By Thomas O. James
As the world celebrates a century of powered flight, West Virginia can take pride in having participated in the development of commercial aviation through our connection to the Fokker Aircraft Corporation, formerly located at Glen Dale. In the first two decades following the Wright Brothers achievement on December 17, 1903, a great push to get airborne swept across America and Europe. Such was the success of one Dutchman, Anthony Fokker, that on the 25th anniversary of the first flight at Kitty Hawk the first commercial airliner built in West Virginia rolled out of Fokker’s Glen Dale factory and sailed into aviation history.
December 13, 1928, the skies over Marshall County saw Fokker’s first West Virginia-built airplane embark on its maiden voyage. It was piloted by Captain Grisson E. Haynes, chief test pilot for Fokker, accompanied by H. G. Snyder, an engineering inspector employed by Pan American Airways, purchaser of the aircraft.
The flight originated on the grassy airfield located on the banks of the Ohio River adjacent to the Fokker plant. Teams of men pushed open the accordion style doors at the northern end of the factory and the plane was towed into the daylight. Ignition of the three engines produced a distinctive oscillating sound from the combined output of 1,275 horsepower. Captain Haynes taxied the craft under its own power to the southern edge of the airfield where he performed his pre-flight checks, and at four o’clock, with the sun low on the western horizon, the new airplane raced down the uneven turf runway and ascended gracefully into the air over Glen Dale. The beautiful starch-white craft banked easily to the left over the Ohio River climbing an upward spiral until reaching a height of 4,000 feet.
To those on the ground, the gathering amber rays of the sunset tinged yellow the white fledgling against the thin blue sky. Returning the plane to the grass runway 30 minutes later, Captain Haynes declared from a window in the cockpit, “She handled perfectly.” All of the employees were on hand and several hundred spectators lining the adjacent railroad tracks cheered the success. Four days later on December 17, the 25th anniversary of the Wright Brothers flight at Kitty Hawk, Captain Haynes piloted the airliner out of Glen Dale and delivered it to Pan American Airways in New York with a brief stopover in Washington, D. C.
Designated as the Fokker F-10, the stately airship was entirely handcrafted and was designed to carry 12 passengers in the comfort of “a private flying salon.” According to Bayard Young, an aviation historian and former employee of Fokker’s Marshall County operation, “With the exception of the engines, wheels, tires and instruments, all parts of the planes were made in the Glen Dale plant.” Employed as a woodworker in the wing assembly department, Young relates that the huge wing of the Fokker F-10 airplane was constructed entirely of wood. Sheets of plywood of graduated thickness were glued together and wrapped around ‘spars,’ lute shaped ribs in the hollow core of the wing. Skilled laborers sculpted the airfoil using woodworking planes to carve out a dihedral angle, “sloping upward from the center.” The precision of this work was measured at one thirty-second of an inch.
The wings were bolted to the fuselage, and the outboard engines were bolted to maple block sections built into the plywood wing. The F-10 aircraft utilized three Pratt and Whitney, 450hp, Wasp engines calculated to achieve a cruising speed of 125mph at 4,000 feet. The fuel load of 900 gallons provided a range of 600 miles in 4.75 hours at 60 gallons per hour per engine. In his biography, The Flying Dutchman, Anthony Fokker states that he favored wood for the wings because it was easier for a pilot or mechanic to repair regardless of where the plane may be required to land. A wood wing can be repaired quickly whereas a metal one may entail many days of delay.
The fuselage was covered with stretched linen fabric coated with a special pigmented paint. In the covering assembly department of the Glen Dale plant, specially trained teams of women tailored and stitched the fabric to fit the fuselage perfectly. The F-10 was to become the “workhorse” of the aviation industry for many years.
