The Wright and Curtiss corporations spearheaded aviation development in the early teens, but Boeing was not far behind. The book the company published for their 75th anniversary, Year by Year: 75 Years of Boeing History, provides a good overview of how it began, and how it took over a nearly 2,000 mile air mail route in 1927.
In 1916, William Boeing piloted a seaplane designed by himself and a friend, Navy engineer Conrad Westervelt, over Lake Union in Washington State. A month later, on July 15th, Boeing incorporated the Pacific Aero Products Company of Seattle. During World War I, the company sold planes to the Navy.
Like many airplane companies, Boeing struggled after the war and managed to stay in business by producing furniture. Following the war, the military ceased purchasing new aircraft, and the planes that they did have hit the market at rock bottom rates, making it difficult to sell new planes. The romantic image of the barnstormer, purchasing a war surplus Curtis “Jenny” for $100, then traveling to towns across the country giving rides and performing aerobatic feats did not help the up and coming airplane manufacturers. Even the Post Office preferred to purchase war surplus planes and bargain rates rather than invest in new aircraft. This is why the DeHavilliand DH-4 became the workhorse of the new service.
Boeing survived, and managed to keep its hand in aviation by modifying existing aircraft for the army, for example switching the engine and the pilot’s cockpit in the aforementioned DH-4. It also received contracts to build planes from other designers. By 1924, Boeing had survived the worst of the postwar oversupply slump, and began receiving contracts to build and design their own planes.
In January 1927, when Boeing won the bid for the contract, his friend Eddie Hubbard was already flying mail from Seattle, the company’s headquarters, to Victoria, British Colombia. But the segment of the route from Chicago to San Francisco solidly established Boeing as an aviation powerhouse.
In 1929, Boeing demonstrated the significance of the continual changes in aviation by creating United Aircraft and Transport as a holding company which handled the air mail and passenger service, while the main company continued to focus on airplane development. The split became complete in 1934, after all commercial airlines briefly lost air mail privileges due to accusations of collusion with the Post Office, rather than open bidding for routes. The Army Air Corps took over flying the mail with much less reliable and disastrous results…leading to the initial companies temporarily getting their routes back. Companies were forced to reestablish themselves with new names and new leadership before rebidding on contracts. Under the new guidelines, a company could not build planes and operate commercial airlines, so United officially became its own company.
Of course Boeing continued to develop planes. When the companies split, some of the air mail pilots who worked there continued to fly for United, and some continued with Boeing as test pilots or company managers. As I have stated in previous blogs, many air mail pilots test flew bombers for the company during World War II, either because they still worked there or they came back.
But my primary interest in the Boeing timeline is the air mail service…the years between 1927 and 1934. Seven years seems like such a short time, but Boeing, and later United became crucial to the development of civilian aviation.