Late in the 1930s it was apparent to many people on both sides of the Atlantic that a new war in Europe was all but inevitable. On September 30th 1938, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned to England from a meeting in Munich of the major European powers. Only Czechoslovakia had not been represented. Chamberlain and the others had agreed to permit Germany’s leader, Adolf Hitler, to annex the Czech Sudetenland, an area on the Czech-German border inhabited mainly by ethnic Germans. The primary signatories of the agreement, Britain, France, and Italy, had chosen to appease Hitler in the belief that their action would prevent a new war. Hitler had already annexed Austria in March and most western observers thought that he would demand the Sudetenland next.

The nations of western Europe were anxious to avoid another war. Britain and France both perceived Germany as outgunning them and they were struggling to achieve parity. Italy, too, was unready for such a conflict. In a meeting with Hitler on September 22nd, Chamberlain was told that the German army would occupy the Sudetenland by the 28th and, in the hope of avoiding war, the British premier got Hitler to agree to a last-ditch four-power conference over the disputed territory, a meeting that was convened on the 29th and attended by Hitler, Chamberlain, Édouard Daladier of France, and Benito Mussolini of Italy.

Early the next morning a deal was struck that essentially sacrificed Czechoslovakia in return for peace. Britain and France informed the Czechs that if they wanted to resist Germany, they would be on their own, and, seeing the futility of their position, they reluctantly agreed to the annexation and de facto German control of Czechoslovakia. On the 30th, Chamberlain asked Hitler to agree to a peace treaty with Britain, which the German leader promptly signed. It was that piece of paper that Neville Chamberlain waved at reporters later that day when his plane arrived at Heston Aerodrome, near the London Heathrow airport of today. He beamed proclaiming that the paper meant “peace for our time.” Winston Churchill, who would later replace Chamberlain as prime minister, said of the appeasement of Hitler that the prime minister had had a choice between war and dishonor. He chose dishonor and got war.

The British Air Ministry believed that it’s Vickers-Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane (both Rolls-Royce Merlin-engined fighters) could easily meet RAF Fighter Command’s requirement for the defence of Great Britain in the coming conflict. Air Ministry officials had little interest in any other fighter types and none in anything then being produced in the United States. There was simply no match for the speed, manoeuvrability, and fire power of the Spitfire at the time. The Spitfire and the Hurricane were, however, defensive weapons and relatively short on range.

As the European war entered its fifth month, officials in the British defence establishment finally realized that the RAF needed a fighter of greater range to meet the threat of Italy to Egypt and that of the Japanese to Singapore. The Air Ministry wanted 1,000 new fighters for delivery in 1941. With poor judgement and little to choose from, they attempted to order the American Brewster Buffalo, but Brewster could supply no more than 170 of the planes during 1941 and the British had to look elsewhere for their aircraft.

By the end of 1939, France was also desperate for new fighters and purchased 420 H75A Hawks and 259 H81A fighters (an export version of the P-40) from the American Curtiss Company. After France fell to the Germans in June 1940, the RAF inherited the Curtiss aircraft that had been ordered by the French. The British, however, still had a critical fighter need and required more planes than Curtiss alone could provide. Even before the Curtiss fighter production programme had begun, the British were shopping for another source of P-40 production. On February 25th 1940 they had approached North American Aviation in Los Angeles, whose Harvard trainer had served them well since 1938, asking company president J.H. “Dutch” Kindelberger to consider building the Curtiss plane for them.

Kindelberger’s chief designer, Edgar Schmued, a forty-year-old talented German design engineer who emigrated to the United States in 1930, had worked for North American since February 1936. He was a quiet, methodical man consumed with the desire to build the best fighter plane in the world, and he was well prepared when Kindelberger dropped by his office one afternoon in early March 1940 to ask: “Ed, do we want to build P-40s here?” “Well, Dutch, don’t let us build an obsolete airplane. Let’s build a new one. We can design and build a better one.”

Kindelberger replied: “I’m going to England in two weeks and I need an inboard profile, a three-view drawing, performance and weight estimates, specifications, and some detail drawings on the gun installations to take with me.” He told the designer to make it the fastest plane he could and to build it around a man five feet ten inches tall and weighing 140 pounds. He asked for two 20mm cannon in each wing and that the plane meet all design requirements of the US Army Air Corps. Work on the new fighter began on March 15th and on April 11th Sir Henry Self, director of the Anglo-French Purchasing Commission, signed a letter of intent to buy 400 of the new aircraft. It was agreed that the unit price would be just in excess of $40,000.

