We call it the “new” economy, this dynamic environment businesses must operate in today requiring boldness, innovation, recognition of potential opportunities, realization
of a global economy, utilization of the latest in technology, staying forward-looking, meeting and exceeding customer expectations, focusing on customer service and, most
importantly, aiming for quality.
One U.S. company managed all of the above. It’s story is interesting — particularly considering it happened more than a half-century ago.
It wasn’t always easy being North American Aviation Inc. (NAA). Formed in 1928 originally as a holding company with interests in many prominent aircraft companies,
due to federally-mandated divestiture NAA evolved into a relatively small aircraft manufacturer only.
In 1934, James H. “Dutch” Kindelberger was brought in to head NAA. Both a pilot and aeronautical engineer, Kindelberger was known as a topflight designer and astute
His arrival was fortuitous. On shaky financial footing, that same 1934 saw NAA sell a Kindelberger-designed military trainer to the U.S. Army Air Corps, which ensured
not only the company’s survival but allowed it to relocate to California and weather conducive to year-round flight testing.
More importantly, that trainer, dubbed the AT-6 “Texan”, exceeded all expectations of the Army, and became one of the most successful aircraft ever. (More than 15,000
were built, and they actually saw military action as late as the 1950s in Korea.) The AT-6 established NAA as a company to watch.
As the threat of war increased in the late 1930s, NAA and Kindelberger began working long and hard to prepare for an imminent demand for aircraft. Kindelberger made
several trips to England, building relationships and observing the best fighter aircraft Europe had to offer. NAA quietly began work on a single-seat fighter aircraft, with
the goal of producing an airframe that would outperform anything in the air worldwide.
In 1940, the British called. They needed a fighter built and had a plan in hand. The English were taken aback when Kindelberger rejected their plan and announced NAA
had a better fighter than theirs, in fact, better than anything flying.
Coming from a relatively young, small aircraft manufacturer that had never made a fighter airplane before, it was audacious at the minimum. Still, in 1938 the Brits had
bought some dramatically redesigned AT-6s, which once again greatly exceeded expectations and were delivered just four months after the contract was signed.
And Kindelberger pulled off a little coup during fighter negotiations when he wired his team back in the States that he needed detailed drawings in hand the following
morning. The team worked all night on the designs, which were handed to the impressed British hot off the wire on deadline.
So, the British gave the nod to NAA to go ahead with the new fighter, which NAA designated “NA-73”. In fact, the British gave NAA the authority to complete design
work and even order materials before the contract was officially consummated.
The contract was very restrictive, among others calling for only 120 days until the first NA-73 flight. Working around the clock, NAA had the airframes completed on
schedule, but hit a major snag. The engines for NA-73 were in high demand, the larger manufacturers getting preferential treatment, thus NAA had received no motors.
Nor had it been given mandatory Army clearance. In Oct. 1940, NA-73 finally took to the air. One year later, the first one roared off a British runway and into war.
It was worth the wait. The NA-73 was faster, more maneuverable and had more range than any fighter in service worldwide. The U.S. Army had called it “Apache”, but
the English renamed it “Mustang”, indicative of its speed and toughness.
The aircraft was subsequently refitted with a new engine. The results were astounding, the plane gaining more speed and versatility. Orders were received from Great
Britain and the U.S.
Officially designated the P-51 Mustang, it was instrumental in winning the war in Europe. Before the P-51, Allied bombers over Europe often went in alone, as no escort
fighter had the range to go all the way to the target. The bombers suffered mounting losses as unopposed German fighters slaughtered them. But the Mustang was able to
escort Allied bombers all the way to targets deep inside Europe, then shoot down anything the enemy cared to send up. It meant mastery of the air, which, in a broad
sense, meant the ultimate demise of Nazi Germany.
It was the greatest fighter of the war, and perhaps saved more American lives than any one single piece of military equipment used in all of World War II. It remains
today for many a symbol of American industry and ingenuity.
The company produced other outstanding aircraft during World War II. After the war, NAA’s exploits are no less impressive. Just a few examples of its work include the
P-86 Sabre, the X-15, the Polaris missile and numerous space projects from Gemini to Apollo to the Space Shuttle.
Dutch Kindelberger didn’t live to see all of it. He retired as CEO in 1960. Two years later, he died. During his tenure, he had led NAA from making propeller-driven
aircraft to being the prime contractor in the U.S. space program. He left behind a legacy of being creative and savvy. And he also left behind a great business success
story that makes for good case study even today.
For more on Kindelberger and NAA, visit www.boeing.com. (In 1996, NAA was acquired by Boeing.)
Wally Northway is a staff writer for the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.