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James McDonnell

McDonnell, James Smith

Enshrined 1977 1899-1980

In 1917 McDonnell arrived for his freshman year at Princeton a few days early and decided to take a trolley car ride to nearby Trenton, New Jersey. Along the way he spotted a Jenny biplane in a large field with a sign that proclaimed: “Once in a lifetime joy rides – $10.” McDonnell never made it to Trenton that day. Instead he jumped off the trolley, took two five dollar bills he had saved for a badly needed winter coat and handed them to the waiting pilot. So began McDonnell’s part in the aeronautical evolution.

    In 1939 he formed the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation and developed the XP-67 fighter.
    During World War II he developed the FH-1 Phantom jet fighter, the Gargoyle glider bomb, and the Whirlaway helicopter.
    After the war, unveiled the first ram-jet powered helicopter and developed the F2H Banshee jet fighter, the F-101 Voodoo fighter and the F-4 Phantom II.
    He built the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft and Delta launch vehicles for commercial satellites.
    In 1967 the McDonnell Douglas Corporation was formed with McDonnell as CEO and chairman. The DC-9 and DC-10 commercial jetliners were introduced.
    1969 – the F-15 Eagle was introduced followed by the A-4M Skyhawk, the AV-8B Advanced Harrier and the F-18 Hornet fighter.
    Developed the NASA space shuttle orbiter for the space program.



James Smith McDonnell began his career in aviation in 1921 by enrolling in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to earn a Master’s Degree in Aeronautical Engineering. He also joined the Army Air Services’ ROTC program and trained periodically at Mitchell Field. In 1923 the Army called him to active duty at Brooks Field, Texas, where he soloed, made his first parachute jump, and received a commission in the Reserves.

Returning to civilian status in 1924, McDonnell first obtained a job as a draftsman with the Huff Daland Airplane Company. Later he joined the Consolidated Aircraft Company as a stress analyst. He was next hired by the Stout Metal Airplane Division of the Ford Motor Company as an aeronautical engineer and helped design the famous Ford trimotor. Finally he became chief engineer of the Hamilton Aero Manufacturing Company and helped develop the Metalplane.

When the $100,000 Guggenheim Safe Aeroplane Competition of 1928 was announced, McDonnell organized J.S. McDonnell & Associates to build a low-wing monoplane in hopes of winning the prize. But during his competition demonstration flight, its stabilizer failed and he McDonnell crashed. Later he confessed: “I was too much of a Scotsman to use my parachute.”

Soon McDonnell helped to form the Air Transport Engineering Company to produce an airplane based on his monoplane, but the Great Depression hurt the market badly and McDonnell became an engineer with the Great Lakes Aircraft Company. In 1933 he joined the Glenn L. Martin Company, eventually rising to Chief Project Engineer on land planes.

McDonnell still had a great desire to have his own company, and formed the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation. He set up business in a second-story room at the St. Louis Airport and boldly entered an Army Air Corps warplane competition. Although unsuccessful, McDonnell did win a small contract to investigate jet propulsion. At the end of the first year, McDonnell reported: “Backlog zero, sales zero, earnings zero.”

McDonnell received a contract to develop the XP-67 Bomber Destroyer in 1941. The infamous Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor changed everything! Soon he built modified AT-21 Gunner trainers, and also produced millions of dollars worth of parts for the Douglas Aircraft Company.

McDonnell received a Navy contract to build its first jet fighter in 1943, and the Phantom became the first jet to operate from a carrier when it took off from the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, on July 21st, 1946. McDonnell also developed the Gargoyle glide bomb for carrier-based aircraft, and the tiny XF-85 Goblin jet fighter carried in the bay of a B-36 bomber, which could be dropped to attack enemy planes, and then recovered aboard. Near the end of the war, McDonnell developed a twin-rotor helicopter for the Navy, christened the Whirlaway. In 1947, Mr. Mac, as his teams of employees now affectionately called him, unveiled Little Henry, the world’s first ram jet helicopter and proudly showed it off to Jimmy Doolittle.

