19 September 2015

The XB-15: Getting Boeing Back On Its Feet

Clairmont Egtvedt led Boeing during its most precarious times
(Boeing Historical Archives)
The Boeing Company of the mid-1930s was existing by only a razor-thin margin and at any moment in those times, could have shut down for good with the Boeing name a mere footnote in aviation history. Why one of the dominant aviation companies of today nearly ceased to exist eighty years ago we have to move the clock back to 1929 when President Herbert Hoover appointed Walter Fogler Brown to be the Postmaster General. Within a year, Brown had lobbied Congress for more authority to improve the air mail system which he felt was inefficient and piecemeal in the organization of the existing airline networks that carried the mail. The Air Mail Act of 1930 (also known as the McNary-Watres Act after its Senate sponsors) gave Brown the authority to rationalize the US air mail system, which in effect, led to the rationalization of the US airline system of the day. The details of that controversial move will of course will be the topic of a future blog article here at Tails Through Time- but the key event here was the so-called "Spoils Conference" of 1930 where Brown consolidated the existing air mail routes which by extent led to the consolidation of the US airline system to just three airlines- United, TWA, and American- essentially forcing out of business the other airlines. One of the effects of this move was that Bill Boeing teamed up with Frederick Rentschler of Pratt & Whitney to form a large business conglomerate with diverse interests in aviation called United Aircraft and Transport Corporation. United Aircraft was the holding company for both Boeing Aircraft and Pratt & Whitney and also held ownership of Hamilton Standard, the propeller manufacturer, as well as the aircraft companies of Chance Vought, Sikorsky, and Stearman along with United Air Lines. In late 1933, Senate investigations opened on the 1930 Spoils Conference which led to the Air Mail Scandal of 1934 which led to the Roosevelt Administration canceling all the air mail contracts and handing the air mail delivery to the US Army Air Corps with disastrous results. With no choice but to return air mail service to the airlines, the government did so with punitive conditions that large consolidated aviation firms with airline interests had to be broken up in order to win back air mail contracts. United Aircraft was broken up back into its constituent companies and Bill Boeing resigned from aviation altogether. 

Replacing Bill Boeing was his general manager, Clairmont "Claire" Egtvedt, who had risen up the ranks at Boeing after starting out as a draftsman in 1917 fresh out of college. Of all the pieces of the now-broken up United Aircraft, Egtvedt had to take charge of the smallest and weakest piece- Boeing Aircraft itself which included its Stearman subsidiary in Wichita, Kansas. The first year of Boeing's new independent existence found it operating at a loss of over $200,000, a crushing loss in those days. Egtvedt wanted to get Boeing back into business by building a twin-engined bomber and twin-engined transport, but there was just barely enough money in the company's accounts to make payroll. By the late summer of 1934, Boeing's workforce had fallen from 2,275 a year earlier to only 600. The remaining employees as a testament to their faith in Boeing, offered up a plan to Egtvedt where half the group would work two weeks and then the other half of the group would then work the next two weeks and keep alternating so that only half the employees needed to be paid but the core experience of Boeing could be kept intact. Egtvedt naturally approved of the plan and true to the loyalty of the Boeing employees, some of those where not assigned to work in a particular two week block came to work anyway to help out without asking for payment. 

