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XP-67 fighter

The XP-67 was McDonnell's only propeller-powered fighter. It first flew in 1944.

FH-1 Phantom carrier jet fighter

The McDonnell FH-1 Phantom was the first all-jet airplane ordered into production by the U.S. Navy and the Navy's first airplane to reach 500 miles per hour.

McDonnell XF-85 Goblin

The McDonnell XF-85 Goblin was the smallest jet-propelled fighter ever built. It was designed to be dropped from a bomber, perform its mission, and then return to the mother ship. Two were build in the late 1940s.

McDonnell XF-88

The XF-88 design, which was never adopted for production, was used as the basis for the F-101 "Voodoo".

F2H-3 Banshee at factory

The F2H Banshee fighter was a multimission aircraft that was used extensively in the Korean War. It first flew in 1947 and some served into the 1960s.

Banshee in flight

The F2H Banshee fighter, immortalized by James Michener in his novel, The Bridges of Toko-Ri, was similar in design and appearance to the FH-1 Phantom, but it had twice the power and carried bombs as well as rockets and cannons. McDonnell Aircraft built 895 Banshees.

F3H Demon

This photo shows the XF3H-1 Demon taking off on a routine test flight in May 1953. The production version, the F3H, saw limited use in the late 1950s but was too late for use in Korea and was retired before the United States became involved in Vietnam.

F3H/F-3 Demon fighter jet

The F3H Demon was the first swept-wing jet fighter aircraft built by McDonnell Aircraft. It was the first aircraft designed to be armed only with missiles rather than guns. It was the only single-engine Navy fighter McDonnell designed.

McDonnell Douglas F-4C Phantom II

First flown in May 1958, the F-4C Phantom II originally was developed for U.S. Navy fleet defense and entered service in 1961.

McDonnell F-101A Voodoo

The McDonnell Voodoo was a supersonic fighter designed to escort bombers and serve as a fighter bomber, an all-weather interceptor and a photoreconnaissance aircraft. It served during the Cuban missile crisis and during the Vietnam War.

Launch of Freedom 7

Launch of Freedom 7, built by McDonnell.

Gemini 5 capsule hoisted onboard recovery ship

The Gemini 5 spacecraft, built by McDonnell, is brought aboard the recovery ship after a successful landing at the end of its mission.

The McDonnell Aircraft Corporation

James Smith McDonnell was the fourth child of a cotton grower in Little Rock, Arkansas. Born on April 9, 1899, he graduated from high school in 1917 and served briefly in the Army. He studied physics at Princeton University, where he flew a plane for the first time. After graduating from Princeton, he took graduate courses in aeronautical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology then joined the Commissioned Reserve of the U.S. Army Air Service to become a military pilot.

He spent one year in the Army and then went job-hunting. His first professional job was as an aeronautical engineer and pilot for the Huff-Daland Airplane Company in Ogdenburg, New York. Over the next 15 years, he gained valuable experience while he worked for eight different companies, including Consolidated Aircraft Company, Stout Metal Airplane Company, and Hamilton Aero Manufacturing Company. He was involved in the design of the 3-AT Trimotor at Stout and was responsible for designing the series of monoplanes for Hamilton that resulted in the H-45 and H-47 metal transports.

In April 1927, he heard about a competition offered by the Guggenheim Foundation for the design of a safe, light, training aircraft. The next year, McDonnell and two colleagues, Constantine Zakhartchenko and James Cowling, decided to leave Hamilton, which was being absorbed by the United Aircraft and Transportation Corporation, and organize J.S. McDonnell Jr. & Associates. The three entered the "Doodlebug" in the competition, but it didn't win, and the hard economic times of the Great Depression kept it out of production.

In 1931 McDonnell joined the Great Lakes Aircraft Corporation briefly and then moved to Glenn Martin's company in Baltimore, Maryland, where he became Chief Engineer for Landplanes. He worked on the B-10/B-12 series there as well as other planes for the export market.

But he still wanted his own company, and in 1938, he resigned from Martin, managed to find funding, and on July 6, 1939, incorporated the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation in the State of Maryland.

It did not have a promising start. The company rented quarters next to Lambert Field in St. Louis, Missouri, and from there, submitted numerous proposals to the Army and Navy. But business was extremely poor the first year, and the company lost money. The United States, however, was beginning to prepare for war, and in September 1940, McDonnell Aircraft received its first military engineering contract. The company spent most of the war years manufacturing parts for the various aircraft being produced by other manufacturers as well as building some training aircraft. Its contract for the XP-67, which looked promising, was canceled when the prototype didn't perform as well as expected.

McDonnell engineers were interested in applying jet propulsion to combat aircraft and, since most of the more established Navy contractors were busy with production aircraft, the Bureau of Aeronautics chose McDonnell to develop a jet-powered, carrier-borne fighter. This plane, the XFD-1, became, on July 21, 1946, the first jet fighter to take off from and land on the deck of an aircraft carrier.

