Nowhere is the art of aerospace celebrated with greater passion than in the McDonnel Douglas Corp. museum. Scale model F15 and F4 military jets dogfight near the ceiling. Mercury and Gemini space capsules, Harpoon anti-shop missiles, DC9 passenger jets -- all of the sleek airborne offspring of the McDonnell Douglas technochracy -- swarm around the visitor.
Near the entrance is an eight-foot replica of the company's commercial flagship -- the DC10 -- canting toward the heavens, flanked by color photographs of workers riveting the huge plane together.
But one pcture is missing, and there's the rub: Unseen is that ghastly photograph splashed in virtually every newspaper in the world last May showing a DC10 doing a languid cartwheel into a Chicago field, killing 273 people.
In Washington Thursday the National Transportation Safety Board ruled that the crash was triggered by a 10-inch crack in the engine mount. The board concluded that American Airlines must shoulder the major blame for the crash, the worst in U.S. aviation history -- but said McDonnell Douglas and the Federal Aviation Administration must share som e of the responsibility. The board cited the airline for maintenance practices that were said to have caused the crack.
Regardless of the impact of the board's conclusion, Missouri's largest corporation has had a year like a disaster movie, "in the style of one of those Arthur Ahiley melodramas: "Aircraft '79,'" as Fortune magazine suggested.
Despite the lunchpail sticker slogans of workers -- "I'm proud of the DC10" -- and the embroidered jets on ties of McDonnell executives, there is a sense of singed self-confidence at the corporation's headquarters, located here next to lamber St. Louis International Airport.
After the Chicago tragedy, DC10s cracked up in Mexico City and Antarctica, killing 331 people, although pilot error seemed responsible in both cases. The tail cones of two DC9s have fallen off in flight and there has been a rash of close calls, such as the engine and flap problems on DC10s that forced emergency landings in Los Angeles, Montana and London.
Then, to top it off, four high-ranking McDonnell Douglas executives were indicted by a federal grand jury last month on charges of bribing foreign officials with up to $1 million per plane to encourage them to buy DC9s and DC10s.
"We've had an awful lot of bad luck," said George B. Sloan, a McDonnell Douglas planning director. "It's just unbelievable to me. but it's becoming increasingly apparent that that's just what it is -- bad luck."
On that issue, the jury is still out. Civil suits against McDonnell Douglas and American are under way in Chicago to determine who is culpable -- and for how much -- in the May disaster. There are estimates that the average settlement could approach $1 million per victim.
The airline already has been fined $500,000 by the Federal Aviation Administration; yet in testimony to FAA investigators, a McDonnell Douglas vice president acknowledged that there had been serious breakdowns in quality control during the building of DC10 wing pylons.
Insurance agents for the airline and manufacturers are offering large out-of-court settlements to victims' families return for an agreement not to press for punitive damages.
"At this moment, very few of the families have accepted that offer; I think maybe a dozen or so," said Stuart Speiser, a New York attorney representing the families of 33 victims.
"The others are thinking it over and they have until the end of January to make their decisions."
But the company has no insurance on the image of its airplanes. Because the DC10 was grounded by the FAA for 37 days last summer, McDonnel Douglas tried to reassure passengers of the plane's safety once it returned to the air by offering $20,000 per plane for advertising to airlines worldwide who are using the 283 DC10s in service. Most airlines apparently rejected the offer in a huff.
Some actualy tailored their advertising to avoid stirring the public's queasiness about the DC10. Continental Airlines, for example, scrubbed a television commercial showing a DC10 rolling toward the camera, preceded by a throng of smiling employes. American stopped mentioning DC10s in ads and renumbered the fatal Chicago flights from 191 to 195.
"McDonnell Douglas very seriously considered a variety of advertising campaigns and rejected most of them," said Howard Majer, and aerospace analyst in New York. "There's really nothing one can do in terms of advertisement. All they can do is keep flying the plane. But I don't think the jinxed-plane syndrome can be avoided entirely."
One possible casualty of the "jinxed plane" perception is a plan by McDonnell Douglas to build a larger, "stretched" version of the DC10 to compete with the Boeing 747. Several airlines that had been enthusiastic about the new model have cooled their ardor, either because of safety questions or a slomp in the industry.