Born at the end of December 1899 at Hornbach near the town of Zweibrücken, Germany, Edgar Schmued was the fourth of the six children of the dentist, Heinrich Schmued. Edgar was interested in technical subjects from his early childhood onward. He was, by his own admission, a poor student, but he quickly became fascinated with aviation from age eight and read everything he could find on it, taking full advantage of the local library. His father indulged the interest, buying him every aviation book he wanted that was not available in the library. When he was ready to enter university or technical school, the family was not able to afford the tuition, so Edgar’s father bought the textbooks required and the boy became a self-taught aeronautical engineer and aeroplane designer.

Without a formal degree, it was necessary for young Edgar to begin his career as an apprentice in a small factory. “I was a volunteer [apprentice] in an engine factory and my father was able to impress the owner of the factory with the necessity of giving me the best training possible. I was started on the bench and did quite a bit and then I changed over to machines. I was working on a lathe, a milling machine, a shaper, and on a large lathe, and was also learning hand forging. I became quite adept in this art and ultimately the owner gave me a project to build one of his engines completely from scratch. It turned out to be a very nice project, and at the completion of my two years there , I had also completed this engine. I was very, very proud of that. Now I was at least started properly. I was free and I did quite a bit of work at home. I was studying books on all fields, anything technical interested me, particularly aviation.

With Germany and Austria at war in 1917, Edgar was not conscripted as he was already working as a mechanic in the Austro-Hungarian Flying Service. With the German surrender the following year, he returned to his family and began work on his home-built sports biplane to be powered by a three-cylinder Belgian-made Anzani engine. The terms of the Versailles Treaty at the end of the war required the return of any property taken when Germany occupied other countries. Members of the Allied Control Commission learned of Edgar’s aeroplane project and confiscated his engine. “This ended my attempt to build an airplane, since I couldn’t afford to buy another engine.”

Inflation, unemployment, and political instability were threatening the fledgling Weimar Republic in the mid-1920s. Edgar had married and the couple had a son, Rolf. Edgar’s two brothers had already emigrated to Brazil and, in 1925, he too went there in search of an aviation career. His family remained in Germany pending his ability to bring them out to join him. There he joined General Motors, Brazil, as head of their field service units and agencies. Most impressed by Edgar’s ideas, his field service manager urged him to go to the United States to properly develop and utilize his visions.

Charles Lindbergh’s famous trans-Atlantic flight to Paris in 1927 had stimulated a boom in aircraft production. General Motors’ Fokker Aircraft Corporation at the Teterboro Airport, New Jersey, was prospering and looking for promising new employees when Edgar arrived there early in 1930. He got a job with Fokker and then immediately enrolled in an English course at the Broadway Evening School for the Foreign Born where, in May 1931, he earned a certificate commending the quality of his work.

The busy assembly line at Fokker was crowded with three-engined F-10 and four-engined F-32 transport planes, despite the huge stock market crash of the previous year. At Fokker, Schmued discovered that American aircraft companies lacked preliminary design departments and he promptly organized the first such department in the United States there at the Teterboro factory. As its head he was positioned to do substantial design work for the company’s new models.

By June, General Motors had formed the General Aviation Corporation, dissolving Fokker Aircraft Corporation of America in the process. All the GAC shares were held by North American Aviation (NAA) and again, Anthony Fokker remained in the mix as chief engineer. NAA also bought controlling interest in the small Berliner-Joyce Aircraft Corporation which was located near Baltimore, Maryland.

One effect of the growing economic depression was a diminishing of transport aircraft construction by April 1931 when a Fokker transport crashed, killing Knute Rockne, the revered football coach of Notre Dame University. The subsequent publicity ended sales for Fokker. The company’s fortunes declined, Anthony Fokker resigned, and the plant closed. The remaining General Aviation operations were then relocated to a factory at Dundalk, Maryland, near the Berliner-Joyce Baltimore plant.

