The demise of Fokker at KLM and KNILM
During the late 1920’s and the early 1930’s Fokker aircraft dominated the commercial aviation world. Both KLM and KNILM were “Fokker-Only” operators. But by 1934 Fokker aircraft had been swept from the skies.
The answer lies in the tragic crash of TWA flight 599 on March 31, 1931. One hour after its departure from Kansas City, Missouri, and en-route for Wichita, Kansas, a TWA Fokker F. 10 Tri-motor came tumbling from the skies. It crashed into a field near Bazaar, Kansas, killing two crew and six passengers. Part of the Fokker F.10’s wing was found a mile distant from the crash, an indication it had broken up in flight. It was later established that moisture had leaked into the wing over a period of time and had weakened the bonded and laminated wood structure until the main spar finally snapped…
Fokker’s chief designer Reinhard Platz had warned repeatedly that it was time to move away from wooden aircraft construction. But Tony Fokker was unwilling (or unable) to invest in new production technologies and clung to his concept of a laminated wooden wing and a fabric covered fuselage constructed of welded tubes. A concept dating back to the formidable Fokker D.VII fighter of WW I…
One of the passengers killed was the famous Notre-Dame university football coach Knut Rockne. In thirteen seasons his teams won 105 games, tying five and losing only twelve. Rockne was a phenomenal motivator and he became more than a football coach; he was an American icon.
The “Rockne Crash” caused a national outrage in the USA.
The aviation industry, TWA and Fokker could have had no more adverse publicity had the victim been the president of the United States and the US government grounded all Fokker aircraft until the cause of the crash had been determined.
TWA was desperately casting about for a replacement of its Fokker fleet. They managed to lay their hands on some chunky Ford Tri-Motors but the public did not like them (they looked too much like Fokker’s). There was the Boeing Model 247 – the first “modern” airliner. But Boeing’s parent company also owned United Air Lines, and reserved the first year’s production for its own airline.
Frozen out, TWA’s president Jack Fry turned to upstart Donald Douglas and the result is history. On July 1, 1934, slightly more than 10 months after the contract was signed, the Douglas Commercial-1, or DC-1, first took flight. While Jack Fry didn’t get exactly what he ordered, he got a lot more than he probably dreamed of and as a result ordered 20 of the improved version, the DC2. The new airliner, even at its pre-production stage, had made the B-247 obsolete and (incidentally) saved TWA.
The shockwaves of the Rockne crash reached KLM’s founder and managing director Albert Plesman as well. He had been dissatisfied with Fokker for years and decided to move away from Fokker products. He ordered the first DC2 for KLM in 1934 and sent it to compete in October 1934 “Melbourne Race” (see my earlier post).
The results of a standard, passenger carrying airliner against custom built racers were so spectacular that Plesman decided to equip his airline with Douglas products only. KLM’s Fokker equipment was quickly and quietly phased out. The same happened in the Netherlands East Indies where KNILM boss Versteegh decided to go for all-metal Douglas and Lockheed products.
Only in the late 1960’s would KLM buy Fokker equipment again, this time the workhorse F-27 and regional jetliner F-28….