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FreightWaves Classics/Leaders: Dutch Kindelberger led North American Aviation to new heights

Improved entire aircraft industry during World War II

On this date 60 years ago (July 27, 1962), aviation pioneer and executive James H. “Dutch” Kindelberger died in Los Angeles at the age of 67. In his Associated Press obituary, Kindelberger was described as “one of the giants of America’s aerospace industry.” 

Early life and career

Kindelberger was born in Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1895. His nickname “Dutch” came from his German (Deutsch) ancestry. He dropped out of school in the 10th grade, and went to work as an apprentice in the steel mill where his father worked. However, he also continued his education by taking correspondence courses. Kindelberger passed his high school equivalency exam and began his engineering studies at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh when he was 21. He was elected as his class president.

When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Kindelberger enlisted in the U.S. Army, became a pilot and served as a pilot instructor in the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps. He was stationed at Park Field in Memphis, Tennessee. Among those Kindelberger was associated with were Hap Arnold and American ace Billy Mitchell. When the war ended in November 1918, he decided to pursue a career in aviation. 

He married Thelma Knarr in 1919, and they later had two children. In 1920, he was hired “as chief draftsman and assistant chief engineer at the Cleveland, Ohio-based aircraft manufacturer Glenn L. Martin Company (now part of the Lockheed Martin Corporation).”

James H. Kindelberger. (Photo: aerospacelegacy.org)
James H. Kindelberger. (Photo: aerospacelegacy.org)

Douglas AIrcraft Company

In 1925, Kindelberger left Martin and went to work for the California-based Douglas Aircraft Company. He worked directly under Donald Douglas – the nation’s foremost aviation expert. During World War I, Douglas had been chosen by President Woodrow Wilson to oversee American aviation production. 

Douglas recognized Kindelberger’s ability; he rose rapidly through the ranks at Douglas Aircraft, becoming the company’s chief draftsman and then assistant chief engineer. In 1928 he was promoted to vice president of engineering at the company. 

Among his notable accomplishments at Douglas, Kindelberger helped to design the MB-2 bomber. His friend Billy Mitchell famously used an MB-2 to sink a World War I battleship; this began a major debate about the use of aircraft by the military and led to Gen. Mitchell’s court-martial. 

Another of Kindelberger’s key contributions to Douglas Aircraft was the development of the popular “American DC (Douglas Commercial) transport aircraft series” – the DC-1 and the DC-2. 

A Swissair DC-2. (Photo: swissair/erocorner.com)
A Swissair DC-2. (Photo: swissair/erocorner.com)

Kindelberger’s work on the DC-1 and DC-2 led to the development of what would become the revolutionary Douglas DC-3, one of the workhorse passenger and cargo airplanes of the 1930s and 1940s. (The military version of the DC-3 were the C-47 Sky Train/Dakota, which were widely used by the Allies during World War II.) 

While he was working on the DC-1 and DC-2, Kindelberger also formed a life-long working association with J. L. ‘Lee’ Atwood. 

North American Aviation

With the blessing of Donald Douglas, Kindelberger and Atwood left the Douglas Aircraft Company in 1934 to lead General Aviation. The company was later renamed North American Aviation Inc. (NAA).

Kindelberger became the president and general manager of NAA, while Atwood was the company’s chief engineer. Together, they helped NAA develop its manufacturing capabilities. 

When they began at NAA, the company had only one manufacturing order, for a single passenger airplane. However, Kindelberger learned that the Army Air Corps was seeking a new training airplane. He realized that NAA did not yet have the capacity to compete with the established aircraft manufacturing companies for an advanced airplane, but a trainer was much simpler to design and build. 

An NAA T-6 Texan. (Photo: military.com)
An NAA T-6 Texan. (Photo: military.com)

NAA had only three months to build and test-fly its entry. But Kindelberger managed to win the $1 million order for the military trainer, which was named the North American BT-9. The BT-9 eventually led to NAA’s T-6 Texan, the most important training aircraft of World War II. While a trainer may not seem that important, thousands of American and British pilots learned to fly in the Texan. Moreover, it gave NAA the technological and manufacturing base to develop the most advanced propeller aircraft of the war. 

In the mid- to late 1930s, the clouds of war loomed over Europe because of the actions of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. Kindelberger realized that air power would be important in a war (if it came), and his foresight meant that U.S. aircraft production was a key element of the Allies’ eventual victory. 

