Friday, November 4, 2011

Wrigley, Boeing and Douglas' Dolphin

The first production Douglas Dolphin sits at Clover Field in Santa
Monica during its flight test tenure.
It must have been a couple of very good days for Donald Douglas, the days that William Wrigley Jr.'s son and Bill Boeing came to buy airplanes. The latter was something of a coup, I should expect. It helped, to be sure, that the plane had been a pet project of Douglas, who designed it personally. Having experienced a string of successes in building military observation aircraft - especially planes built for the Navy - Donald set about to design something decidedly different, a luxurious commercial flying yacht. He called it the "Sinbad". What resulted was a twin-engined, aluminum-hulled flying boat that seated six to eight passengers, and even had a lavatory in the back.

Problem was, it was a flying boat - stuck in the water. Douglas realized that the utility of the aircraft, and hopefully the sales, would be so much enhanced if it were an amphibian, with retractable land-lubber gear. So Douglas tweaked the design a bit, and the plane entered production as an amphibian called the Dolphin. If you look carefully under the wing of our image of the week above, you'll note the registration number: X-967Y, which indicates that this was the first production Dolphin (Douglas tended to use registration numbers that ended in "Y" for their developmental aircraft), while it was still considered an experimental aircraft.

The aircraft was amazingly quiet and a great performer, everything that Donald had dreamed of. (In 1931, Flight Magazine wrote a glowing pilot report about the Dolphin, which you can read here.) It's just that his timing was wrong. By the time that the Sinbad was under construction, the 1929 stock market crash bankrupted many of the members of the market that Douglas had hoped to sell the planes too. By the time that the first Dolphin flew in 1930, America was deep into the Great Depression.

This is a detail cropping of one of the
photos featured with the Douglas DC-1
article three weeks ago, and shows one of
the Army's Dolphins at Clover Field.
But although Douglas had designed the plane as a commercial venture, it was the military that bought the majority of the Dolphins produced. With the success of X-967Y, the Sinbad was retrofitted with retractable wheels, and was picked up, along with 13 Dolphins, by the U.S. Coast Guard, which designated them variously RD-1, RD-2 and RD-4, during 1931-1934. The U.S. Navy bought nine (three of which were later turned over to the USMC), three RD-2s and six RD-3s. One of the Navy Dolphins was converted into a Presidential aircraft for Franklin Roosevelt, although there is no record of him actually using it (in 1933, Popular Science raved about the new Presidential "Mayflower of the Air").

It was natural to think of these planes serving the in the Navy and Coast Guard, but what's surprising is that the Army Air Corps picked up 24 aircraft - that's one more than the USN and USCG combined! With the USAAC, the Dolphins were designated variously as C-21, C-26A, C-26B and C-29. The Argentinian Navy also bought one.

However, there were still a few civilian folks out there who could afford such a plane, and in the case of the Dolphin, it was chewing gum to the rescue. Or at least the money from chewing gum. William Wrigley Jr. had made millions selling chewing gum to America, sort of by accident. The company he founded actually started out selling things like soap and baking powder, and as a sales incentive, packaged chewing gum in each container. Thing is, the chewing gum turned out to be more popular than the soap and baking power, and a fortune was thus made. Wrigley tended to spend his fortune on things he loved, namely his Chicago Cubs baseball team and his favorite get-away-spot, Santa Catalina Island. In 1919 Wrigley bought the Santa Catalina Island Company, and got the actual island thrown in for free.

NC-967Y is a cover girl, gracing the front of
Arcadia Publishing's Catalina by Air, a
must-have book for anyone who loves flying
boats. Because of the narrowness of the cove
in which the first Catalina Airport was built,
the designers created a wooden turntable,
which our aircraft sits on in this view. The
ocean is just out of the scene to the right.
Wrigley Junior's only son, Philip K. Wrigley, was also heavily involved with is Dad in the development of the island, and he just so happened to have served in the Navy as the head of training for aviation mechanics. Now, Pacific Marine Airways and Western Air Express had already been serving Catalina, but in 1931 he decided he could do it better himself, terminated the contracts with the other carriers, and set up the Wilmington-Catalina Airlines, Ltd.

To serve the island Philip Wrigley selected Douglas' new Dolphin, buying the first two production aircraft, NC-967Y and NC-14204, making the Dolphin the very first Douglas airliner. The website Catalina Goose has a wonderful selection of images of the two Wilmington-Catalina Dolphins in service. With the Dolphin, the 27 mile channel was transited in only 15 minutes. The two aircraft faithfully served until September 1942, when the Coast Guard shut down all civilian transportation between the island and the mainland.

Pan Am was the only other airline to buy Dolphins, purchasing a pair for use by their China National Aviation Corp. subsidiary.

And then there was Bill Boeing. In 1934, while he was still at his namesake Boeing Company, he bought a Dolphin, which he named Rover, from his rival for his own personal use. Later, when he decided he needed something bigger, he traded up to a Douglas DC-5. Rover went through several other owners, including serving with Catalina Channel Air Service in the 1960s. It would become the only surviving Dolphin, now on display at the US National Museum of Naval Aviation.

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