Fleet, Reuben Hollis
IndustrialistEnshrined 1975 1887-1975
One major problem for many early airplanes was “flat spinning” that resulted in numerous crashes and the deaths of many pilots. However, Fleet’s planes never entered a flat spin. When asked why, Fleet responded: “I’ll tell you for $50,000.” It took Fleet seven years, but he accomplished his goal developing the most successful and safest training plane.
- Organized the first air mail service in May 1918 from Washington DC to New York City.
- Formed consolidated Aircraft Corporation in 1921, producing primarily trainers and observation planes.
- Entering the flying boat field, Consolidated built the XPY-1 for the Navy and the Commodore for passenger service to South America.
- 1935, Consolidated built the famous PBY Catalina series, the most successful flying boat, and the PB2Y Coronado series flying boats.
Major Reuben Hollis Fleet had a long, distinguished, and very colorful career as a pioneer aircraft manufacturer, military officer, pilot, advisor to government officials and for 30 years as an interested private citizen.
Reuben Fleet won Army pilot wings No. 74 in 1917, organized the first air-mail between New York and Washington in 1918, was the Army Air Services’ Chief Contracting Officer after World War I and founded Consolidated Aircraft Corporation in 1923. He became the leading producer of Army and Navy trainers and in the 1930’s moved into the field of multi-engine aircraft with great success as demonstrated by the famed PBY Catalina flying boats and B-24 Liberator bombers which contributed so much to American victory in World War II.
Above all Reuben Fleet was an unabashed patriot. He believed in the basic virtues which made his beloved country great — self reliance, personal integrity, respect for truth, living within one’s means, devotion to duty, thrift, belief in God, love of country. The Major always was a staunch advocate of free enterprise, coupled with a belief in minimum government control and less taxation.
It is appropriate to begin a review of Major Fleet’s career at the time he was Contracting Officer for the Air Service at Dayton — then McCook Field, of which he was also business manager. When Fleet arrived at Dayton from Washington in January 1919 everything was in a turmoil as wartime dollar-a-year executives left to return to their regular peacetime jobs, many of them with the automobile industry. Supervising hundreds of contracts and thousands of employees, Fleet placed McCook Field and Army procurement back on a business-like status.
Although not expected to do any test flying, Reuben could not resist climbing into the cockpit of test planes, especially if any equipment for which he had contracted was involved. Thus, for example, working with Dr. Sanford A. Moss of General Electric he had a great deal to do with development of the turbo-supercharger for piston engines, which gave the U.S. a leading role in this field when World War II started. Fleet somehow always found time to fly in a series of often hair-raising test flights.
After four years service at McCook Field, and with the post-World War II decline in procurement, Fleet decided that it was time to return to private business. Also, he was disappointed that his procurement responsibilities had prevented his ability to personally develop a new military training plane — a cherished goal that he had held ever since he learned to fly at Rockwell Field in San Diego in 1917.
In 1922 Fleet was offered his choice of three top jobs in the then-struggling aircraft industry — with Boeing, with Curtiss and with almost-unknown Gallaudet in Rhode Island. Fleet chose Gallaudet because its owners included top New York bankers and he could thus test himself against the best business minds in the country. Later, seeing little promise at Gallaudet, Fleet looked around for other opportunities, particularly in the training plane field. He found them at the Dayton-Wright Company, the largest producer of planes for World War I. The General Motors-backed company wanted to get out of aircraft production; Fleet wanted their training plane designs but nothing else – He received rights to them for $25,000, along with a contract he soon negotiated with the Army for 20 planes.
In May 1923 he formed his own company, Consolidated Aircraft, with $15,000 of his own and $10,000 from his sister, and began operating from the Gallaudet plant. With a new version of the Dayton-Wright TW-3 plane incorporating his own ideas, Fleet won the Army’s competition for a primary trainer and moved to new quarters in the Curtiss plant at Buffalo where Army PT-1 and Navy NY-1 trainers were built.