While Japan had been fighting an undeclared war in Manchuria since 1931 and in China later, historians use September 1, 1939 as the “official” start of World War II. That was the day Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Great Britain and France had a treaty with Poland; the two nations declared war on Germany after the invasion of that nation.

While the United States did not enter the war until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, it began a rearmament program in the late 1930s and became the “Arsenal of Democracy” – supplying armaments to Great Britain and later the USSR.

The British government had established a purchasing commission in the United States in 1938. The British Air Ministry came to North American Aviation to build Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighters for the Royal Air Force. At the time the Curtiss P-40 was the best American fighter aircraft. The British wanted NAA to build the fighter because Curtiss was at full production, with all of its aircraft earmarked for the U.S. Army Air Corps.

North American representatives spent a great deal of time from January to April 1940 at the British Purchasing Commission’s New York City offices discussing the British specifications. However, Kindelberger told the British that NAA could create a better design, and completed the prototype of a new fighter plane in only four months – faster than the company could build the P-40s. Once mated with the British Rolls Royce Merlin engine, NAA’s prototype became the war-winning P-51 Mustang.

The P-51 Mustang. (Photo: 19fortyfive.com)
The NAA P-51 Mustang. (Photo: 19fortyfive.com)

Perhaps the most important combat aircraft NAA produced in the war’s early years was the B-25 Mitchell bomber (which Kindelberger named after Gen. Billy Mitchell, his World War I mentor). Kindelberger worked with Lt. Col. James (Jimmy) Doolittle to prepare a squadron of generally land-based B-25s for a take-off from an aircraft carrier. 

On the Doolittle Raid, 16 of the B-25 bombers flew from the USS Hornet on April 8, 1942 (five months after Pearl Harbor), on a bombing raid aimed at Tokyo, the Japanese capital, and other targets on the island of Honshu. It was the first air raid to strike Japan. While the raid caused comparatively minor damage, it demonstrated that the Japanese mainland was vulnerable to American air bombardment. Perhaps most importantly, the raid provided an important boost to American morale. 

The B-25s prior to the Doolittle raid on Tokyo. (Photo: USS Hornet Museum)
NAA B-25s prior to the Doolittle raid on Tokyo. (Photo: USS Hornet Museum)

Of the 16 B-25 crews on the raid, 14 complete crews of five returned to the United States or to U.S. forces elsewhere. One crew was killed in action, while eight aviators were captured by Japanese forces in eastern China (three were executed). All but one of the B-25s were destroyed in crash-landings (when they ran out of fuel or tried to land), while the 16th landed at Vladivostok, in the Soviet Union. After returning to the United States, Doolittle visited the NAA factory that had manufactured the bombers used on the raid to thank Kindelberger and the NAA workers who helped make the raid possible. 

James H. Kindelberger. (Photo: todayinastronomyblogspot.com)
James H. Kindelberger. (Photo: todayinastronomyblogspot.com)

The North American T-6 trainers helped teach British, U.S. and other allied crews to fly; the P-51 Mustang fighters assured air supremacy; and the rugged B-25 Mitchell bombers were in the forefront of the air campaign against the Axis powers.

During World War II, North American produced a staggering 42,000 aircraft. In part, this was possible due to the innovative mass production techniques developed by Kindelberger. This included subassembly areas and monorails to speed production flows. Historians credit him with “virtually writing the book on the aviation assembly line.” While other U.S. aviation companies were expanding to meet war-time demands, none expanded as rapidly as NAA. 

Aircraft War Production Council 

German armies invaded Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands on May 10, 1940. After overwhelming these small nations, the Nazis continued into France. On June 22, 1940, the French surrendered. 

With the shockingly quick Nazi victory in France, it became clear that the United States needed to rearm even more quickly, as well as to assist Great Britain, the last European foe of Germany. 

After President Franklin D. Roosevelt was re-elected to an unprecedented third term in November 1940, he told the aircraft industry that 50,000 aircraft would need to be built annually. That was an enormous number – more than all the aircraft in existence around the world. (The famous Battle of Britain had just been fought with only 3,000 German and British aircraft.) 

Members of the Aircraft War Production Council. (Photo: Santa Monica Public Library)
Members of the Aircraft War Production Council. (Photo: Santa Monica Public Library)

Donald Doulas gathered his fellow aircraft manufacturers in Santa Monica, California, to discuss how such a seemingly impossible goal could be achieved. It would be the largest production effort in industrial history. The companies agreed to cooperate rather than compete. Together, they formed the Aircraft War Production Council, and agreed that all aircraft designs and licenses would be shared. The communal use of intellectual property and resources would allow the Allies to build aircraft to meet government orders. 

