North American Aviation

North American Aviation, Inc. was an aircraft manufacturer from the 1930s to 1967, when it merged with Rockwell-Standard Corporation to become North American Rockwell Corporation. The company was responsible for a number of historic aircraft, including the T-6 Texan trainer, the P-51 Mustang fighter, the B-25 Mitchell bomber, the F-86 Sabre jet fighter, and the X-15 rocket plane, as well as Apollo Command and Service Module and the second stage of the Saturn V rocket.

Clement Keys founded North American on December 6, 1928, as a holding company that bought and sold interests in various airlines and aviation-relation companies. But in 1934, the Air Mail Act of 1934 forced the breakup of such holding companies. The upshot was that North American became a manufacturing company run by James Kindelberger (who had been recruited from Douglas Aircraft Company), although it retained Eastern Airlines until 1938.

Kindelberger moved the company's operations to southern California, which allowed flying year-round, and decided to focus on training aircraft, on the theory that it would be easier than trying to compete with established companies. Its first planes were the GA-15 observation plane and the GA-16 trainer, followed by the O-47 and BT-9. The BC-1 of 1937 was NA's first combat aircraft.

Like other manufacturers, North American started gearing up for war in 1940, opening factories in Dallas, Texas and Kansas City, Kansas.

North American's follow-on to the BT-9 was the T-6 Texan trainer, of which 17,000 were built, making it the most widely used trainer ever. The twin-engine B-25 Mitchell bomber achieved fame in the Doolittle Raid and was used in all theaters. Finally, the P-51 Mustang, once powered with a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, came to be considered the best American fighter of the war.

Post-war, North American's employment dropped from a high of 91,000 to 5,000 in 1946. Nevertheless, it continued with new designs, including the T-28 Trojan trainer and attack aircraft, AJ Savage and A-5 Vigilante aircraft carrier–based bombers, the odd-looking P-82 Twin Mustang, B-45 Tornado jet bomber, the FJ Fury fighter, XB-70 Valkyrie Mach-3 strategic bomber, Shrike Commander, and the Sabreliner business jet.

The F-86 Sabre started out as a redesigned Fury and achieved fame in the Korean War shooting down MiGs. Over 9,000 F-86s were produced. Its successor, the F-100 Super Sabre, was also popular. In 1965 came the first flight of the very successful OV-10 Bronco, which was one of first aircraft designed specifically for counter-insurgency (COIN) and forward air control (FAC) duties.

The rocket engine division spun off into a separate company Rocketdyne in 1955, but North American designed and built the X-15.

The cancellation of the F-107 and F-108 programs in the late 1950s, as well as the cancellation of the Navaho ballistic missile program, was a blow to North American from which it never fully recovered. In 1960, the new CEO Lee Atwood decided to focus on the space program, and the company was the chief contractor for the Apollo Command and Service Module and the second stage of the Saturn V. However, the Apollo 1 fire in January 1967 was partly blamed on the company, and in March they merged with Rockwell. For a comprehensive history refer to the Aerospace Legacy Foundation based in Downey.

In December 1996, the defense and space divisions of Rockwell International (including the North American Aviation and Rocketdyne divisions) merged with Boeing.


(should sort by first flight date)

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