballistic missiles, the Thor, capable of short launches, beginning in 1956.

The McDonnell and Douglas Merger

With financial difficulties looming as development costs for the DC-8 and DC-9 ballooned, the Douglas Aircraft Company sought financial backing by means of a merger. Losses had totaled hundreds of millions of dollars, with many DC-8’s completed but lacking engines to fly them. McDonnell proved to be the best fit for Douglas, as it wanted to expand its operations to include transport planes such as those built by Douglas. On April 28, 1967, the two companies formally merged to become McDonnell Douglas. The founders of the two partners continued to serve on the board of directors of the new company and added their input to major decisions. The main production facilities for the company included McDonnell’s base of operations in St. Louis, Missouri, and Douglas’s in Long Beach, California. While these would remain the major production headquarters, during difficult financial times in the 1970’s some of the California subsidiaries were closed.

The first commercial transport developed by the company was the DC-10, the last plane to carry the designation of the DC series; the new company changed future planes to the MD series. First flown in the early 1970’s, the DC-10 proved to be a popular aircraft, although it suffered through difficulties at the end of that decade. With the companies’ merger, the new MD series was launched, with the first plane coming off the assembly line being the MD-80 or the Super Eighty. The MD-80 represented a different approach to passenger aircraft in the size of the fuselage, the wings, and the engines. During the 1980’s and 1990’s, the company built on the Douglas Aircraft Company’s success with the DC-10 series and modified those planes to include the MD-90, the MD-95, and the MD-11, which was to replace the DC-10. While the MD-80 and MD-95 were partially successful airplanes, the MD-90 was less successful and was discontinued upon McDonnell Douglas’s merger with Boeing in 1997.

While the construction of civilian passenger aircraft continued based on the Douglas designs, McDonnell Aircraft’s emphasis on military flight gave the combined company another market to meet. One of the company’s biggest sellers in the 1970’s and the 1980’s was the F-15 Eagle. The fighter plane became known as one of the most technologically advanced fighters of its time and one of the most maneuverable planes to fly. The F-15 not only served as the frontline aircraft for the United States Air Force during that time but also was coveted by other nations familiar with its capabilities. As the Air Force began looking for a new, more technologically advanced fighter, McDonnell Douglas began selling F-15’s, with government approval, to such American allies as Japan and Israel. The company also built the F/A-18 Hornet for the Navy. The attack plane was based on aircraft carriers, providing the Navy with quick strike capabilities all over the world. Twelve hundred Hornets were built and used both in various combat situations and by the Blue Angels aerobatics team in their demonstration flights. The Hornet continued to be produced even as McDonnell Douglas was merging with Boeing. The next generation of the fighter, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet began flying in 1995.

The company was also instrumental in developing vertical takeoff and landing aircraft. With experience in building helicopters, McDonnell Douglas began the difficult task of designing an airplane that could land and take off from a sitting stop, much like a helicopter. At the same time, once the plane reached the air, it could fly at speeds approaching many other fighter aircraft, making it less vulnerable in the air than were helicopters. During the 1960’s, several prototypes proved to be too expensive to build. Only when McDonnell Douglas joined with British Aerospace was an affordable model built, the AV-8B Harrier jump jet. The planes could take off from a sitting position and land in most small clearings. The Harrier II Plus was a modified and updated version of the original aircraft and began flying in 1992.

The company’s military aircraft wing was strengthened in 1984 with its purchase of Hughes Aircraft from General Electric. This combined two of the main competitors in the building of attack helicopters for the U.S. Army. With the addition of Hughes, McDonnell Douglas was responsible for the new generation of Apache attack helicopters used so effectively by American troops during the Persian Gulf War. McDonnell Douglas also continued its tradition of building dependable military transports. The C-17 or Globemaster III was the largest American military plane ever built. It flew for the first time in September, 1991, and allowed the military to move large amounts of matériel and troops across continents and oceans.