Ed Schmued, his wife and son, moved to Dundalk where, in April 1931, he was appointed project engineer for the General Aviation Y0-27 three-place observation plane for the U.S. Army. In this environment, Ed learned a lot about project administration, but the continuing depression spelled the end for the Dundalk plant and the jobs of 1,100 of the 1,300 employees. In January 1935 what had been General Aviation was now North American Aviation, with Dutch Kindelberger at the helm, Lee Atwood as his number two. Their first important project was the NAA entry in the Army basic trainer competition, the NA-16. The completed prototype was rolled out on April 5th and and delivered to the Army at Wright Field, Ohio, for fly-off testing against Seversky’s rival BT-8. The North American entry won the day and the contract. A $25 prize went to Ed Schmued for his design of a new company logo, a flying eagle on a triangle background, which was applied to the rudder of the NA-16.

Kindelberger believed that North American’s future lay in sunny southern California where the good flying weather, lower real estate costs, expanding economy, and the opportunity to have a new, custom-built factory were waiting for him. He had worked for Donald Douglas in Santa Monica and had seen Reuben Fleet move Consolidated Aircraft west to San Diego. With the approved Army contract for the first batch of BT-9s (the NA-16 basic trainer) in hand, Kindelberger signed a lease commiting to pay $600 a year for a 20-acre site on the east side of Mines Field in Inglewood near Los Angeles. Work soon began on the new NAA plant and the Los Angeles area became home to the workers of North American who, together with those of the other area aircraft makers, would contribute to doubling the L.A. population within a few years.

Though ready to go west with Kindelberger and the rest of the NAA staff, Ed Schmued was persuaded by his wife Luisa to remain on the U.S. east coast, and take a position with the aeroplane maker Bellanca at New Castle, Delaware. While there he qualified for U.S. citizenship, receiving it in October 1935. His unhappyness with the policies and procedures at Bellanca was obvious to Luisa who soon relented, and the Schmued family left by car for California to join the NAA team in Inglewood.

As they neared the end of their journey, tragedy struck when their car was hit head-on by that of an elderly Kansas couple. Luisa was killed, their teenage son Rolf had only cuts and bruises, and Ed suffered a badly broken leg, a concussion and an eye injury. He lay in the Coachella Valley Hospital until January 1936. In February he was finally able to start work at North American and in so doing, to immerse himself in demands of his job to fully occupy his mind helping him to recover emotionally from the loss of his wife.

Two comments from that era describe the company that Ed Schmued would serve faithfully for the rest of his life. Charles Lindbergh: “. . . a very efficient establishment—in many ways the most efficient I have yet seen. Inspection of the huge plant reveals straightforward working. There are no tangents, no missteps. From the 200 men working in the drafting room on the second floor . . . to the new planes ready for delivery, there is no wasted motion. Under the saw- toothed skylights a double assembly line works and raw material at the starting end takes on new additions every few minutes as the plane is built in a manner that reminds one of a striptease dancer in reverse.”

James H. Kindelberger: “My one thought is to sell enough of our products to keep the organization going without any layoffs. There are a lot of these men to whom a layoff is little short of a tragedy. They are raising families and need every dollar they can make. I just hope to be able to keep them constantly employed and earning, for that’s what makes good American citizens.” Schmued: “Dutch brought new initiative and vigor to the organization. He was very inspiring and spent a good deal of time with me on new ideas.”

The successful development of the BT-9 led in June 1938 to a contract from Britain for 200 examples of the marvelous new trainer the RAF called the Harvard. The plane would ultimately become an all-metal airframe, a company standard established during the project. The U.S. Army Air Corps would call it the AT-6 Texan, to the U.S. Navy it was the SNJ.

In July 1939, Ed was part of the team that designed the NAA entry for the Army’s medium bomber competition, the aeroplane that would become the B-25 Mitchell. Designated NA-62, the North American proposal triumphed and the company received a contract for 184 of the new planes. Schmued’s contribution to the design effort included the preliminary design, the bomb racks and rack controls and he devoted some of his time to developing ideas for fighter designs that might one day be useful to the company. The B-25 would become the most important American medium bomber of the Second World War. By the end of the year, the company had an additional 600 Harvards in the order book, 230 more trainers for France, and 251 BT-14s for the Army. At that point it had a backlog of orders worth more than fifty million dollars and employed a staff of more than 4,600 people.



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