Helicopters also held interest for McDonnell and the company began in June 1943 to study the design and construction of rotors. An award to construct the first twin-engine/twin-rotor helicopter, the McDonnell XHJD-1, came on May 15, 1944. McDonnell also acquired control of the Platt-Le Page Aircraft Company, which held an Army contract to build the XR-1 helicopter. But Platt closed and none of its innovative rotary aircraft were produced.

On March 7, 1945, the company received its first major production contract—for 100 FH-1 Phantoms. A few days later, the Navy ordered a second, more advanced prototype, the XF2D-1. But the war's end reduced the number of FH-1 Phantoms to 60 as well as ending most of the work McDonnell had been doing for other aircraft companies. These events, along with the closing of Platt-Le Page, led to a financial loss in 1946.

The company, however, became profitable again the next year with the production of the F2H Banshee, development work on two escort jet fighters—the XF-85 Goblin and XF-88 Voodoo—for the U.S. Army Air Force/U.S. Air Force, and more helicopter work. The F2H-2s became the first McDonnell military aircraft to see action when they started serving in the Korean War.

McDonnell continued to grow and in July 1951, bought its own plant at Lambert Field. The early 1950s also saw the ordering of the first McDonnell aircraft to be built in quantity for the U.S. Air Force—the F-102. The company reached a significant milestone in December 1953 when it delivered its 1,000th aircraft.

In 1953, McDonnell also received the contract that would lead to production of several thousand F-4 Phantom II fighters, the single most significant fighter built by McDonnell and one of the legendary aircraft of the twentieth century. Production began in October 1954, and the Mach 2 fighter made its first flight as a Navy interceptor on May 27, 1958, under the F-110 "Spectre" designation. A superior plane, the Phantom made McDonnell one of the world's leading aircraft companies, with more than 5,000 being built for the United States and foreign nations before production ended in 1979.

During the second half of the 1950s, the company concentrated on producing F3H Demons and F-101 Voodoos. The first flight of the Phantom II prototype took place on May 28, 1958. The company also received its first export contract, providing F2Hs for the Royal Canadian Navy.

McDonnell was also interested in missiles, and it had received a Navy contract in 1944 for a radio-controlled device, the KUD-1 Gargoyle. A number of contracts for missiles followed, including the Talos surface-to-air missile, the GAM-72 Quail decoy, and the MAW anti-tank missile. The company also conducted research in the fields of hypersonic flight and reentry vehicles.

Its crowning achievement was its selection on January 12, 1959 by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to produce the Mercury spacecraft, the first U.S. piloted orbital spacecraft. The first Mercury spacecraft, called Freedom 7, lifted into space on May 5, 1961, with Alan Shepard aboard. The program included two suborbital missions and four orbital flights. McDonnell also produced the follow-on Gemini capsule, a two-person spacecraft that was 50 per cent larger than the earlier capsules. Ten successful missions were flown, including the world's first space rendezvous and the first space docking. McDonnell was also chosen in 1965 by the Air Force to develop the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, which was canceled in 1969.

In light of the company's move into the space field as well as its diversification into other business areas, its shareholders voted in 1966 to change the company's name to the McDonnell Company.

The company's sole reliance on military business, however, led to some uneasiness among management about its future prospects. In 1963, James McDonnell had attempted unsuccessfully to acquire control of Douglas Aircraft. But in 1966, Douglas was experiencing a serious financial crisis and needed cash desperately. McDonnell and some of his company officers also held stock in Douglas, which gave it a strong bargaining position. McDonnell offered to buy Douglas stock, which allowed Douglas to obtain some much-needed cash to continue operations. He also offered to keep Douglas' officers on board, including Donald Douglas, Sr. and his son, Donald Douglas, Jr. Thus, stockholders of both companies accepted the union, the government approved the merger, and on April 28, 1967, McDonnell Douglas Corporation began operations.

—Judy Rumerman


Francillon, René J. McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Since 1920. London: Putnam, 1979.

Pattillo, Donald M. Pushing the Envelope. The American Aircraft Industry. Ann Arbor, Mich.: The University of Michigan Press: 1998.

"McDonnell Douglas F-4C ‘Phantom II.'" U.S. Air Force Museum. http://www.wpafb.af.mil/museum/research/fighter/f4c.htm.

Other References:

Braybrook, Roy. Supersonic Fighter Development. Sparkford, Somerset, England: Hayes Publishing Group, 1987.

Swenson, Loyd S., Jr. Grimwood, James M., and Alexander, Charles C. This New Ocean. A History of Project Mercury. Washington: NASA SP-4201, 1998.

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International Technology Education Association

Standard 6

Students will develop an understanding of the role of society in the development and use of technology.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 8

Students will develop an understanding of the attributes of design.

National Center for History in the Schools

US History

Era 9


The economic boom and social transformation of postwar United States.