The Vultee Aircraft Company

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Gerard Vultee

The Vultee Aircraft Corporation was very largely the brainchild of Gerard Freebairn Vultee, formerly chief engineer at Lockheed Aircraft Corporation during the period that Lockheed was owned by the Detroit Aircraft holding company. When Detroit Aircraft went into receivership, Vultee was out of work. He drifted from job to job for a couple of years, but eventually he went off on his own in pursuit of financial backing for some ideas that he and Vance Breese had for a single-engine passenger monoplane while they were at Detroit.

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Vultee is second from right, July 1937

Gerard F. Vultee, for whom the Vultee Aircraft was named, had worked as an engineer at Douglas Aircraft and Lockheed Aircraft before becoming Lockheed's chief engineer in 1928. While at Lockheed, Vultee designed the Lockheed 8 Sirius for Charles and Anne Lindbergh and began design work on a single-engined transport but the Stock Market Crash of 1929 had placed Lockheed in financial trouble and it could not afford to build this new aircraft. Vultee left Lockheed in 1930 and began looking for a financial backer for his transport. Vultee's search ended when he met Errett Lobban Cord in September 1931. Cord, the head of the Cord Corporation, owned two aviation companies, Stinson Aircraft and Lycoming Motors, two automobile companies, Auburn and Dusenberg, and five other engine manufacturers. In early 1931, Cord had founded two airlines and he saw Vultee's high-speed transport as a replacement for the Stinson tri-motors these airlines were operating. In January 1932, Cord formed the Airplane Development Corporation as a subsidiary of the Cord Corporation, with Vultee as chief engineer, to begin work on the Vultee V-1 transport. The company initially used a hangar in Burbank, California but moved to Glendale six months later.
In early 1932, Cord faced labor problems with his airlines pilots and he sold both airlines to American Airways in exchange for seven percent of the stock of American's parent company, the Aviation Corporation. By late 1932, Cord had purchased 30 percent of the stock in the Aviation Corporation and after a bitter stockholder's battle, Cord gained control of the company.

The U.S. Congress passed the Air Mail Act of 1934 which prohibited any air mail contractor from holding an interest in any other aviation enterprise except landing fields. The result was that the Aviation Corporation was required to divest American Airways which was promptly renamed American Airlines. Another result was that the Cord companies were restructured, i.e., the Aviation Manufacturing Company was formed as a division of the Aviation Corporation (AVCO) and the corporate hierarchy was now the Aviation Company-Aviation Manufacturing Company-Airplane Development Company. (Note that none of these companies were named Vultee.) Gerard Vultee was named vice president and chief engineer of the Aviation Manufacturing Company and work began on an attack bomber for export. The facilities at Glendale proved too small for production and the company moved to an abandoned plant in Downey, California in June 1936.

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Vultee P-66

Although Vultee aircraft sold well overseas, the U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC), superseded by the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) on 20 June 1941, had ignored their aircraft, and in January 1938, Vultee and his wife flew east on a sales trip. While returning to California, Vultee took off from Winslow, Arizona on 29 January, flew into a snowstorm and crashed in the mountains killing both occupants of the aircraft.
E.L. Cord sold his interests in the Aviation Corporation to a syndicate in 1937 which resulted in a number of corporate reorganizations. In November 1937, Vultee was reorganized as the Vultee Aircraft Division of the Aviation Manufacturing Corporation; this was the first time that a company was named Vultee. In 1939, Stinson Aircraft became a division of Vultee and on 14 November 1939, Vultee Aircraft, Incorporated was established to acquire the assets of the Aviation Manufacturing Company making Vultee a subsidiary of the parent company, the Aviation Company. The next major reorganization occurred in November 1941 when Vultee acquired majority ownership of the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation. Two boards of directors, headed by the same person, were maintained to control the two companies but this changed on 17 March 1943 when the two companies merged and were renamed the Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation with headquarters in San Diego, California. Stinson remained a division of the new company…….


The Vultee SNV Valiant


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A Vultee Model 48, the P-66 Vanguard. USAF photo. Below, 2002 Aerial view of NASA site
The BT-31A Valiant Basic Trainer
To protect the plant from possible enemy detection, most of the buildings were camouflaged to appear like surrounding farmland and orange groves.
What was at the time "The world's fastest production line", at Vultee in Downey.