A stickler for perfection, and his own best test pilot, Fleet continued to cultivate the Army and the Navy, winning order after order from both services and became virtually their sole supplier of training planes after World War I. A consummate artist at the hard sell, Fleet took full advantage of his close contact and friendship with top officials in government, industry, and the military services. “The way to stay in business,” Fleet told his associates, “is to give your best without holding back. Sometimes we gave the Army and Navy what was best for them before they knew it themselves.” When Fleet failed to convince the Army to give him a 150 plane order so the Air Service could have the price advantage which goes with volume production, he went ahead on his own and ordered materials for 250 planes, feeling that no competitor could produce a better training plane at the same cost. Reuben’s hunch was right. He did get the necessary orders not only from the Army but also from the Navy — and made a good profit because he had taken the risks of proceeding even without contracts. General Mason M. Patrick, Air Service Chief, thought Fleet had made an excess profit on these contracts. He pressured Consolidated into building 50 additional PT-3 training planes for $1 each. But the Navy refused to go along, saying that the company’s bids were competitive and earnings were not excessive.
One problem many post-war planes had was ‘flat spinning’ resulting in many crashes and frequent deaths. Fleet’s planes did not flat spin. The Army asked him why. “A trade secret,” he said, but “I’ll tell you for $50,000.” The Army refused even though Fleet agreed to demonstrate the plane and take no fee unless he was successful in correcting the flat spin in a competitor’s plane. In seven years Reuben Fleet accomplished his goal of developing and building the most successful and safest training plane — and he sold nearly 900 of them. It was time to tackle the multi-engine aircraft field.
In the busy post-Lindbergh years, Fleet and Consolidated had a multiplicity of projects going at full throttle . The Consolidated–Sikorsky Guardian bomber, a follow-on to Rene Fonck’s ill-fated transatlantic plane, was Fleet’s first multi-engine aircraft. In a test flight the engine stalled; Fleet jettisoned the fuel. “The Lord,” he said, “must have been holding us by the hand; we didn’t catch fire.” The Guardian did not go into production. Next Consolidated won the Navy competition for a new long-range flying boat, the Admiral, whose 100-foot span wing made it the giant of its day. Fleet bought materials for a production order, but was underbid by Glenn L. Martin. Ingeniously he created a customer for the Commodore, a commercial transport version of the Navy’s Admiral flying boat — by helping organize and finance the New York, Rio de Janeiro, and Buenos Aires Line. Consolidated made a profit on the Commodores, and Fleet traded his NYRBA stock for shares in Pan American Airways, which took over the South American route and continued to fly the Commodore flying boats. In 1929 Consolidated “went public” as Fleet sold $2 million of his own shares, and the stock was listed for trading on the Exchange. Various subsidiary companies were also organized to supply parts, operate airports, train civilian pilots, etc.
Seeking a civilian market for training and sport planes, Fleet and associates retreated to the Buffalo Athletic Club over a weekend and designed a new private plane — later known as the “Fleet” biplane. Consolidated’s investment bankers didn’t like the $173,000 engineering cost Reuben had run up on his new biplane trainer, so he took the project over personally. When the Fleet model met with success, the major sold it back to the company at no profit. Reuben bought a thousand engines for his new trainer — and made an investment in that company’s shares. Later he sold those shares at substantial profit — in effect getting the engines free. Expanding still further, the Air Corps suggested in 1929 that he buy out Thomas-Morse Aircraft as they had little confidence in that company and were anxious to place a production order for the 0-19 observation plane on which Thomas-Morse had been working. It was just one more task for the nimble Major to manage. Adding further to the management burden was the development of a new single-engine Consolidated commercial transport — the Fleetster — with a unique new barrel-shaped metal fuselage.
The Major needed to slow down and decided on a six-week sales trip to the West Coast in his new Fleet trainer. Reuben Fleet, who could handle any situation with aplomb, discovered that he was fallible and not immune to personal trauma. Engine failure and the resulting crash landing killed his passenger. With every bone in his body out of place, Reuben spent seven weeks in a hospital in Canada. All this at the period of most complex activity in the company’s history. But he still ran things from his hospital bed. Fleet took a cruise through the Panama Canal with his parents to recuperate; he visited San Diego and made preliminary plans to move his entire factory cross-country from Buffalo and its severe winter weather, which prevented flight testing of huge flying boats there. The new San Diego plant’s first production order was for P-30 (later PB-2A), Army pursuit planes. They were the first high-altitude pursuits, made possible because the United States was the only power which had a good turbo-supercharged in production.
During the Depression of the thirties Consolidated retrenched successfully. A new series of more advanced flying boats followed. This time Fleet did not lose the follow-on business to Martin or any other company. For years Consolidated remained supreme in design and production in large Navy flying boats. In 1935 Consolidated brought out yet another, more advanced flying boat which was to become the famed PBY Catalina of World War II, the most successful seaplane ever developed — in continuous production for ten years, and built in larger numbers than all other flying boats combined. Still later came the four-engine PB2Y-3 Coronado flying boat. At one point, the day England went to war, the Navy was ready to order 500 PBYs. Fleet doubled and redoubled his San Diego plant but had trouble collecting from the Navy for the plant expansion costs. Reuben laid down the law to Navy Secretary James Forrestal and received his money in five minutes.
