James McDonnell started as a young boy in Arkansas fascinated by the world around him. His dreams grew as he saw technology advancing around him throughout his life. His Arkansas childhood in the early 1900s, however, was far from where he would ultimately take the world. McDonnell’s life began in the age of horse-drawn wagons, but he built a billion-dollar company that helped usher in the Space Age and put astronauts into orbit.
McDonnell Aircraft started in 1938 after McDonnell had spent years trying to create his own company. By 1945, the company had grown to 5,000 employees, but the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War posed new challenges for the United States and the defense industry. The end of many federal contracts at the end of World War II resulted in layoffs. But as new challenges from the Soviet Union emerged, the federal government began buying new equipment and new aircraft once again.
By the end of World War II, jet aircraft started seeing their appearances. With the Cold War, jet aircraft became the standard for fighter aircraft. McDonnell produced the FH-1 Phantom, a twin-engine jet fighter, in 1945 in the last months of World War II. Only a handful were produced. The military was impressed by the concept and pushed for an updated version. The result, the F-2 Banshee, was used by the military from 1947 until 1962. This was followed by the F-3 Demon in 1954, which was retired ten years later. The F-4 Phantom was introduced in 1960 and was used widely by the air force and navy until its retirement in 2016. More than five thousand were produced.
McDonnell Aircraft’s work in producing missiles caught the attention of NASA. The company was invited to bid on the contract for the capsule for the Mercury program, America’s first attempts to put astronauts into orbit. McDonnell was awarded the contract in 1959 and created a durable pod for one astronaut to orbit the Earth and safely re-enter the atmosphere. The 1961-1963 Mercury program was a rousing success.
McDonnell Aircraft also built the modules for the later Gemini program, which were essentially modifications of the Mercury capsules. The 1964-1966 Gemini probes were the first American attempts to send multiple astronauts into orbit and were behind the first American spacewalks. These missions were part of the larger goal of manned Moon missions in the coming years.
His success prompted him to create the James S. McDonnell Foundation in 1950, donating McDonnell Aircraft stock. The foundation itself is worth more than $300 million and gives out millions of dollars in grants annually for such projects as cancer research, climate change research, education, psychology, and other fields. In its more than 60 years, it has given out $450 million to individuals and organizations.
Education was a special interest. He donated funds to complete a public planetarium in St. Louis in 1963 and also endowed a professorship in space sciences at Washington University. He served as chairman of the board of trustees for Washington University in St. Louis from 1963 to 1966. In 1966, he gave money to the university to start a new Department of Genetics, buying the university a new building for research into the emerging field.
Though manufacturing the machineries of war made him a fortune, McDonnell believed in international cooperation and world peace. He was an outspoken supporter of the United Nations, calling it “man’s most noble effort to achieve international peace.” McDonnell made United Nations Day, marking the signing of the U. N. charter, a paid holiday for all of his employees. However, he was quick to add his belief that this peace could only be achieved through strength.
McDonnell Aircraft merged with another aircraft manufacturer, Douglas Aircraft of California, in 1967. For 30 years, McDonnell Douglas, based in St. Louis, would continue to produce aircraft used by the military, including the F-18 Hornet. This was in addition to its commercial aircraft such as the MD-11.
In 1971, McDonnell stepped down as president of McDonnell Douglas but remained active in the company. His nephew, Sanford McDonnell, took charge as president. The 1970s would continue to see many innovations at the company. Commercial jetliners such as the DC-10 and the MD-80 were produced and sold across the globe.
The company that McDonnell had started on a shoestring budget with a handful of employees and no sales in the first year had grown into a multi-billion dollar industry giant. He died in August 1980 at the age of 81. When the Arkansas Aviation Historical Hall of Fame was established that year, McDonnell was among the first inductees. McDonnell Douglas itself merged with Boeing in 1997.