This one came to me from Amazon Vine, and I requested a review copy hoping to learn more about Fokker’s career in World War One.
Review: Anthony Fokker: The Flying Dutchman Who Shaped American Aviation, Marc Dierikx, 2018.
The key to this book is the subtitle. It’s a business history showing how Fokker the entrepreneur, promoter, and well-connected man, helped American aviation dominate the world after his own prominence as an aircraft designer was coming to an end.
If you are an aviation buff, you are probably not going to like this book. Dierikx spends a lot more time talking about Fokker’s houses and yacht than any of the technical sides of his airplane designs. He has already written one biography of Fokker and seems interested in using more recent material he’s uncovered to write a business history based on records in the Boeing Historical Archive which eventually wound up with Fokker’s business records from America. (Most of the ones from his European holdings have been destroyed, accidentally or deliberately.)
You get a lot more talk about lease agreements, stock swaps, and loan amounts than you do climb rates, airspeed, and cargo capacity.
I hoped to learn about Fokker’s World War One years. Even though that war, says Dierikx, is the only reason we remember the name of Fokker, it only gets 55 of 355 pages of text.
Dierikx uses a sometimes annoying structure to the book.
Opening the book in New York City in December 1939 when Fokker is about to attend the opening of the local airport, a project pushed through by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, former bomber commander in the war and Fokker’s friend, is a good hook when Fokker becomes seriously ill. But there’s little dramatic reason to open every chapter with a similar out-of-sequence event and then backfilling the narrative. It also is confusing at times keeping track of what year we’re in.
This book was a bit of a slog at times, but you do get some sense of Fokker the man whose name was made by luck, business cunning, industrial espionage, deception, and social connections.
World War One was a godsend for Fokker’s plans to manufacture aircraft, the next step in his career after being a flight instructor and stunt pilot. He built a factory in Germany, and the fighter planes he designed for that country became so famed and respected that the armistice ending the war specifically demanded that all Fokker’s D. VIII fighter aircraft be surrendered to the Allies.
Fokker, always with an eye for publicity, took it as a compliment, but he eventually left Germany and returned to his native Netherlands. The labor unrest and general chaos and the details of Fokker smuggling his money out of the country are one of the more interesting parts of the book.
Fokker was a parsimonious businessman. He leased land for his factories and didn’t buy it. His post-war designs for military and civilian aircraft were incremental design improvements. It was cheaper and, he felt, more reliable.
He was also a self-taught engineer and inveterate tinkerer. Even in his later days, he’d spend time at his New York or Swiss residents tinkering with machines. He also claimed to throw out any texts on aeronautical designs sent him.
Fokker was a restless, ill-disciplined man who disdained schooling, social conventions, and punctuality. Obsession with his work, and it was the work and not the money that came from it, led to the suicide of his second wife.
As a boss, he was chaotic. Visits — he crossed the Atlantic many times and made several trips throughout Europe to visit his many projects — to his factories threw them into chaos. He insisted his agents consult with him frequently rather than delegate responsibilities.
And he wasn’t fond of committing things to paper which suited his somewhat shady practices. Industrial espionage accounted for some of his designs. He was locked into a legal battle for decades over the patent rights to the interrupter gear which allowed WWI fighter planes to fire machine guns through a spinning propeller. He cheated on flight tests to get a German military contract. He would hold out vague promises if his business proposals were accepted and then renege on commitments which had only been made verbally.
And he was something of the stereotypical businessman Lenin referred to, the one who would sell the rope that would hang him.
After the end of World War One, he supplied planes to the Soviet Union which were used by German pilots training in Russia. The government of the Netherlands was not pleased. Fokker put in an application for American citizenship but didn’t complete it for years. America was simply a new market to conquer. And he was caught up, along with Elliot Roosevelt, Franklin Delano’s son, in a 1934 scandal to sell the revolutionary Lockheed Electra in another arms dealing scheme involving the Soviet Union.
By the 1930s, though, Fokker’s design conservatism was catching up to him. Aviation was moving past his designs that used cloth, wood, and steel tubing. The age of metal framed planes was dawning. Yet, in that period, he made more money than ever through licensing agreements to sell American planes in Europe. That is why he shaped America’s aviation industry.
Fokker crossed paths with a lot of famous people of the first third of the 20th century. He hung out with Charlie Chaplin in Switzerland. Another friend was Howard Hughes. During the war, Fokker made sure all the German fighter aces, his “customers”, were well taken care on their trips to Berlin. They’d discuss improvements for future planes. (Herman Goering didn’t get hired by Fokker after the war though, a slight not forgotten.) American fighter pilot and racer Eddie Rickenbacker was a friend.
Some connections that proved troublesome were polar aviator Richard Byrd and football coach Knut Rockne. Byrd’s attempt to win the prize eventually claimed by Charles Lindbergh was scuttled in a crash involving a Fokker plane. (Fokker quoted Lindbergh a price for one of his planes that was exorbitant – probably because Lindbergh was an unknown unlike Byrd.) And all of one of Fokker’s airliners were grounded by the United States government after the wing of a plane carrying Rockne came off in flight and caused the crash that killed him. It wasn’t the first time Fokker’s products had been grounded by a government. During the war, production problems had gotten some of his fighter planes taken off line.
A lesser celebrity he crossed paths with was aeronautical engineer and future novelist Nevil Shute.
So, there are some interesting stories here, but the focus on business didn’t interest me much. However, apart from his consistent mixing up of chronology, Dierikx presents his material clearly.
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