Vultee's first customer for the V-11-G and V-11-GB was the Chinese National Government which ordered 30 V-11-Gs. The Soviet Union ordered one, and the Turkish government ordered 40 V-11-GBs, while Brazil took 26 V-11-GBs.
But tragedy struck when Vultee and his wife were killed in an air crash in Arizona while en-route to Washington, D.C. in January 1938. He was succeeded as president and general manager of the Vultee plant by Richard Palmer who became chief engineer in 1940, and the plant was named Vultee Aircraft. A new plane known as the V-12-C was ordered by the Chinese who took 26 in 1939. And the U.S. government ordered training planes in a contract worth $2,986,000 with Vultee in August of the same year. The plant was redesigned to meet the new production demands.

1936-1941  By 1940 the plant had doubled in size. As World War II approached, activity at the Vultee plant, in both production and personnel, continued to increase. To protect the plant from possible enemy detection, most of the buildings were camouflaged to appear like surrounding farmland and orange groves. An antiaircraft gun was also emplaced on the roof of Building 1 to support antiaircraft operations that occurred near Paramount and 3rd Streets. Crosswalks were also built across Lakewood Blvd. to assist thousands of workers as they crossed the busy street. During the early 1940's the Vultee Valiant Basic Trainer was produced for the Army Air Corps.
Vultee was the first major manufacturing plant to use powered assembly lines producing more planes in a shorter span of time than any other similar plant.

1936-1941 In numbers of planes, the Valiant Basic trainer represented the largest order ever placed by the Army Air Corps. By July 1941, Vultee was producing 15 percent of all the military aircraft in the nation. The company received  enormous military contracts to construct these basic training planes for Army, Navy, and Marine pilots; many of Downey's men went off to war; and hundreds of women joined the Vultee workforce. Vultee was the first military aircraft manufacturer to employ women directly in production. Women received exactly the same pay for equivalent work as men. Vultee's particular masterpiece  is what executives  exultantly describe as the first and truly powered assembly line in the industry. It consists of an overhead oval track, located at the head of the final assembly, from which dangle twenty-five cradles fed with raw fuselage frames.

1942-1948 Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation (Convair) brought together Consolidated Aircraft of San Diego and Vultee of Downey, California.  Practically every type of military aircraft from small, single engine, civilian defense trainers to huge, multiple engine land and sea bombers were produced in the diversified plants of the companies. 11,537 trainer aircraft (Valiants) had been produced at the Vultee field. Also, in the first 6 months of 1944, Convair at Vultee field helped turn out the largest delivery of heavy bombers (B-24 Liberators) produced in the country. At the end of World War II production of military aircraft at the Downey plant was nearing an end. The Vultee Field division of Convair remained open to support a contract with the Navy for a short-range missile called the Lark. The Lark was a surface -to-air missile with a range of 35 miles and a speed of 300 knots per hour.

1942-1948 With a foot in the door of the newly emerging missile industry, the Vultee Field division of Convair was awarded a $1,2 million contract by the government to study long-range missile weapons systems. The study was called project MX-774 and was designed to study two types of missiles: a subsonic, jet engine cruise missile and a rocket-powered supersonic ballistic missile. Downey's engineers focused on the ballistic missile concept and used information about the German V-2 rocket as a starting point. Although the MX-774 program was eventually canceled by the Defense department, the Downey Division was developing numerous other projects including the Y-P1 fighter plane and components for the huge XP-38 bombers.

The Vultee plant was also engaged in the engineering and manufacture of a "guided missile which carries power equipment providing for travel outside the atmosphere of the earth.

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"Indeed, the MX-774 was described as a "streamlined" version of the German V-2. The missile was 31 feet, 7 inches long by 2 feet, 6 inches wide and had a finspan of about 6 feet. It weighed 1,200 pounds empty". Convair continued ballistic missile research and design work following the expiration of the MX-774 project. At the time, U.S. Air Force funding centered around more conventional winged cruise missile applications, most notably the Navajo, built by North American".

The NA-704/XSSM-A-2 proto-Navaho (Air Force designation MX-770) was a very impressive vehicle that represented the US rocket design state of the art in 1947-8. It was a lengthened V-2 with extra tankage for ramjet fuel and numerous structural improvements, giving the missile five times the range of a standard V-2. Guidance technology equal to such an advanced airframe was years in the future

1948-1953 Convair was only one of many aircraft manufactures in America challenged by the post-World War II economic slum. A few miles away from Downey, in Inglewood, North American Aviation had more than 90 percent of its 8,000 aircraft order cancelled within 24 hours of the Japanese surrender in 1945. North American turned its focus toward jet aircraft, supersonic aerodynamics, and rocket propulsion. Like Convair, North American saw the future in long-range missile technology and based their research on the German V-2 rocket used in World War II. North American was headed by James Howard "Dutch" Kindelberger .  Lee Atwood was Dutch's assistant . North American aircraft included the FJ-1 Fury, F-86 Sabre jet, and the B-45 Tornado. Kindelberger had been chief engineer for Donald Douglas, creating the famous DC-2 and 3. planes.

