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The Original Boeing

August 23, 2004, by Bill Cawthon

Herpa's Nostalgic Airport set includes buildings, ground foil, accessory vehicles and a selection of classic airplanes. Image courtesy of Herpa/Promotex.

Not long ago, I received a Herpa Wings set for which I have been eagerly waiting since it was announced. The No. 513746 Nostalgic Airport Set 1 is a 1:500 scale recreation of a small airfield from the 1930s and 1940s. It includes a hangar, flight center building and a small tower, a 24cm by 20cm (about 9.5 inches by 7.9 inches) ground foil and a set of some of the neatest period vehicles I have ever seen. As you'd expect, the set comes with some Herpa Wings models, too. My set included the Douglas C-47 "Fassberg Flyer" I wrote about a couple of years ago, a Swissair Douglas DC-4 and a small seaplane, the B&W. The B&W is noteworthy, not just because it is an exquisite model (there aren't many 1:500 biplanes), but also because it was the first plane ever built by Bill Boeing, the founder of what is today the Boeing Company.

William E. Boeing. Image courtesy of the Boeing Company

William Edward Boeing was born into a wealthy timber and mining family on October 1, 1881 in Detroit, Michigan. Raised in the family business, he dropped out of Yale's Sheffield Scientific School in his early twenties and moved to Gray's Harbor, Washington, to seek his own fortune in the logging industry. Within five years, he was president of Greenwood Logging Company and had become successful in his own right.

In 1908, he moved to Seattle. A year later, while at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Expo, Boeing saw his first powered aircraft; a small dirigible with a gasoline engine flown by J. C. Mars. In January 1910, he went to the first American air races in Los Angeles, California, where he became hooked on airplanes. He tried to get a ride, but none of the pilots would take him up. In fact, it would be more than five years before Boeing had a chance to realize his dream.

In the meantime, Boeing was still busy with his other enterprises and, even though he was still a bachelor, was building a huge home in the Highlands, a new and very exclusive community just outside of Seattle. The 19,000-square-foot home, which Boeing named Aldarra, was designed by Charles Bebb and completed in 1914.

On July 4, 1915, Boeing finally got his first taste of flying when Terah Maroney, a pilot who was visiting Seattle, took him up in a push-prop Curtiss that required everyone to sit on the wings. Boeing couldn't get enough and returned to California where he engaged aviation pioneer Glenn Martin to teach him how to fly.

Boeing then bought his first aircraft, a Martin seaplane, and flew it back to Seattle. While accounts vary on what happened next, it appears Boeing misjudged a landing and sheared off the plane's pontoons. When he found it would take months to get replacement parts from Martin's California factory, he decided to build his own airplane.

Boeing enlisted the help of his friend, Lieutenant George Conrad Westervelt, a U.S. Navy engineering officer stationed at the Bremerton Navy Yard. Westervelt, whom Boeing had met at Seattle's University Club, had taken aeronautical engineering courses at MIT was given the task of gathering and analyzing every bit of data available so that superior parts could be designed and fabricated. The third member of the team was Herb Munter, a self-educated engineer, who had been building airplanes on Harbor Island. Boeing and Westervelt hired Munter to help them build the new plane, called the B&W, for Boeing and Westervelt, in Boeing's boathouse.

The 1916 B&W seaplane. Image courtesy of the Boeing Company. Click for larger image.

Before the project could be completed, the Navy reassigned Westervelt to new duties in the Washington, D.C. Boeing and Munter carried on, and built two prototypes, the Bluebill and the Mallard. On June 15, 1916, the B&W Bluebill made its maiden flight over Lake Union, Washington. Built of wood, wire and linen, the 2800-pound, two-seater aircraft was powered by a 125-horsepower Hall-Scott A5 engine and had a top speed of 75 miles per hour.

One month later, on July 15, 1916, Boeing formed a new company, Pacific Aero Products, with the hopes of selling the B&W to the Navy. He purchased the former Heath shipyards on the Duwamish River. The main building became known as the "Red Barn" and was today's Boeing Company's first home.

Unfortunately, Navy decided against the B&W, but Boeing decided to move forward all the same. He hired Tsu Wong, a young Chinese-American engineer, to design an improved seaplane, to be called the Model C. Boeing was sure the U.S. would enter the war then raging in Europe and was determined to have a plane ready.

America entered the conflict on April 6, 1917 and Boeing reincorporated his company as the Boeing Airplane Company on May 9.

Boeing's confidence was not misplaced. The Navy awarded Boeing an order for fifty Model C planes as well as fifty Curtiss flying boats. At its peak, 377 workers labored at the Red Barn, including the many seamstresses who hand-sewed the skin for each plane.

