The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1977, Volume 23, Number 3
James E. Moss, Editor
Thomas L. Scharf, Assistant Editor

Book Reviews

Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor

Reuben Fleet and the Story of Consolidated Aircraft. By William Wagner. Fallbrook, Ca.: Aero Publishers, Inc., 1976. Illustrations. Index. 324 pages. $16.95.

Reviewed by William M. Leary, Jr., Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia; author of The Dragon’s Wings: The China National Aviation Corporation and the Development of Commercial Aviation in China.

As a biography of Reuben Fleet, this book easily could be dismissed. The author is uncritical in his treatment of the subject, the organization is confusing, and the prose is indifferent. However, this is not really biography; it is memoir. Based largely on extensive tape recorded interviews, the author has supplied light editing, a minimum of background, and an inordinate amount of praise. What remains of value is Fleet’s view of his long and important career in aviation, recalled in his own words.

Fleet had a moderately successful career as a businessman (timber and real estate) and politician in the Pacific Northwest before the First World War. He learned to fly in 1917 as an officer in the Washington National Guard, then transferred to the regular army. Fleet spent four years as Contracting Officer of the Air Service Engineering Division at McCook Field, making contacts that would prove useful throughout his career. He left the army in 1922 and founded Consolidated Aircraft Corporation the following year. There followed a profitable and, at times, stormy relationship with the military. Consolidated’s sales rose from over $200,000 in 1924 to more than $1 million in 1926. As the author notes, Consolidated operated at “a healthy profit.” So healthy, in fact, that the military sought a refund of excess profits.

The company, which moved to San Diego in 1935, continued to prosper during the lean years of the Great Depression, supplying trainers to the army and flying boats to the navy. Essentially an organizer and promoter, Fleet proved adept at hiring talented technical personnel, such as Lawrence Bell, Joseph Gwinn, and I. M. Laddon. Consolidated produced some fine aircraft, especially the PBY and B-24. In the first eleven months of 1941, the company had sales of $95.9 million and a backlog of $755.5 million in unfulfilled orders. With 35,000 workers on the payroll, Consolidated had become a major factor in the economy of San Diego.

Despite the wartime boom, Fleet sold out to the Aviation Corporation in November 1941 for a reported $10 million. He complained that high taxes, labor problems, and unreasonable government regulation had led to this decision. There were rumors that he had been forced out by Washington.

Retirement from business did not bring an end to Fleet’s public career. For more than twenty years, until his death in 1975, the outspoken and acerbic Californian played the roles of Elder Statesman of Aviation, Mr. San Diego, spokesman for free enterprise, and foe of governmental regulation and bureaucracy. Also he was not averse to dabbling in politics.

A pioneer American aircraft manufacturer, Reuben Fleet richly deserved election to the Aviation Hall of Fame. Yet, somehow, he always seemed uncomfortable in the 20th century. He would have found much more congenial the age of Carnegie, Rockefeller, Hill, and other entrepreneurs of the second half of the 19th century. But Fleet had to contend with the expanding power of the federal government. In order to secure contracts, he had to establish a working relationship with Washington. He did so, in a truly impressive fashion, but it remained an ambivalent partnership. No doubt, a future biographer will detail the character of this important chapter in business-government relations.