Boeing's Wild Ride


By Robert J. Serling

St. Martin's Press -- 480pp -- $24.95

Don't expect an objective, critical analysis from Legend and Legacy: The Story of Boeing and Its People. Boeing Co. commissioned Robert J. Serling to write this book as its company history because of his experience writing "vanity books" for such airlines as TWA, American, Continental, and Eastern. Designed to help celebrate Boeing's 75th anniversary in 1991, his book came out a year late, apparently because of revisions requested by Boeing executives. And it took the easy route to best-seller status: The company contracted to buy 200,000 copies to distribute to every employee and retiree.

But if you love aviation history and are looking for an entertaining read, you'll find it here. Serling breathes life into personalities and business dilemmas that might otherwise fade from history. His account of Boeing's gambles and wild swings of fortune belies the company's image as a complacent bureaucracy full of gray-suited managers and nose-to-the-grindstone engineers. He presents vivid, multifaceted views of every cliff-hanger and just about every frantic phone call in Boeing's history. Readers get to know everyone from postwar CEO Bill Allen, a straitlaced lawyer with a passion for gin rummy, to the high-stakes, world-class salesman Tex Boullioun, to the blunt, hot-tempered CEO T. Wilson, who conducted meetings with his shoes off.

The book is full of characters. Legendary test pilot Eddie Allen was a vegetarian, practiced yoga, studied Egyptology--and died crashing into a meat-packing plant. Another test pilot, Tex Johnston, was known for his cowboy boots and maverick style. In 1954, his daring, unauthorized barrel roll of the only prototype of Boeing's first commercial jet, the 707, impressed some 300,000 spectators--including such potential buyers as Eastern's Eddie Rickenbacker--but horrified CEO Allen.

To no one's surprise, the book exudes pride in "the Boeing mystique"--a corporate image, Serling says, "of such solidness that only a few American companies are mentioned in the same breath as Boeing." His book also abounds in colorful feats of customer service beyond the call of duty.

Indeed, Legend and Legacy is nothing if not full of intriguing tidbits: Did you know that the company's first engineer was a Chinese named Tsu Wong? That mavericks were called "squirrels"? That an early postwar plane, the bulbous Stratocruiser, had a cocktail lounge and a honeymoon suite? Or that the extremely profitable 747 was once considered such a white elephant that it was called the Dumbo Jet?

Not that Serling ignores crises, scandals, and crashes. But he presents them as "bitter pills that Boeing had to swallow" and blames them mainly on media hype, hysterical employees, changing ethical standards, or faulty engine manufacturers. The national worry about aging aircraft after the 1988 Aloha Airlines Inc. accident, when part of a fuselage blew off, sucking some passengers out of a 737, was "media furor." And the company's guilty plea to charges that it accepted hundreds of confidential documents about Pentagon spending plans, Serling says, was "an anomaly in Boeing's morally antiseptic world." Antiseptic? Well, certainly cleaner than some other aerospace companies. Serling, to his credit, details quite a few scandals, but dismisses them as "black eyes" and always comes down solidly on the side of Boeing's "integrity."

Another flaw: Serling's view of women is less than enlightened. Although half of Boeing's wartime work force was female, his stories of Rosie the Riveter focus on prostitutes and shop-floor sex. Serling presents women only as loyal secretaries, hypochondriac workers, and stewardesses worried that jet flight would cause menstrual problems. One must look to Boeing: In Peace & War, recently self-published by author Eugene E. Bauer and distributed nationally, to read about the accomplishments of women engineers and managers. While also well-written and much better illustrated, Bauer's book relies mainly on secondary sources such as newspapers, books, and the Boeing house organ.

Still, the major drawback of Legend and Legacy is not lack of objectivity but lack of insight. While its anecdotes could be raw material for many a business-school case study, it makes no pretense of analysis. How does Boeing keep its technological edge? How does it keep costs down? How did it outlast almost every major U.S. maker of airliners? Serling's only answers: people and pride.

Obviously, Boeing's executives have learned from history. The crisis of 1969-71 sounds eerily like conditions today: an airline recession, a drastic falloff in orders, cutbacks in military contracts, and the cash-draining effect of a huge commitment to develop a new airliner. But this time, Boeing's leaders made sure the downturn wasn't as painful: After a surge in orders, they geared up production slowly. That has resulted in a $90 billion backlog that enables Boeing to keep employment relatively stable. Instead of cutting its work force of 100,000 by 63,000, as it did 20 years ago, Boeing is now slicing fewer than 10,000 jobs from a similar total in the Seattle area.

Boeing recently appointed a new president, Philip M. Condit, who is likely to become chairman by 1997 (BW--Sept. 14). With time for a long and smooth transition--and a flock of helpful, experienced retirees living nearby--Condit stands a better chance than most new bosses of benefiting from the lessons of his company's past. Condit started out at Boeing as a stability-control engineer. Don't expect any barrel rolls.

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