Missiles and Outer Space

With its passenger aircraft and military planes competing well with other companies, McDonnell Douglas continued to branch out and remain involved in developing missile technology for NASA and the U.S. military. For the U.S. space program, the company modified one of its Saturn rockets to create a permanent space station that became known as Skylab. Launched in May, 1973, Skylab allowed three people to live in what had once been the hydrogen holding tank for the Saturn rocket. This makeshift orbiting lab was used for little over a year, floating empty for five years before burning up in the atmosphere in July, 1979. It was the first U.S. space station and the only one until the International Space Station began operations in 2000. Closer to Earth, the company worked on some of the most advanced missile technology of the era. With the success of its Talon antiaircraft missile, McDonnell Douglas also developed its Harpoon antiship missile.

Its most important and most difficult task was development of the BGM 109 Tomahawk cruise missile. Cruise missiles are built to deliver ordnance, whether conventional explosives or nuclear weapons, beneath enemy radar. This requires the missile to fly only hundreds of feet above the ground and to have the capability of identifying a single target among all the surrounding ground clutter. The technological achievement in building a guidance system for the cruise missiles earned McDonnell Douglas the contract to build much of the military’s missile supply.

The Boeing Merger

With military contracts on the decline and the severe losses suffered by major airlines during the energy crunch of the early 1990’s, the orders for military and commercial passenger planes slipped. Failure to win contracts from the U.S. military placed McDonnell Douglas in financial difficulties. It was not alone, as during the 1990’s several airplane manufacturers including Lockheed, Martin Marietta, Northrup, and Grumman began merging in order to survive the turbulent market. In August, 1997, McDonnell Douglas was formally merged with the Boeing Corporation. This move gave Boeing two of the largest-selling passenger jet series, the 700 series, including the 740 and 770, and the DC/MD series. Suddenly Boeing became the dominant player in the U.S. market and the main competitor with the European Airbus Companie for overseas contracts. During its thirty-year history, from 1967 to 1997, McDonnell Douglas proved to be an innovator in the development and modification of passenger airplanes. Its work in the military field included such far-reaching weapons as the Tomahawk cruise missile, the Apache attack helicopter, the F-15 Eagle, and the F-18 Hornet. By combining the two companies, each with its own expertise, McDonnell Douglas became a powerhouse in the aircraft production industry during the 1970’s and 1980’s. While the name itself has disappeared, many of the products created by both the individual and the combined companies continue to fly passengers all over the world.

Bibliography
  • Badrocke, Mike, and Bill Sunston. The Illustrated History of McDonnell Douglas Aircraft: From Cloudster to Boeing. Oxford, England: Osprey, 1999. A colorful, well-illustrated book describing the history of the McDonnell and Douglas airplane companies, their merger, and how their planes revolutionized air travel.
  • Francillon, Rene. McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Since 1920. Annapolis Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1990. Discusses the civilian and military aircraft developed by both companies prior to their merger and after their combination.
  • Jenkins, Dennis. McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle. Leicester, England: Midland, 1998. Examines in depth the capabilities and uses of one of the best fighter planes produced in the world. It includes pictures of the plane in the air and on the ground.
  • Norris, Guy, and Mark Wagner. Douglas Jetliners. Osceola, Wis.: Motorbooks International, 1999. Focuses on the Douglas passenger planes, with special emphasis on the DC family and its development and capabilities.
  • Singfield, Tom. Classic Airliners. Leicester, England: Midland, 2000. An introduction to many of the original planes used during the early years of the airline industry, including the DC-3 and other Douglas planes.
  • Waddington, Terry. McDonnell Douglas DC-9. Osceola, Wis.: Motorbooks International, 1998. Focuses on one of the best known of the Douglas planes, with pictures of the exterior and interior and an in-depth discussion of its capabilities.
  • _______. McDonnell Douglas DC-10 Osceola, Wis.: World Transport Press, 2000. Examines the last of the DC models, providing details on its upgrades over its predecessors and its continued use.

Aerospace industry, U.S.

Air Force, U.S.

Airbus

Airline industry, U.S.

Airplanes

Apache helicopter

Blue Angels

Boeing

Cargo aircraft

Commercial flight

DC plane family

Eagle

Harrier jets

Hornet

Lockheed Martin

Manufacturers

MD plane family

Mergers

Military flight

Missiles

Navy pilots, U.S.

Rockets

Saturn rockets

707 plane family

Spaceflight

Transport aircraft

Categories: History Content