Fleet visited Hawaii before the attack on Pearl Harbor to see his PBYs in war-games against a potential foe expected from the north (Japan). Why then were nearly all PBYs lined up on December 7th, 1941 at Honolulu, offering easy targets for the Japanese? To aid the government in finding out, Fleet provided a new four-engine Navy flying boat to take Navy Secretary Knox to Pearl Harbor December 8th, 1941 — to investigate that tragic event that caused American participation in World War II.
The policy to develop multi-engine landbased bombers, sponsored by General Henry “Hap” Arnold, led to development of the Consolidated B-24 Liberator as a teammate of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. Later the Consolidated B-32 Dominator and the Boeing B-29 Superfortress were similarly teamed – Last of the line was the huge 10-engine Consolidated B-36 Intercontinental bomber. What made the B-24 possible was its graceful, high aspect ratio Davis wing, for in 1938 Reuben Fleet saw the potential of this unique wing airfoil section and obtained rights for its use. It appeared first on Consolidated’s Model 31 Pregnant Guppy an advanced, twin-engine flying boat. As a result the B-24 Liberator bomber was built in greater numbers than any other aircraft for use in World War II. Its combat record, like that of Fleet’s PBY Catalina flying boat, is well-known. Along the way, Reuben also came up with the idea of Jet Assisted Take Off (JATO) — for his flying boats — a technique using the first rockets, which Dr. Theodore von Karman then perfected – Fleet, von Karman said, “was the first to call my attention in 1935 to rockets and their potential.”
When Fleet arrived in San Diego in 1935 after moving the Consolidated plant from Buffalo in one of the greatest industrial relocations in history, the company’s business since its founding 12 years earlier — -had totaled $20 million. With the impetus of World War II, annual sales rose to $100 million for 1941, and the backlog of unfilled orders was $750 million. The problem was that President Franklin D. Roosevelt (an old friend), as a wartime measure had taken the profit out of defense production. Fleet’s profit for the year 1941 would keep the plant open for only 6.5 minutes! Reuben decided to sell. He didn’t know that the Pearl Harbor attack was coming. Three weeks before that fateful date he received $10 million for 34% of Consolidated’s stock. Reuben “retired” from active Consolidated management at the end of 1941, but refused to take retirement seriously. He stayed on as a consultant to the successor company, Consolidated Vultee (Convair), now General Dynamics, and as unpaid Advisor on aviation matters to FDR and the Defense Department. His business affairs and investments consumed much of his time, but Fleet still took leadership in community affairs, such as personally paying for the engineering study which determined the right location for San Diego’s new metropolitan sewage system.
After World War II he tried to hire Charles A. Lindbergh as his understudy at Consolidated and later offered Richard M. Nixon, then Vice-President, a substantial salary to lecture on “Americanism” should he not again run for public office. As a private citizen but still a very public figure — Fleet continued to speak out vigorously on the need to preserve free enterprise, on air power, and on the evils of excessive taxation. His appearances as an expert witness before congressional committees were often the forum for blistering rhetoric critical of ‘fuzzy’ thinking in Washington. Reuben Fleet also helped create San Diego’s unique new Space Theater (world’s newest and best), which is named for him.
A restored 1929 Consolidated PT-3 biplane trainer was located and purchased in 1969 for the San Diego Aerospace Museum and flown from the Midwest to its new home. After its arrival, Major Fleet donned the aviator’s helmet and goggles of old and went for a flight in the 40 year-old open cockpit biplane — his first in many years as a pilot. He was then 82, but his touch was still sharp. Now let’s look at his younger years. “One of my ancestors” he says, “was Captain Henry Fleet of the British Navy, who brought John Smith and the first colonists to Virginia and settled the first permanent English settlement in the United States.” “Captain Fleet was captured by the Indians while exploring the five tidewaters of Virginia, and remained their captive for five years. He learned their language; became interpreter for the Colony of Virginia and settled the family estate, Greenmount. Father, a graduate of Virginia Military Institute, taught school at his brother’s military academy in Missouri. When it burned, the Culvers of St. Louis asked Colonel Fleet to take his cadets to Indiana. Thus Culver Military Academy was established.” “Father became a civil engineer and helped sectionize the Territory of Wyoming; later for Jim Hill of the Great Northern Railroad, Father helped extend the line west to tidewater at Grays Harbor, Washington Territory. There he laid out the city of Aberdeen.” “Mother came west in an overland wagon when four years old. When her mother died she was raised by a foster family, named Hollis. Her father, a trader in ships and general merchandise, settled in Washington Territory. There my parents met. I was born there in 1887. So pleased with their son that they named him Reuben (behold! a son!).” Fleet’s parents were well-to-do but were wiped out in the panic of 1893. His father went off to Alaska to make a new start.