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Dutch Kindelberger with pilot Springer at Douglas, 1926


Above: Dutch Kindelberger receives Collier Trophy from "IKE"



Convair - Vultee Deal Confirmed

Consolidated Chief Will Have Advisory Position After Merger

from the San Diego Union, November 26, 1941, page 1

Formal confirmation of reports that the comparatively small Vultee Aircraft Inc., of Downey plans to take control of the huge Consolidated Aircraft Corp. of San Diego was given yesterday afternoon in a joint statement by the companies. The statement asserted the deal had not been completed, but indicated that, when it is consummated, Maj. Reuben H. Fleet, Consair president, would be retained In an advisory capacity for a time.

Issued after a day in which the companies at first refused comment, then denied knowledge of merger plans, the statement is as follows: "Of our own volition, we have for some time been mutually exploring the business aspects of a possible future association of our companies. The facilities, products, proximity of location and experience of Consolidated and Vultee so complement each other as to make possible the more expeditious completion of their defense assignments. However, the initial steps of this transaction, the terms of which are not fully agreed upon, contemplate the purchase by Vultee Aircraft, Inc., of the Consolidated stock holdings of Maj. Fleet and others. The present negotiations are between Vultee and Maj. Fleet as an Individual and not with Consolidated as a corporation. In the event the transaction is consummated, it would be the desire that the extensive knowledge and long experience of Maj. Fleet be made available in an advisory capacity for a substantial period of time. Any other statements are premature and were not authorized by either party."

The first paragraph of the statement was taken by observers as an effort to refute intimations that the move had been inspired by a war department desire "to effect a change in management" at Consair.

News of the Vultee-Fleet deal came over the wires in advance notices of a story the American Aviation Daily planned to print at Washington. Confronted with the story, a Vultee spokesman early yesterday morning said the deal was under way. Consair officials steadfastly denied any knowledge of the transaction, while Maj. Fleet was reported "unavailable" for comment on reports that he and members of his family had sold their stock holdings to Vultee for $10,000,000. Later Vultee asserted the company spokesman who had issued the "premature" confirmation of the merger had been discharged. While there were no official reports on financial powers behind the merger plan, It was rumored in aircraft circles that Tom Girdler, chairmen of the board of the Republic Steel Corp., might be interested in the transaction.

Another name mentioned was that of Victor Emanuel, New York investment banker, director of Vultee and Republic and a navy pilot during the World war. Meanwhile reports were current in local aircraft circles that Girdler was at Downey or on the way there in connection with the big aircraft deal. Talk of such a transaction has been heard in financial circles in Los Angeles and in Washington for weeks one authority said. Vultee was prepared to take over the huge Consolidated plant Dec. 1.

He said Vultee was purchasing the 348,822 shares of Consair stock owned by Maj. Fleet and an undisclosed number of shares held by other members of the Fleet family.. Consolidated's common stock totals 1,291,574 shares. We added that the purchase would give Vultee control of Consair.

Consolidated has $750,000,000 in orders from the United States and British governments for multi-engined bombers. Vultee has $162,000,000 in orders from the United States, Peru and China for training planes. W. J. Chudleigh, president of Aircraft Local 1125 of the A.F.L. Machinists union, which holds bargaining rights for most of Consair's 30,000 workers, said the contract between his union and the plane plant would continue if there is a change in management. He said that, while Vultee at Downey has a labor contract with the C.I.O. United Auto Workers, a Vultee plant in the east has an A.F.L. contract. The Consair-A.F.L. contract expires May 27, 1943, or at the end of President Roosevelt's unlimited national emergency, whichever is shorter.

The company now planning to obtain control of Consair is named after the late Jerry Vultee, aircraft designer, who founded the company, but who died in an air crash three years ago while honeymooning in Arizona. Following reorganization two years ago, Vultee began expanding. A year ago it increase its facilities by a merger with the Stinson Co., which had plants in Tennessee and Michigan. Its Downey plant employs 10,000 workers. Its president is Richard W. Miller. Consair was formed in East Greenwich, R. I., and moved to Buffalo N. Y. in 1924, and came to San Diego in 1935.

Developer of the quantity-production B-24 bomber known to the British as the Liberator, and the PBY navy patrol plane, called the Catalina by the British, Consair is one of the largest airplane factories in the world. Its home plant is estimated to have cost $20,000,000, while a $20,000,000 estimate also has been placed on a recently completed parts plant. In addition the company has a contract to provide management for a huge plant at Ft. Worth, Tex., designed to build B-24 bombers from parts manufactured by Henry Ford in Ypsilanti, Mich.




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