What Boeing products were available needed to be sold overseas to earn income for the company, so Egtvedt hired a young engineer, Wellwood Beall, who had been an instructor at Boeing's own school of aeronautics. Beall was an enthusiastic and gregarious individual who Egtvedt tasked with selling the Boeing P-26 Peashooter to the Chinese, who ended up ordering eleven aircraft in 1935. But it wasn't enough, and even the in-house company newspaper shut down publication to save money. Ever looking for opportunities to turn Boeing's fortunes around, Egtvedt had always thought the Boeing 247 airliner was too small, which as it turned out, became its biggest liability to the roomier and bigger Douglas DC-3 which proved to be an immense success. Several years earlier Egtvedt actually watched flight operations with Boeing fighters aboard the first US aircraft carrier, the USS Langley. A Navy rear admiral who was hosting the Boeing delegation remarked that battleships made more sense than bombers (this was in the wake of General Billy Mitchell's demonstration where he sank captured German warships with bombers) for US defense because a battleship could defend itself. When pressed further by Egtvedt, the admiral responded that the only practical bomber would be one that would be able to defend itself like a "flying dreadnaught". The remark must have stuck with Egtvedt that bigger was the way to go, but the only large aircraft of the day in the United States was the Barling bomber of 1920 that had a 120-foot wingspan, six engines and needed a tailwind to break 90 mph and had a range of only 300 miles on account of its heavy weight. Large aircraft simply had a lousy track record in those days. But that didn't stop Egtvedt from thinking about the large aircraft problem. Bill Boeing himself once said: 

"I've tried to make the men around me feel as I do, that we are embarked as pioneers upon a new science and industry in which our problems are so new and unusual that it behooves no one to dismiss any novel idea with the statement that 'It can't be done'. Our job is to keep everlastingly at research and experiment, to adapt our laboratory results and those of other laboratories to production as soon as practicable, to let no new improvement in flying and flying equipment pass us by."

The XB-15
(Boeing Historical Archives)
Boeing wasn't just thinking about bigger aircraft. There were also some officers with the US Army Air Corps that saw Billy Mitchell's 1921 demonstrations as prescient and the key to making the United States an aviation power. At the lowest point of Boeing's fortunes in the spring of 1934, Egtvedt got a phone call from Brigadier General Conger Pratt who was head of the Air Corps Materiel Division at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio (predecessor to today's USAF Systems Command). Pratt wanted Egtvedt's presence at a secret conference in Dayton to which he also invited the heads of several other aircraft companies. Within the Air Corps, many of Mitchell's subordinates were imbuing the USAAC with ideas of long range bombers which received high level support with the command staff in Washington. At the meeting on 14 May 1934, General Pratt informed the aircraft company leaders that the Army wanted proposals for a long range bomber that could carry at least 2,000 lbs of bombs at least 3,000 miles and weigh no more than 32 tons. Nothing like it had been done before and the invited guests were quite startled. 

Egtvedt immediately put Boeing engineers to work on a 150-foot wingspan bomber called "Project A". The speed at which Boeing got to work on Project A resulted in a design contract from the Army. A large hangar at Boeing Field was set aside with a partitioned area only cleared personnel were allowed along with Army representatives from Wright Field. Excitement built quickly at Boeing with word of a mammoth bomber in the works. Despite the Army contract, Boeing's financial state was still quite precarious, but Egtvedt pressed on- Boeing, in his mind, had to learn how to build large aircraft if it was going to survive and Project A would be the company's school house, even if the company ran in the red- which it did. 

With work proceeding on what would become the XB-15, a second proposal was issued by Air Corps Materiel Division at Wright Field. While the first project was to be a technology demonstrator of a large bomber aircraft, the second proposal that was issued on 8 August 1934 just months later called for a production bomber with a 2,000 lb bomb load, a top speed of 250 mph, a range of 2,200 miles and a crew of around six. Companies were asked for designs and bids for an initial production run of just over 200 aircraft. You can imagine Claire Egtvedt's excitement with this second proposal- he had been thinking about larger aircraft and Boeing was learning all about designing and building larger aircraft with the XB-15 demonstrator. He had been thinking about a flying dreadnaught that a Navy admiral referred to years earlier and now the Army was asking for that very aircraft. Egtvedt wanted the Boeing proposal for the production bomber to be a four engine aircraft, but in those days, four engine aircraft were rare and seen as risky from a technological standpoint. He even flew to Wright Field to get further clarification on the production bomber specifications to be sure a four-engined design was acceptable. 

