July 1, 1933

A two-paragraph letter dated August 2, 1932, addressed to Mr. Donald Wills Douglas, caught the attention of office staff. As a secretary presented the stack of routine correspondence, she said “There is one letter you might be happy to see. It’s from your old friend, Jack Frye.” Into the “In” box it went.

Jack Frye, then vice-president in charge of operations for Trans Continental and Western Air, Inc., wondered if Douglas might build an all metal tri-motor monoplane with a maximum gross weight of 14,200 pounds, a fuel capacity for a cruising range of 1,000 miles at 150 miles per hour, and able to carry a crew of two and at least 12 passengers. Douglas read the letter twice, then asked his secretary to summon his top engineers.

Several years prior a Fokker tri-motor had crashed due to failure of a wooden spar, marking the end of the wood and fabric era for commercial operations. Boeing had introduced its sleek, all-metal model 247, but wouldn’t sell it to customers other than United Airlines, then an affiliate. The competition needed a plane with which to compete.

The Douglas engineers silently entered the office of Mr. Douglas. They were not often called there. Each was allowed to read the letter in silence as it was passed around the circle. One by one, they gave their views. Their consensus was no airplane in the world could meet the specifications. Douglas agreed. But he challenged his engineers. There were features of several aircraft that when combined, could achieve the desired result. Douglas allowed two weeks’ preparation for a presentation at the TWA office in New York.

Harry Wetzel, the general manager, and Arthur Raymond, the deputy chief engineer, continued calculations as they boarded the train. Mr. Frye of TWA concluded that “you have stuff here we haven’t heard of yet.” A Northrup wing with engines Wright was working on, an “automatic pilot,” and variable pitch propellers were important elements of his leap of faith. On behalf of TWA, he authorized a prototype of Douglas Commercial – 1st Model, or the DC-1. The date for first flight was set. July 1, 1933.

John Sessions

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