The first plane built at Glen Dale was sent to Key West, Florida, to fly passengers and mail in the first commercial air service between the U. S. and Cuba. A 25-year old named Juan Trippe, Yale 1920, had formed Pan American Airways. Buoyed by money loaned from supportive classmates, Juan Trippe exploited a market niche created by Prohibition, making a fortune by flying passengers to Cuba where the “dry” laws did not exist. Trippe reinvested his earnings and continuously upgraded his fleet of aircraft extending the air routes to all of South America along the coordinates scouted by Lindbergh. Trippe formed a lifelong friendship with Charles Lindbergh, who, when in Havana following his Mexico and Caribbean tours of 1928, “agreed to test fly the new Pan Am Fokker.”
On October 7, 1927, Ohio Valley newspapers announced in bold headlines that a million dollar airplane project was to give employment to 1,000 at Glen Dale. In an arrangement that reflected then-current economic development theory, local business and political leaders offered to provide land and erect buildings if Fokker would build planes in the Ohio Valley. No state or federal monies were involved, as this venture was carried on the faith and capital of local investors. In exchange, Fokker’s factory was to employ 400 to 600 locally and create an Aviation Center with a training school for pilots. Under the auspices of the Ohio Valley Industrial Corp., a capital investment team comprised of H. C. Ogden, D. A. Burt, W. P. Wilson, and R. E. Nelson of Wheeling joined with Evan G. Roberts, John A. Bloyd, James M. Sanders, and John J. Clarke of Moundsville for the proposed enterprise. Two separate corporations were formed: one for the physical plant and one for the manufacturing activity.
Expectations were raised with celebratory toasts that Marshall and Ohio counties would become as mighty as Detroit or Akron. Sustained by the world-class reputation and marketability of the Fokker product, Wheeling interests enthusiastically gathered $100,000 to secure the option. Moundsville business leaders quickly got behind the capital investment program advanced by Evan G. Roberts, raising $80,000 in nine days. When combined with a $70,000 bond issue, the investors had the $260,000 necessary to build the plant.
Their corporation was chartered as the Industrial Land & Building Company, with $300,000 in capital stock. “The incorporators were, P. Wilson, Lee C. Paull and Thomas Carnahan, all of Wheeling, and John A. Bloyd and James A. Sigafoose, prominent Moundsville business men.” A second corporation was organized to fit the plant with manufacturing equipment and materials. Half a million dollars was raised through a stock offering, and by December 7, 1927, the brokerage firm of Hazlett and Burt reported that all of the stock of the new Fokker Aircraft Company was sold.
It should be noted that in September 1927, Wheeling business leaders announced their sponsorship of aviatrix Ruth Elder in her bid to duplicate Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight. Elder and her navigator, George Haldeman, left Roosevelt Field in New York on October 12 in a Stinson monoplane dubbed American Girl, The City of Wheeling. Bad weather pushed the pair off course and fuel ran out forcing the adventurers to ditch their plane in the ocean near the Azores. They were rescued, and although they failed in one objective, their Wheeling backers counted the mission a success by virtue of drawing worldwide attention to the Ohio Valley. These courageous Wheeling investors lost $35,000 when Elder’s uninsured plane sank in the ocean, but their willingness to risk their own fortunes for the advancement of aviation is likely to have been the genesis of Fokker’s interest in locating an aircraft plant near the ‘Steel City.’
Ground was broken for the new plant in January 1928: by early Spring, the concrete floor was poured, the brick walls were nearly finished and the contractor was installing the huge factory windows under which assembly teams would soon begin their labors. Anthony Fokker visited the construction site frequently to supervise the work. In April 1928, Fokker flew a new Super Universal F-10 airliner to Moundsville, landing it at Langin Field, located one mile down river from the nearly finished factory. This 12-passenger aircraft was built at Fokker’s Teterboro, NJ facility and its arrival was met with an enormous turnout. Shareholders and their families were accorded brief complimentary flights in parties of ten. Reports indicate that the plane took off and landed 15 times that day.