Boeing's famous "Red Barn." The former Heath shipyards became the first home of William Boeing's new company. This photo was taken after the beginning of World War I, when Boeing was engaged in building military aircraft. Note the rifle-toting soldier to the right. The building was moved to Seattle and is now part of Boeing's Museum of Flight. Image courtesy of the Boeing Company.

The end of World War I meant an end to the military orders. A glut of war-surplus panes also gutted the market for new commercial orders. Boeing kept the company going for a while by building speedboats, which were popular with the local rumrunners, and furniture. Boeing was also able to sell the Bluebill and Mallard to the New Zealand Flying School. The two planes later were put to work flying airmail and a B&W made New Zealand's first airmail flight on December 16, 1919.

Boeing's aircraft business was revived when the U.S. Army came to the company's rescue. An order to build 200 Thomas-Morse MB-3A pursuit planes and to refurbish and upgrade almost three hundred de Havilland DH4 biplanes gave the firm enough work to keep the doors open.

In 1921, William Boeing married Bertha Potter Paschall and became an instant father to her two young sons. Later the couple had a third son, William Boeing, Jr.

In 1922, Boeing turned over the presidency of the company to his cousin, Edward N. Gott. Gott had been a vice president of the company since its days as Pacific Aero Products. Boeing would never again be in charge of the day-to-day running of his company, but leaving the presidency did not mean retirement for Bill Boeing. In 1925, he began working on the development of Blue Ridge, still one of Seattle's most exclusive communities. He was still chairman of the board and remained actively involved with Boeing until 1934, when a bitter anti-trust battle forced the breakup of his corporation and cost it the government's lucrative mail contracts.

Boeing had finally had enough. He resigned as chairman and sold his interest in the company and retired to raise Hereford cattle and thoroughbred horses on his farm near Fall City. He did return during World War II to help with production, but left again when the war ended in 1945.

Boeing never lost his fascination for airplanes and stayed close to the company he had created. He and Bertha were in the audience when the Dash 80 made its maiden flight and Boeing Company ushered American commercial aviation into the jet age.

On September 28, 1956, three days before his seventy-fifth birthday and one day after a Boeing 707 jetliner first landed at Seattle's Sea-Tac Airport, William Boeing died of a heart attack while sailing on his yacht.

William Boeing received many honors. Ironically, the most prestigious award, the Daniel Guggenheim Medal recognizing his pioneering work in the field of aviation, was presented in 1934, the same year he was castigated as a profiteer by Senator Hugo Black's "Black Inquisition."

Boeing was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1966 and the International Aerospace Hall of Fame in 1984.

The 1:500 model of the B&W seaplane is the smallest aircraft model Herpa has ever created. This picture is far larger than the actual model. Image courtesy of Herpa/Promotex

The Herpa model of the B&W is a real treat and the highlight of the Nostalgic Airport set. It is part of the Boeing Milestone series and Herpa says it's the smallest aircraft model they have ever produced. The wing and pontoon struts are delicate enough that I am glad someone else put them together. Of course, the model is available separately as No. 510783, but the set makes a nice display. I will probably Americanize mine a bit by changing the sign on the hangar and substituting the No. 500234 Douglas DC-3 Skysleeper Transport for the C-47.

One thing I hope Herpa will do is produce more small aircraft models from the Golden Age of Aviation. Boeing bought Stearman in 1929, so a model of the Stearman 75 Kaydet would be a possibility as would some of Boeing's own aircraft of the 1920s and 1930s. It's not a Boeing, but I think many collectors would also enjoy a model of the Granville Brothers Gee Bee R1 or R2 racer. There are lots of possibilities and they will all look right at home on Herpa's little airport.

Before I forget; Herpa has announced its 2004 Advent Calendars. The Wings Calendar will have a special Wings model for each week during Advent. The big news is that the Cars Calendar goes back to its model-per-day format, meaning you get two dozen new Herpa models. From the early news I have gotten, there should be some interesting models waiting to liven up the holiday season. This calendar is likely to sell out quickly, so order yours as soon as possible.

See you next time!

P.S. My apologies for the late column. My old computer died and I was still waiting on a replacement when the middle of the month came and went. The new, and improved, system seems to be working fine so future columns should appear pretty much on schedule.

- Bill Cawthon

Bill Cawthon is a modeler and collector. His primary hobby interests are vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales and model railroading. He is senior editor of Route 1-87, the magazine of the 1/87 Vehicle Club, and a columnist and product reviewer for Model Railroad News. He is one of the creators of the award-winning "Grimy Gulch" model railroad layout.

In real life, Bill is a marketing and public relations consultant for MARK III Systems, a successful information technology company. He also writes for, an international auto industry publication, reporting on the U.S. light vehicle industry.

He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife, Marge, and their children.

Bill's columns appear twice monthly on Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.


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published by Cadabra Corp. This page was lasted updated: October 25, 2005