Douglas not only played a key role in achieving this historic agreement, he also recommended that Kindelberger be selected as the Council president. In this position Kindelberger had a key role in expanding aircraft production throughout the U.S. aviation industry. He was the industry’s spokesman in dealing with slow-moving federal agencies and making the industry’s raw material needs clear. He shared his expertise in assembly line techniques with other manufacturers, and he worked closely with Gen. Hap Arnold to meet production mandates. 

Manufacturers were encouraged to open plants in the southern United States. After serious realignments, the industry’s aircraft production shifted from the ‘job shop,’ where parts were built in batches, to assembly line production. Kindelberger helped the Ford Motor Company’s Willow Run manufacturing plant near Detroit shift from producing cars to aircraft. By itself, the Willow Run factory produced 92 million pounds of airframe weight – more than half of Germany’s total annual production and nearly equal to Japan’s 12-month total in 1944. 

A World War II advertisement for the North American Aviation P-51. 
(Image: archives.library.wcsu.edu)
A World War II advertisement for the North American Aviation P-51.
(Image: archives.library.wcsu.edu)

Post-war efforts

After the Allies were victorious in World War II, Kindelberger went back to running North American full-time. In 1948 he became the company’s chairman and chief executive officer. 

During the early Cold War era, Kindelberger helped to develop the F-86 Sabre jet, which played a vital role for the United States when war broke out in Korea.

In his various management positions, Kindelberger led North American Aviation as it broke technological barriers; produced propeller- and jet-powered fighters and bombers, military trainers, rocket engines and rocket-powered aircraft.

Kindelberger oversaw the design of innovative aircraft ranging from G A-15 observation planes to the rocket-powered X-15. Moreover, under his guidance the company began its role as the prime contractor for the U.S. space program.

Vice President Richard Nixon and James H. Kindelberger discuss the X-15 at its rollout. (Photo: North American Aviation)
Vice President Richard Nixon and James H. Kindelberger discuss the X-15 at its rollout.
(Photo: North American Aviation)

In 1960 Kindelberger retired as CEO at the age of 65. He was succeeded by his long-time friend coworker Lee Atwood. Kindelberger remained NAA’s chairman of the board until his death in 1962.

James H. Kindelberger. (Photo: aerospacelegacy.org)
James H. Kindelberger (left) and Lee Atwood. (Photo: aerospacelegacyfoundation.org)

Legacy

An immensely competent aviation engineer and extrovert who led his company and industry, Kindelberger was famed for his emphasis on hard work, orderliness and punctuality.

It is said that “Dutch” Kindelberger built more airplanes in his 46-year aviation career than any other man in history. Additionally, the foundation he laid at North American produced the Apollo spacecraft and rocket engines that carried U.S. astronauts to the moon. His 28 years of leadership at North American Aviation helped it transition from a minor player in the industry to a leader during World War II and the post-war era. 

Kindelberger had a pivotal role in the company’s trailblazing technological breakthroughs in aviation. He led the company to develop innovative weapons for the Allies, as well as jet aircraft, nuclear energy, rocket engines, missiles, the triplesonic Valkyrie bomber, and the X-15 research aircraft. Moreover, he helped position the company for its major contributions to the U.S. space program.

The NAA XB-70 Valkyrie bomber. (Photo: National Museum of the USAF)
The NAA XB-70 Valkyrie bomber. (Photo: National Museum of the USAF)

In discussing the secret of his success, Kindelberger said, “You cannot pull a rabbit out of the hat unless you carefully put a rabbit in the hat beforehand.” 

Kindelberger was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1972. This was followed by his induction into the International Aerospace Hall of Fame in 1977. In 2006, Kindelberger was among the individuals profiled in the PBS documentary “Pioneers in Aviation: The Race to the Moon.”

Kindelberger was the subject of a TIME magazine cover article in 1953. (Photo: wikipedia.org)
Kindelberger was the subject of a TIME magazine cover article in 1953. (Photo: wikipedia.org)

FreightWaves Classics thanks Boeing, NASA, the San Diego Air & Space Museum, the Aerospace Legacy Foundation, Histclo.com and Dbpedia for information and photographs that contributed to this article.

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Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.