Meet the Fokker: Making Airplanes in 1920s West Virginia

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Anthony Fokker standing next to an F-10 tri-motor, one of Pan-American Airways’ first-ever fleet flying passengers between the U.S. and Cuba.

There’s only a brief reference to the Fokker aircraft company in Moundsville, so I wanted to tell a full version of its story:

In the 1920s, as fledgling passenger transport firms raced to connect towns all over the world by propeller, one of aviation’s most famous pioneers came to northern West Virginia to make airplanes.

Anthony Fokker was a Dutch-born entrepreneur and inventor who made propeller planes in Germany before and during World War One.  He built the fighter used by Manfred von Richtofen, aka the Red Baron, and invented a machine gun that timed its bullets to avoid the propeller in front of it.

After the war, with Germany’s aviation ambition curtailed by the Treaty of Versailles, Fokker left and looked elsewhere.

At the same time, in northern West Virginia, as in other prospering places, aviation was becoming popular. It was an easy way to travel in a hilly state with a lot of country roads And with industry thriving, local leaders saw airplane-making as a logical step.

The Ohio Valley Industrial Corporation, backed by investors, pitched leading aviation engineers free land, a supply chain of nearby factories making glass, steel and other raw materials, and funds to build a factory. They even had an airfield: Langin Field, which welcomed Charles Lindbergh on a cross-country tour in August of 1927.

Fokker bit, and in 1928, supervised the building of a factory on the banks of the Ohio river, in Glen Dale, adjacent to Moundsville. (In practice and in spirit, the two constitute one town.)

The Glen Dale plant employed 500 workers and made the Fokker F-10 tri-motor plane, one of the world’s first commercial planes. It could seat 12 passengers and two pilots, and cruise at around 120 miles per hour. Pan-American Airways bought it as part of its first-ever commercial passenger service between the U.S. and Cuba. The fuselage was made out of fabricated metal, the wings out of laminated wood.

Here’s how Thomas O. James describesits maiden flight:

  The flight originated on the grassy airfield located on the banks of the Ohio River adjacent to the Fokker plant. Teams of men pushed open the accordion style doors at the northern end of the factory and the plane was towed into the daylight. Ignition of the three engines produced a distinctive oscillating sound from the combined output of 1,275 horsepower. Captain Haynes taxied the craft under its own power to the southern edge of the airfield where he performed his pre-flight checks, and at four o’clock, with the sun low on the western horizon, the new airplane raced down the uneven turf runway and ascended gracefully into the air over Glen Dale. The beautiful starch-white craft banked easily to the left over the Ohio River climbing an upward spiral until reaching a height of 4,000 feet.

The West Virginia Fokker factory also made the tri-motor bomber for the U.S. military. In 1929, General Motors bought the Fokker plant, retaining Anthony Fokker as technical director. The plant cranked out a plane every couple weeks or so.

In 1931, a Fokker-10, flying for Transcontinental and Western Air, with legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne aboard, hit a thunderstorm over Kansas and crashed, killing Rockne.

The company was already struggling because of the Great Depression, but bad publicity from the crash sealed the factory’s fate. It closed. Fokker went back to Europe. The Marx toy company bought the the Glen Dale plant in 1932.  (There’s lots about Marx in Moundsville.)

Our movie is in large part about the cycles of capitalism, how they change people’s lives, and how to reckon with that change – by going through the stages of grief, by accepting change, or by fighting back.

But it’s also about the wonder of what’s been lost– and one of the first things that filled me with wonder me when I first came to Moundsville in 2013 was this: Wow, they used to make airplanes here.

John W. Miller

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