But the company has not gone into a tailspin, as some were predicting last summer. In July, August and September, McDonnell Douglas rang up $1.3 billion in sales compared with $1 billion during the same period last year.
The company now employs 78,000 workers, an increase of 11,000 in the last year, and has openings for 500 engineers.
There are orders and options for 92 additional DC10s from airlines around the world, and the only cancellation since the Chicago crash was an order for six DC10s from Italy's Alitalia, which turned to the Boeing Corp. instead.
Passenger loads on the DC10 actually have increased since the Chicago accident, McDonnell Douglas figures indicate, although some airlines contend that the flying public still is leary of the jumbo jet.
Another sign of life: As a show of confidence in their company, the aerospace workers union in California -- where the DC10 is put together -- bought 20,000 shares of McDonnell Douglas stock after the Chicago crash. The stock has since climbed from about $20 a share to about $35.
Yet it will take more than displays of fidelity from McDonnell Douglas employes to keep the company flying high through the 1980s.
Foremost, it will require continued support from te Pentagon and the billions in federal tax dollars it provides as the company's main income. Ever since the 1967 marriage of California's Douglas Aircraft and St. Louis's McDonnel clan, military contracts have been the corporation's mainstay.
Douglas had dominated commercial sales for nearly three decades until about 1960, when the company began losing ground quickly to Boeing. McDonnell, with heavy emphasis on military planes and spacecraft, was looking to expand to commercial markets. The merger seemed made in heaven -- except that commercial sales have continued to slip.
Last year, for example, the company made $230 million before taxes on military aircraft while losing $60 million on commercial planes. One big money-maker is the F15, the world's most sophisticated jet fighter. The F15 program calls for McDonnell Douglas to put together 720 of the fighters for the Air Force for $14 billion.
The Air Force also has ordered 20 KC10As, a militarized tanker version of the DC10 that costs $50 million per plane. (Wall Street sources say that a recent surge in McDonnell Douglas stock reflects rumors that the Air Force will buy more KC10As. Pentagon sources admit that the Air Force would like 60 if Congress will pick up the tab.)
Regardless of successes like those, aerospace investors are still edgy about the company's future, particularly in the commercial market.
"I'd say that McDonnell Douglas has really got some problems, and the problem in the minds of the investment community is, 'What's the long term?'" said Eliot Fried, senior vice presendent and aerospace analyst for Shearson, Loeb Rhoades in New York.
The biggest uncertainty centers on McDonnell Douglas's ability to compete with Boeing and Lockheed in the mid-1980s and on. Two new Boeing planes are in production, the 757 and 767, while McDonnell Douglas currently has most of its chips on the DC10 and DC9, a shaky bet in the minds of some analysts.
"Marginal decisions are going to go against McDonnell Douglas," said Howard Majer. "There are several orders that are going to the Lockheed £1011 rather than the DC10 because of the crash -- at a loss of $40 million per plane. It's possible that in the next decade there could be 50 planes that would have been DC10s that won't be DC10s now. . . .
"But that's a trivial number -- in the right context, because in the life of the program you could be talking about 200 to 400 more planes."
In 1968, McDonnell Douglas executives predicted that the world would need 910 DC10s by 1980, a figure that now evokes sheepish grins from the company's current executives -- since they've yet to sell the 400th plane, or make money on the jumbo jet. But there is a belief that as airports grow increasingly congested, airlines will be forced to emphasize bigger planes rather than frequent flights.
"The DC10 is competitive with anything that's on the market or anything that's coming out," said the company's George Sloan.
Speculation about the long-range fortunes of McDonnell Douglas centers on two possibliities. Some analysts believe the company will attempt some sort of partnership with the European manufacturers of an Airbus; others believe that McDonnell Douglas will push for a new supersonic transport for the 1990s.
Company spokesmen say both concepts are being mulled over but that no firm decisionhas been made on either one. "You virtually bet the company on a whole new airplane; McDonnell, being very prudent and conservative, is going to make sure it has a good bet," said Kenneth R. Velten, manager of commercial market research.
For now, the company is coping. Exactly how rough a year 1979 was for McDonnell Douglas won't be known until well into the new decade.
"History doesn't reveal its alternatives," said George Sloan. "Nobody knows where we would have been now if the problems hadn't occurred."