The Chinese-Born Engineer Who Helped Launch US Commercial Aviation
In 1904, anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S. rose to a fever pitch as Congress passed an indefinite extension of the Chinese Exclusion Act, almost entirely closing the gates on Chinese immigration. Yet just over a decade later, Beijing-born Wong Tsu came to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology through a loophole in the law that made an exception for students. Shortly after graduating from MIT’s new aeronautical program in June 1916, Wong was hired as Boeing’s first aeronautical engineer, cementing his place in aviation history.
The turn of the 20th century was an era of remarkable growth for flight, and Wong played a crucial role: He was integral in designing Boeing’s first successful plane, the Boeing Model C. That became the company’s first military plane, its first used to carry mail and the catalyst to the development of the Model 40A, the first Boeing aircraft to carry passengers.
“The Model C was not only Boeing’s first production order, it was the first Boeing aircraft to be produced in large numbers and sold,” says Tom Crouch, curator emeritus at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, and author of several books, including Wings: A History of Aviation from Kites to the Space Age. “Wong Tsu put the company on the map,” he says.
From Bicycle Mechanics to Stuntmen
While Wong was still a child in China, Wilbur and Orville Wright, two bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, made history in 1903 with the first powered, sustained and controlled airplane flight over the dunes of Kitty Hawk. The Wright brothers envisioned a future where planes carried mail and passengers, but aviation in the pre-World War I period was initially met with skepticism.
The first aircraft were extremely frail with few instruments, relegating flight to the realm of sensational spectacle as stunt pilots flew to curious onlookers at carnivals and county fairs. Heavy winds were particularly troublesome, and anxious pilots preferred to fly only in the early morning or late afternoon, when the air was at its calmest.
Wong Comes to MIT
At the age of 12, Wong was selected for the Manchu government’s Yang-Tai naval academy, and at 16, he became one of the first Chinese naval cadets sent to England to study naval engineering. The Chinese government then sent him to study the fledgling science of aviation at MIT.
At MIT, Wong used the university’s new four-foot-square wind tunnel—one of the first in the country of its kind—to conduct controlled experiments and gain rare insight into aerodynamic stability. With a thesis on Air Resistance of Cylinder Combinations, Wong in 1916 became one of the few degreed aeronautical engineers in the country.
Boeing’s First Plane: The B & W
On July 4, 1914, William Edward Boeing, a successful lumber company owner in Seattle, convinced early aviator Terah Maroney to take him on his Curtiss seaplane. Boeing’s maiden flight reinforced what he already believed: The future was in aviation.
Boeing also felt he could build a better plane—he just needed the right aeronautical engineer. He turned to a friend, Naval Lieutenant George Conrad Westervelt, who had spent time at MIT and was stationed at the naval shipyards in nearby Bremerton. Together, they created Pacific Aero Products Co., and named their first aircraft the B & W, after their respective initials. Unfortunately, the B & W showed a tendency to tilt while airborne during tests for the Navy in 1916. While the issue was rectified, the damage had been done, and not a single B & W plane was ever sold in the U.S.
How America’s Aviation Industry Got Its Start Transporting Mail
After Westervelt was assigned by the Navy back East, he consulted with Jerome C. Hunsaker, the aeronautics program founder at MIT, on a replacement engineer. Hunsaker recommended Wong. Boeing, upon learning of Wong’s vast wind tunnel expertise, responded by telegram: “Engage Chinaman.”
Anti-Chinese Sentiment in the Pacific Northwest
During Wong’s time at MIT, students from China made up the largest percentage of foreigners. They participated not only in research, but in the essential fabric of student life, taking part in everything from athletics to theater. But on the West Coast, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, people of Asian descent had a very different experience. In 1885, a giant mob in Tacoma, Washington forcefully expelled hundreds of Chinese residents, herding them to a nearby railway station. In 1886, nearly 400 more in Seattle were dragged from their homes, and led to a steamer bound for San Francisco.
It was a perilous time to be Chinese in Seattle. To lure Wong, Boeing personally gave assurances for his safety, according to Key Donn, a former president of the Boeing Asian American Professional Association. That promise paid off in spades.
Boeing’s Model C
Wong played an integral role in developing the Model C training seaplane, which incorporated several mold-breaking innovations: tThe wings tilted slightly upwards, with the upper wing sitting forward of the lower wing rather than being stacked for greater stability. Crucially, Wong was also able to test a model in a newly built wind tunnel at the University of Washington, and apply his data analytical skills honed at MIT.
Boeing was so proud of the seaplane, that he referred to it as the first “all-Boeing” design. The Model C first flew on Nov. 5, 1916, and an improved Model C, with a bigger rudder, made its first flight on April 9, 1917. Two weeks later, Boeing changed the name of Pacific Aero Products Co. to Boeing Airplane Co.
After test flights at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida in the summer of 1917, Navy officials were also impressed. Despite 35-m.p.h. winds, the Model C proved better than anything they had seen. They ordered 50 Model Cs for a price of $575,000. Considering the total value of all aircraft orders in the U.S. in 1914 totaled just under $800,000, it was a substantial order by any measure and launched Boeing as a successful airplane manufacturer.
From Naval Contracts to Airmail and Passengers
After World War I, the Model C made history again. On March 3, 1919, Boeing and his lead test pilot, Eddie Hubbard, flew the C-700, the final Model C ever built, with a bag of 60 letters from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Seattle, in North America’s first international airmail flight.
That momentous airmail flight opened the doors to another route: the country’s longest, San Francisco to Chicago, which Hubbard lobbied Boeing to successfully bid on in 1927. The plane used for the route, the Model 40A, not only had cargo space for mail, but also a tiny cabin with room for two passengers. By the end of the first year, writes Alain Pelletier, in Boeing: The Complete Story, the Model 40A planes had transported 379 tons of mail and 1,863 passengers, paving the way for Boeing’s remarkable success in commercial aviation.
Wong Heads Back to China
In Seattle, Wong’s contributions are memorialized at the Museum of Flight with a permanent exhibit acknowledging his work as Boeing’s first engineer. Despite the extraordinary ripple effects of Wong’s contributions at Boeing, he only spent 10 months at the company, leaving for China shortly before the Model C’s test flights for the Navy. Wong would go on to create a legacy that ranged from starting his home country’s first airplane factory in Fuzhou in 1917 to becoming head of the Aviation Research Academy in 1945, earning his place as one of the founding fathers of Chinese aviation.