Under “Sandy” McDonnell’s stewardship, McDonnell Douglas supplied the military with some of the most advanced aircraft made, including supersonic fighter jets, attack helicopters and self-guiding cruise missiles.
Mr. McDonnell became chairman and chief executive of McDonnell Douglas in 1980 after the death of his uncle, James S. McDonnell Jr., who had founded the company in 1939.
The business made airplane parts during World War II and later sent the first Americans to outer space as the manufacturer of the Mercury spacecraft.
Mr. McDonnell joined the firm in 1948 after Army service in World War II. He worked as a stress engineer and later led the development of the F-4 Phantom II fighter jet, which had a crucial role in the Vietnam War.
In 1967, the McDonnell company merged with Douglas, a commercial plane manufacturer that produced the popular DC-3 airliner. Four years later, Mr. McDonnell became president of the firm.
Although merged, McDonnell Douglas basically functioned as separate companies. Mr. McDonnell struggled for much of his tenure to keep his uncle’s business from falling apart.
The McDonnell side, headquartered in St. Louis, handled defense contracts for military aircraft. The Douglas operation, based in Long Beach, Calif., made commercial planes but struggled against heavy competition from Boeing and Lockheed.
From 1967 to 1984, the Douglas operations never turned a profit and lost more than $500 million.
During the 1970s, a war between McDonnell Douglas and Lockheed to build a superior wide-body airliner nearly put both companies out of business. Neither plane — the Lockheed L-1011 nor the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 — was a major success.
Ultimately, Lockheed dissolved its commercial air operations while McDonnell Douglas lost millions of dollars developing the DC-10. During the 1970s, the DC-10 was involved in several catastrophic air disasters.
In 1974, a Turkish Airlines DC-10 crashed outside of Paris after a cargo door opened and destabilized the plane. A total of 346 people were killed. At the time, it was the deadliest commercial air crash in history.
Then, in 1979, an American Airlines DC-10 crashed near Chicago when an engine detached from a wing, killing 273 people in what was then the worst air crash in American history.
Airlines began canceling orders for the DC-10 because thousands of passengers refused to fly on it.
To keep McDonnell Douglas afloat, Mr. McDonnell engaged in what Forbes magazine once called “creative financing.”
Mr. McDonnell had seen that many airlines had been hit hard by a recession and were keeping older planes in their fleets to keep costs down. Mr. McDonnell came up with a plan to begin leasing planes to airlines with a no-commitment option to buy them.