One of the lucky air travelers that day was Alice Sigafoose Littell, 95, who now lives in the Helfer Pavilion in Moundsville. When asked to comment on the event, Mrs. Littell recalls, “The airplane ride went so quickly that I can’t remember many details, except that it was my first time, and as a teenager it was both scary and exciting.” Littell added, “My mother was ill in a hospital and she insisted that my father, James Sigafoose, and I not fly at the same time. We were to go separately in case of an accident.”
In late Autumn of 1928, about the same time the first plane came off the assembly line, General Motors Corporation secretly negotiated for control of Fokker Aircraft. No one at the local level knew of this until the news was announced on May 17, 1929, one day after the paperwork was complete. In the transaction, Anthony Fokker received $6.5 million in cash, “a large number of patents,” and control of McCook Field at Dayton, Ohio. General Motors acquisition of “one of the leading airplane manufacturing companies of the world,” gave the automobile giant instant parity with Ford Motor Company in the aviation business.
In his 1931 journal, Anthony Fokker states that he sold a 40% controlling interest in his American corporation to General Motors with the expectation that “General Motors would put all of its tremendous weight behind the Fokker plane...” The day after the merger was announced, Fokker Aircraft stock was selling for $68, but within 10 days profit-taking adjusted the price to $47.
The merger with GM had no immediate effect on the Glen Dale operation. Throughout 1929, the plant produced one airplane every 12 days on average. According to accounts in the local press, orders for new aircraft were steady. At any given time there were no less than ten planes on back-order with anticipated sales of one hundred F-10’s annually. General Motor’s officials saw “no likelihood of a cessation of orders for the next five years.” The primary customers were Universal Aviation, Pan American Airways, Western Air Express and Transcontinental Air Transport, the latter two merging to form TWA. Numerous aircraft for the U. S. Army also were manufactured at Glen Dale, representing a variety of designs including double and triple motored pursuit planes.
A series of spectacular successes in 1927 and 1928 added substantially to the confidence of local investors. Commander Richard Byrd piloted the Fokker trimotor, “Josephine Ford,” on a 1,360-mile trek over the North Pole, proving the reliability of the design. Byrd’s 1927 transatlantic flight in the Fokker “America,” added to the image of speed and safety. In 1928; the Pacific Ocean was conquered in an Army Fokker C-2 flying between Oakland and Oahu; a Seattle pilot named Kingsford-Smith embarked on a flight around the world in the Fokker “Southern Cross;” and, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly the Atlantic in her Fokker trimotor, “Friendship.”
Anthony Fokker was an astute businessman, but he had little interest in managing the factory floor. His passion for aviation was in engineering and creating better aircraft. As consumer confidence in the safety of flying increased, Fokker’s largest customer, Western Air Express, placed an order for the biggest airliner in America. Manufactured at Fokker’s New Jersey plant, the F-32 carried 32 passengers and contained “four rooms, two lavatories, radio, both transmitting and receiving, a pantry, soft rugs, hand painting on walls and sleeping berths.” Newspaper accounts from May 17, 1930 indicate that this quad-motored “floating palace,” with a wing span of 99 feet, and a height of 16 feet, landed at Fokker Field in Glen Dale after a flight from Detroit. The 225-feet wide by 3,000-feet long runway barely accommodated the giant ship.
As the Fokker reputation for reliability grew stronger, other competitors such as Boeing, Douglas, Curtis and Ford were forced, through competition, to advance the field of aviation still further. Fokker’s influence was as a lightning rod. He drew attention to the potential of commercial passenger airliners through the development of the F-32.
With a steady supply of orders, officials at the Glen Dale plant voiced plans for an expansion. The airfield also was undergoing some changes as the parcel of land separating Fokker Field and Langin Field was being cleared to create a mile-long runway. The employees organized to form the Fokker Eagles baseball and football teams as they flexed their corporate muscle against the ‘Fostorias’ and other local sandlot rivals. Unfortunately, the halcyon days of 1929 were short-lived. (The first sign that trouble laid ahead came when the price of wheat fell below one dollar per bushel. Isolated bank failures followed in farming communities, leading to larger convulsions on Wall Street.) The lamentable demise of the entire manufacturing sector of American industry in the 1930’s nipped Fokker’s dreams in the bud. In the final analysis, 58 passenger airliners plus numerous Army aircraft were produced at the Glen Dale plant, feeding the appetite of an emerging industry struggling to develop new technologies.
