The Spirit of Santa Monica

Between 1920 and 1975, Donald Douglas’ company—and a southern California city—helped shape aviation history.

pac north
Courtesy Bill Wasserzieher

His name is synonymous with transport aircraft, and Donald Wills Douglas built some beauties: the 12-passenger, all-metal DC-1; the DC-2, for which Douglas was awarded the Collier Trophy in 1935; and the DC-3, the aircraft that made commercial air travel popular—and profitable. But the engineering genius was also known for his love of the arts, and for idiosyncracies like playing bagpipes around the office, in honor of his Scottish heritage.

Forty-five years ago this month, Douglas Aircraft Company and McDonnell Aircraft merged to form McDonnell Douglas (which many years later merged with Boeing). In recognition of the Douglas Aircraft Company and the many men and women who worked there, the Douglas White Oaks Ranch Trust has published Douglas: The Santa Monica Years. See the gallery above for more photos from the book. All images and text used by permission.

Above, a Pacific Northern Airlines (later Western Airlines) DC-3 flies over snow-capped peaks.

Douglas Aircraft Company

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(Courtesy Bill Wasserzieher)

Douglas worked initially at the Connecticut Aircraft Company, helping to design a dirigible for the U.S. Navy. In 1915 he joined the Glenn Martin Company in Los Angeles as chief engineer, and the following year accepted a position as chief U.S. civilian aeronautical engineer with the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

After World War I, Douglas returned to Southern California with the dream of starting his own aircraft manufacturing company. He arrived in March 1920 and soon met a wealthy Los Angeles sportsman named David R. Davis, who wanted to become the first pilot to fly nonstop across the United States. Douglas drafted plans for an airplane he called the Cloudster, and convinced Davis to put up the $40,000 needed to build it. At the time, Douglas is said to have had only $600 in his personal savings.

And so the Douglas Aircraft Company began, with Douglas famously renting the back room of a barber shop on Pico Boulevard for what would be his engineering department.

The photograph above shows the original site of the new Davis-Douglas aircraft assembly plant in Santa Monica, circa 1920.

Santa Monica Years

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(NASM)

Donald W. Douglas, during the company's Santa Monica years. Tom Steers, who spent 43 years with the company as a flight engineer and instructor pilot, recalls: “As a flight line radio and radar technician, I installed the instruments in the Super DC-3, and one hot August day I was squeezed in the shoe-box area between fuselage, control quadrant and the rudder pedals, when someone asked me, ‘How’s it going, son?’ I assumed that it was one of the older mechanics, so I let loose with a few ramp expletives emphasizing that whoever the lightning-struck designer was it sure-as-hell was my wish that he was doing this instead of me. Whoever-it-was let out a loud chuckle. I slid out to see who I was talking to. I did, and I could have died. I sat there like a dummy trying to sound sensible and at the same time being apologetic and just screwing up the whole attempt. Mr. Douglas reached over and [tousled] my hair and said, ‘Son, when we designed the DC-3, we didn’t have young radio technicians like you around. Let me say this: you keep at it and if it can’t be done, give me a call.’ He looked down with such a sincere smile, and I just knew he understood my efforts and the nature of the challenge.”

World Cruisers

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(Courtesy Bill Wasserzieher)

In 1923, Douglas received a contract from the U.S. Army Air Corps to build the Douglas World Cruisers (above), which shortly afterward became the first aircraft to circumnavigate the globe. Their record-setting flight made Donald W. Douglas an international hero in the world of aviation, and put his Santa Monica Airport on the map.

“I remember the day the World Cruisers landed," recalled Lindsay P. Kilgore, a 42-year Douglas employee and former scholarship committee chairman for the Douglas Aircraft Welfare Foundation. "Our Boy Scout troop was asked to direct the cars to parking. I had never in my life seen so many people in one place. In all the excitement, I left my sweater hanging on a tree and forgot it. When I got home, my mother was really unhappy with me, but when we went back the next morning, there was my sweater hanging on the tree right where I left it. That day was so exciting! I knew right then that I wanted to work for Douglas!”

M-3 Mail

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(Courtesy Bill Wasserzieher)

Bill Wasserzieher, author of Douglas: The Santa Monica Years, worked for the company's media relations department, and "regularly got lost in the Douglas archives whenever I had free time." While researching his book, he read old news clips, leafed through correspondence with legendary aviation figures, and talked to veterans of the days when Douglas airplanes dominated air travel. "I felt a need to help preserve the Douglas name," he told us by email, "and all the company accomplished. Hence, this book."

Donald Douglas (second from left) in front of a Douglas M-3 mail plane on May 7, 1926.

DC-4E Passenger

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(Courtesy Bill Wasserzieher)

Douglas Aircraft produced only one DC-4E passenger plane, shown here during assembly in 1937.

DC-6 Transport

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(Courtesy Bill Wasserzieher)

During its long Santa Monica history, the Douglas Company produced 10,724 airplanes (here, the post-WWII DC-6 transport, which offered travelers a pressurized cabin). The first Cloudster was produced in 1920, and the DC-7, the last of the prop-driven airliners, had its final delivery on December 10, 1958. Noise restrictions then necessitated that jet production be moved elsewhere. Overall, Douglas built more than 44,000 airplanes at all its production locations.

Douglas Dolphin

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(Courtesy Bill Wasserzieher)

A Douglas Dolphin amphibian moves past a sailboat and a Naval vessel in the busy waters off Santa Monica in 1933.

Eastern Air Lines DC-2

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(Courtesy Bill Wasserzieher)

An Eastern Air Lines DC-2, soon to be part of ‘The Great Silver Fleet,’ awaits delivery in November 1935.

Workday

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(Courtesy Bill Wasserzieher)

Many thousands of employees came through the gates at the Douglas Aircraft Company in Santa Monica between its founding in 1920 and the closing of the headquarters facility in 1975. Some stayed only for a brief time; others spent their entire lives on the Douglas payroll. Often several generations of the same family came to be Douglas employees. In this photograph, taken on October 31, 1939, it's the end of a shift at the Santa Monica plant.

X-3 Stiletto

(Courtesy Bill Wasserzieher)

The purpose of the Douglas X-3 Stiletto was to advance supersonic flight, but the aircraft was underpowered with its Westinghouse J-34 engine. Learn more about the X-3 and other X-planes, and watch video of its test flight here.

XB-19 Bomber

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(Courtesy Bill Wasserzieher)

Time for a shop-floor meeting of employees building the XB-19 bomber (in vertical position) in 1938. The XB-19 was the biggest American plane during World War II, but its late-1930s design soon rendered it obsolete.

“I was a Mechanic ‘A’ working on the factory line," recalls Jean Castro in Wasserzieher's book. "I remember it was a hot August afternoon in 1945, and we all stopped work when we heard Mr. Douglas’ voice come over the loud speaker. When he told us the war was over, we all just put down our tools and streamed out onto Ocean Park Boulevard, laughing and singing and hugging each other. I went home to the little house I shared with my parents on Second Street in Ocean Park, and we got dressed up in our very best and walked down Main Street to the pier and celebrated all night. There were thousands of people on the streets, and we were all hugging and kissing each other and every service man we met.”