Donald Douglas, 87; Led Aircraft Company Into the Passenger Jet Age

Times Staff Writer

Donald W. Douglas Jr., a former president of Douglas Aircraft Co. who was responsible for the introduction of the DC-8 and DC-9 jetliners, has died. He was 87.

Douglas, a son of the company’s founder, died Sunday night of causes associated with old age at Menifee Valley Medical Center near Hemet. His health had been in decline since he fell two months ago.

Named president of the company in 1957, Douglas headed the firm at the time of the merger with McDonnell Aircraft in 1967, a coupling brought about by financial reversals at Douglas, which had lost much of its market share in the commercial aircraft market to Boeing. Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas would merge 30 years later.


His father co-founded what would become Douglas Aircraft in 1920 as the Davis-Douglas Co. It became Douglas Aircraft in 1924. That year, the elder Douglas staged the first aerial circumnavigation of the globe. Army pilots used four Douglas World Cruisers (two were lost and were replaced) to make the 28,000-mile journey, which took just over six months to complete.

Douglas Aircraft pioneered and refined the design and production of propeller-driven commercial aircraft. During World War II, the company expanded to a peak of 160,000 workers, most of them in Southern California. The largest Southland facility was the assembly plant adjacent to Daugherty Field, now Long Beach Airport, which opened in 1941. During the war, Douglas Aircraft produced more than 45,000 commercial and military aircraft.

Donald W. Douglas Jr. was born July 3, 1917, in Washington, D.C., and studied mechanical engineering at Stanford University and aeronautical engineering at the Curtiss-Wright Technical Institute in Glendale.

He started with his father’s company in 1939 as an engineer and was appointed manager of flight testing, his first supervisory position, in 1943. In that post, he oversaw testing of most of the aircraft built by Douglas during the war, including the SDB dive bomber and the C-54 transport.

After he was promoted to director of the testing division, the DC-6 and DC-7 airliners obtained certification under his direction. They became the most successful propeller-driven passenger aircraft ever made.

Douglas was named vice president of the company in 1951 and elected to the board of directors in 1953. As president, he led the firm into the passenger jet age with the DC-8 and DC-9 planes. The DC-9 provided the design basis for the current Boeing 717, which is still being built in Long Beach.


After the Douglas-McDonnell merger, Douglas was named senior vice president of the firm. He headed Douglas Development Co., a wholly owned subsidiary created to develop the combined firm’s real estate holdings.

He also was instrumental in the formation of a partnership with commercial developers to build Douglas Plaza, a 50-acre complex of retail and office buildings near John Wayne Airport in Orange County.

Douglas retired in 1974, but remained on the board of directors until 1989.

Since the 1967 merger, the Douglas family at times had a strained relationship with McDonnell-Douglas management. That was evident in 1990 when Douglas’ brother James and his son, James Jr., could not be spared from being laid off with 7,000 other workers at the Long Beach plant.

In 1993, Douglas became involved in a dispute with management of McDonnell-Douglas after the firm, facing reversals in a difficult economic climate, devised a plan to do away with healthcare benefits for 20,000 company retirees, including the Douglas family. He sued on behalf of the retired workers, but the action failed.

In addition to his work with Douglas Aircraft and McDonnell-Douglas, Douglas founded Capistrano Bank in 1975 and Biphase Energy Systems, a geothermal energy firm, in 1976.

In the last few years, he had been looking for backers for a new design for a small aircraft.


He is survived by his wife, Linda; a daughter, Victoria Douglas Thoreson; and his brothers, James and Malcolm. He also is survived by two grandchildren.