Egtvedt didn't just want to submit a proposal- he wanted to something daring. He wanted to proceed with a prototype of Boeing's proposal and fly it to Wright Field to demonstrate its performance. This was an immense gamble- Boeing was already operating in the red, it was busy working on the XB-15 project and now Egtvedt wanted to build and fly a prototype of Boeing's submission within one year. Egtvedt turned to his friend for guidance- Boeing's company lawyer and future CEO, William M. Allen. Allen came from the University of Montana but had a Harvard law degree- he first worked with Boeing in setting up Boeing Air Transport in 1926 (the predecessor to United Air Lines). Allen was an unusual sort for the Boeing team- he wasn't a pilot and he wasn't an engineer. But he had a remarkable clarity of thought that many at Boeing came to rely on to help with tough decisions and he asked Egtvedt bluntly "Do you think you can build a successful four-engined airplane in a year?" Egtvedt's response evoked the spirit of Bill Boeing: "Yes I know I can." So with Bill Allen's support, on 26 September 1934, Boeing's board of directors authorized Egtvedt to borrow money to the limit to begin work on the Model 299. 

Model 299 prototype
(USAF Museum)
In less than three months the production drawings for the Model 299 were in the hands of assembly shop who began building the prototype, all while work continued on the XB-15 program. As assembly of the Model 299 prototype began, the company ran out of money and the board, putting its faith in Claire Egtvedt, arranged to borrow more money. While it was clear that the XB-15 would never be a production aircraft, what had been learned from the design effort paid dividends for Boeing in the speed at which the design and fabrication of the Model 299 proceeded. Final assembly began in June 1935 and soon workers disregarded their shifts in an all-out effort to finish the Model 299 prototype. At sunrise on a Sunday, 28 July 1935, the Model 299 prototype was rolled out at Boeing Field for its successful maiden flight. Keep in mind the go-ahead to launch the Model 299 program was on 26 September 1934! After a stunning first flight, the Model 299 was then flown to Wright Field on 20 August 1935, taking only nine hours to cover over 2,000 miles with an average speed of 252 mph. Boeing's other competitors also built flying prototypes of their submissions but they paled in comparison to the Model 299. Martin entered the YB-12 which was just a re-engined version of the B-10 twin-engined bomber and Douglas entered the B-18 Bolo which was based on the DC-2 airliner. 

Then tragedy struck. During a flight test out of Wright Field in October, the control locks were left in place and the Model 299 prototype stalled at takeoff and crashed with the loss the pilot and varying degrees of injuries to the rest of the crew. Under the rules of the competition laid down by the Army, the Model 299 had to be eliminated from competition as it was unable to complete its flight tests. It was a somber Christmas 1935 when Douglas won the contract with the B-18 Bolo. But there was a silver lining in the loss of the Model 299 prototype- the flight test program won the Model 299 many advocates within the US Army Air Corps who saw the Boeing design as the future of long range bombers. A service order was placed for thirteen aircraft and a fourteenth aircraft that would be a structural test article. The aircraft's designation would be a name that would echo in the annals in the history of aviation- B-17. When the Seattle Times reporter Richard Williams dubbed the Model 299 a "flying fortress" on account of its six gun turrets, Boeing astutely saw the value of the name and the B-17 became the Flying Fortress. 

Work did continue on the XB-15, though- it made its first flight on 15 October 1937. It was 26 feet longer than the B-17 with a 36-foot greater wingspan and at the time of its rollout, it was the largest bomber ever built. The aircraft was christened "Old Grandpappy" in recognition of the role its design played in the B-17 Flying Fortress. The service history of the XB-15 will also be the subject of a future article here at Tails Through Time, so stay tuned! 

Sources: Boeing: The First Century by Eugene E. Bauer. TABA Publishing, 2000, pp 59-69. Legend & Legacy: The Story of Boeing and Its People by Robert J. Serling. St. Martin's Press, 1992, pp 27-35.

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