Enrolled at Culver, Fleet was an excellent student but was handicapped by the fact that his uncle was superintendent. After Culver and a stint schoolteaching in the new State of Washington, Reuben became a real estate broker and timber-buyer, building a substantial business and reputation through shrewd trading. A free-enterpriser and law-and-order man, Fleet was active in the National Guard and was elected to the State Legislature in 1915. At the State Capitol he hired a plane to “buzz” the city to arouse interest in aviation and introduced a military aviation bill into the State Legislature. The Army Air Service sent an officer west to see what all the furor was about. Appearing before the Legislature, Fleet ‘lectured’ Colonel Samuel Reber, Air Service head, because he felt the Colonel failed to realize the long-range potential of aviation. As a result the Army introduced legislation to open the Air Service to National Guard officers — two from each state — and to expand its aviation budget.
At age 30, Reuben was a very successful businessman and civic leader in his native Montesano, Washington. But the world was at war and it was apparent that the U.S. would soon be involved. A Captain in the National Guard, Fleet felt he could do his duty best in the then miniscule Aviation Section of the Army Signal Corps. just 73 planes were operational in the Signal Corps, 30 of them at Rockwell Field on North Island in San Diego – On April 5th, 1917, Fleet reported for duty and took his first flight. The next day War was declared and he became an Army Officer.
More mature than other pilots, Fleet advanced rapidly. As a junior military aviator, he won Wings No. 74 and received the rank, pay and allowances of a major. Assigned to Washington, Fleet became Acting Executive Officer for flight training just as the wartime requirement for pilots exploded, and supervised the building of 34 primary schools. Subsequently Fleet tested foreign airplanes and engines brought to this country for evaluation and through a comedy of errors was also rated as a balloon pilot.
On 12 days notice, the War Department in 1918, at President Wilson’s behest, announced it would start Air Mail service between Washington and New York. On Colonel Henry “Hap” Arnold’s recommendation, Fleet was placed in charge. In only eight days, Curtiss Jenny training planes coming off the production line were modified under Fleet’s direction to carry the mail. One day before the start of service only two planes were ready but Major Fleet worked out the problems, including the unauthorized felling of a tree in the middle of Potomac Park, Washington, the southern terminal. The U.S. Air Mail officially began service on March 15th, 1918. Because British training planes and instruction methods appeared to be better than those of the U.S., Fleet obtained orders for himself and Arnold to go abroad.
With Arnold seriously ill with influenza Fleet took over command of 8,500 troops aboard the S. S. Olympic. Ashore after arrival in England, Arnold, in an ambulance, heard marching troops and described how “It was Major Fleet marching his Chaplains and Air Service officers in the rain, in the dark. ‘One, two, three, four! Damn you Chaplains, keep in step.’ It was twelve miles to go but Fleet, ” said Arnold, “was making soldiers of them.” At the Gosport School for flying near Southampton, Fleet learned how the British turned out superb pilots and training planes. On November 11th — Armistice Day — Fleet was the only sober pilot at Gosport. He borrowed the commanding officer’s plane to fly to London and describes how, “I took off with Parker and his Adjutant both standing up in the open rear cockpit with their arms around each other. By the time we landed at London they were fairly well sobered up.” In London, Reuben had a taxi driver take him to Fleet Street and the Fleet River — both named for his ancestors.
After a visit back to Washington State, Fleet returned to Washington, D.C., then accepted the job of contracting officer and business manager at McCook Field. The constraints of a military career and what he considered to be endless and meaningless paperwork did not sit well with Fleet. After four years at McCook he tried again to enter the business world — this time in aviation. His Consolidated Aircraft became the world leader in military training planes, built seaplanes in larger numbers than all other flying boats combined and for World War II produced B-24 Liberator bombers in greater quantity than any other American aircraft.
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