Meanwhile, Mr. Mac was awarded a contract to produce a 600 mile an hour Banshee jet fighter for carrier use. It served with the valiant Navy and Marine squadrons that were fighting in Korea and, when it was followed by the Silver Banshee, Mr. Mac stated: “The Banshee rang the multi-hundred million dollar sales gong.” Not long afterwards, he took his first jet trainer flight at Pensacola.

McDonnell developed the world’s first “convertiplane” in 1951. It lifted vertically by a jet-operated rotor, and flew forward by means of a pusher propeller. McDonnell also developed the 700 mile an hour Demon fighter for the Navy. In 1952 the Air Force selected its swept-wing, supersonic Voodoo as its advanced fighter and eventually over 800 were built.

McDonnell developed the supersonic, multi-mission F-4 Phantom II for the Navy and the Air Force, in 1958. It can climb to 100,000 feet, exceed 1,600 miles an hour, yet land on a carrier. Pilots dubbed it “the world’s best fighter,” as it became the workhorse of the Vietnam war. Eventually, nearly 5,000 Phantom II’s would serve U.S. Armed Forces and nine Free World Nations. When the F4H Phantom II was christened on McDonnell’s 20th anniversary, Mr. Mac said: “The Phantom II has rung the multi-billion sales gong.” McDonnell also became the prime contractor for the Air Force’s Quail decoy missile, and assisted in the construction of the Talos missile for the Navy.

The Space Age represented a tremendous challenge to Mr. Mac. Soon after NASA announced Project Mercury to put an astronaut into Earth orbit, its administrator, Dr. T. Keith Glennan, revealed that McDonnell would build the Mercury spacecraft. Before long, Mr. Mac became a close associate of all the astronauts. Following the successful suborbital flights of astronauts Shepard and Grissom, John Glenn achieved three orbits in his Friendship 7. Later, President Kennedy arrived to pay his compliments to McDonnell, and John Glenn told Mr. Mac: “I am a very satisfied customer.” He then told the McDonnell team: “Your hearts were in this.” Meanwhile, McDonnell was selected to build the two-man Gemini spacecraft. When the Gemini-Titan missions were completed, the McDonnell-built spacecraft and their astronauts had written a brilliant chapter in space history.

By 1966 Mr. Mac, now Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, had built McDonnell into a $1 billion a year business by investing in new technology and facility expansion. In fitting recognition of his contributions to aeronautics and astronautics, he recevied the 1966 Collier Trophy from Vice President Humphrey.

McDonnell Aircraft and Douglas Aircraft officially merged to form the McDonnell Douglas Corporation in 1967, with Mr. Mac as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer. The new giant quickly set the pace as its DC-9 became the most popular jetliner ever created. Eventually, airlines around the world ordered more than 900 of them to serve in their fleets. Military versions included the Nightingale aero-medical aircraft and the convertible passenger and cargo Skytrain II.

Mr. Mac, Vice President Agnew, and Donald Douglas initiated the rollout of the DC-10 jetliner. By 1977, DC-10s were carrying over 150 thousand passengers daily between 150 cities on six continents. Military versions included an Advance Tanker Cargo Aircraft to make the Air Force independent of overseas refueling bases.

In 1972, when the air superiority F-15 Eagle was rolled out, Mr. Mac told President Ford that it represented a major addition to the nation’s foundation of strength, and that it was needed to maintain peace and national strength. Other McDonnell Douglas aircraft included the Navy Skyhawk tactical fighter, the Marine Corps Advanced Harrier, the F-18 Hornet, and the unique YC-15 short takeoff and landing craft. In the space field was the Delta Launch Vehicle that placed communications and scientific satellites into orbit. In addition, the company became a major subcontractor for NASA’s Space Shuttle orbiter.

Mr. Mac’s accomplishments in aviation and space were the purest reflections of the man, for they put into focus and chronicle his deeds and mirrored his concern for people. He once said: “We are on this earth to grow souls. To achieve this basic purpose, the individual must have the freedom to discover, to create, and to grow in spirit. The conquest of space provides such an outlet. It can serve as a competitive creative substitute for war, if mankind will best grasp this wonderful opportunity.”

James McDonnell died on August 22nd, 1980.

For more information on James McDonnell, you may want to visit the following websites:

Centennial of Flight Commission
All Star Network
Boeing Company Bio