The announcement that the Glen Dale facility would close came on September 30, 1931 after a valiant attempt to stay solvent. The reasons for its decline are two-fold, but the stock market crash of October 1929 was the primary factor in the loss of West Virginia’s first airplane company. (According to historians George Tindall and David Shi, writing in their book America A Narrative History, the banking crisis was brought about as a result of the Harding, Coolidge and Hoover administrations. With the advise of Coolidge’s Treasury Secretary, Andrew Mellon, these successive administrations dismantled the regulatory controls put in place by the Progressive administrations of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Mellon advocated the Hamiltonian theme that “wealth concentrated in the hands of the few would promote the general welfare through increased capital investment.” To that end, regulations on big business were loosened, tariffs on imports were increased and the income tax on the top earners was lowered from 65% to 20%. “By 1928, one-third of the national wealth was in the hands of 5% of the population.” Harding, Coolidge and Hoover held to a laissez-faire philosophy with regard to commerce, trusting the market to correct itself. However, when the stock market crashed, it did so as a result of too much money supply, a flattening of consumer demand, excess capacity in the manufacturing sector and greed as represented by investors purchasing speculative stocks on margin.) Fokker stock, like all other industries, tumbled and fell. Fokker’s value slid from $54 before the Crash, to $22 by year’s end.
A backlog of orders sustained the Glen Dale operation throughout 1930, but “temporary layoffs” in 1931 led to suspension of activities after General Aviation Corporation bought Fokker Aircraft and moved the manufacturing equipment and skilled workers from Glen Dale to Baltimore. The promise of an aviation center, the million-dollar payroll and the hopes of many investors were eclipsed by the spreading plague of economic collapse. The whole country reeled ‘punch drunk’ from the sudden unemployment of millions of people. Ticket sales for air travel dried up, while a string of aviation crashes on the west coast further weakened consumer confidence.
The tragic death on March 31, 1931 of Notre Dame’s renowned football coach, Knute Rockne, while riding in a Fokker F-10 may have signaled the end of an era of wood-winged aircraft. Certainly, the crash that killed Rockne also was the “last straw” for Glen Dale’s airplane factory. The airplane in which he was riding, though it had been in service for only 18 months, was a product of the Glen Dale plant.
In that accident, the main wing separated from the fuselage of the aircraft. Later analysis found that the pilot attempted to raise the nose of the aircraft too quickly when he encountered the poorly understood phenomenon of wind sheer. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, however, Fokker’s competitors, including Henry Ford, seized upon the national feeling of shock and dismay to erode Fokker’s reputation and lay blame on his construction techniques. Even before investigators had determined the cause of the accident, Ford testified in hearings on Capitol Hill against composite construction airplanes. An advocate of all-metal aircraft, he argued that the time had come for the government to focus its support on all-metal airplanes, such as those made by his company.
The lasting legacy of Fokker’s Glen Dale operation has both national and statewide significance. Anthony Fokker’s airplanes regularly left his West Virginia facility for delivery to Cleveland, St. Louis, Chicago, Texas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D. C., New York and Florida. The aircraft Fokker supplied to Pan Am opened South America to air travel, linking the two continents of the western hemisphere in a more immediate way than had ever been achieved. Larger aircraft opened the doors to cargo transport with airmail paving the way.
West Virginia’s contribution to the development of aviation resides in the fact that all of the objectives of advancing the field of commercial aviation were met through the faith of local investors, the labor of local workers and the confidence of national companies.
These photos were submitted by James R. Wells, whose father, Robert H. Wells, worked at Fokker after graduating from Moundsville High School in 1928. Robert was a member of the Fokker basketball team in 1930.