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The Jet Makers

The Aerospace Industry from 1945 to 1972

• Title
• Introduction
• Preface
• Acknowledgements

• I: World War II: Aviation Comes of Age
• II: The Aerospace Industry since World War II: A Brief History
• III: The National Military Strategy: Background for the Government Markets
• IV: The Principal Government Market: The United States Air Force
• V: The Other Government Markets: The Aerospace Navy, the Air Army, and NASA
• VI: Fashions in Government Procurement
• VII: The Heartbreak Market: Airliners
• VIII: Design or Die: The Supreme Technological Industry
• IX: Production: The Payoff
• X: Diversification: The Hedge for Survival
• XI: Costs: Into the Stratosphere
• XII: Finance and Management
• XIII: Entry into the Aerospace Industry
• XIV: Exit from the Aerospace Industry
• XV: The Influence of the Jet Engine on the Industry

• Notes
• Acronyms
• Annotated Bibliography



The aerospace companies of the United States grew to maturity during the Second World War. By 1944 aircraft manufacturing was the largest industry in the country, and piston technology had been exploited nearly to its limits. On its basic structure, still visible today, have been superimposed the effects of postwar revolutionary technological developments.


From the thirties to 1948 the industry conformed to the Wave Cycle of Development, a hypothesis worked out by Robin Higham that aircraft manufacturing follows a cyclical pattern of peacetime equilibrium, rearmament instability, wartime equilibrium, and demobilizational instability.1 In the years before 1938 the United States was in that phase of the cycle called peacetime equilibrium, although during the thirties the airframe manufacturers had gone through a “monoplane revolution” which had called for radical changes in design and manufacture from the earlier biplanes. By 1938, however, the government was concerned with economy, and American airpower was at a low point. The Air Corps had only 1,401 planes, of which fewer than 900 were combat types, and many were obsolete. The Navy had over 800 planes that were called first-line, but their true worth is indicated by the fact that several hundred of them were biplanes. The market for transports was small, and in 1938 only 42 civilian aircraft were built that had a capacity for five or more passengers. The export market was relatively good: in 1937 one-third of the U.S. aircraft production was exported at better prices than were obtained domestically, and exports were estimated to have produced half the industry's profits.

American rearmament began in early 1938 when President Roosevelt asked Congress for $800 million for the Navy. Most of it was to build ships, but the air arm's share was to be an increase in strength from 1,900 to 3,000 planes. The Army was to get a token 7 million, with none for aircraft. There was resistance to the request from some air-minded congressmen who believed that bombers would be a better investment than battleships. The president's reply, a clue to his attitude toward aviation at the time, was that torpedo boats, submarines, and aircraft had each led amateur strategists to declare battleships obsolete, but he, a professional strategist because he was a former assistant secretary of the Navy, knew that each weapon has its “antidote”: for the airplane it was the antiaircraft gun. Congress passed a bill to expand the Navy, but the air arm's share, in line with its peripheral status, was only 950 aircraft. This was the last victory for the old order which had held the airplane in low esteem. There soon came a series of shocks that changed airpower's form and importance and created the modern aerospace industry.


The Munich Crisis over Sudeten Czechoslovakia in the late summer of 1938 drastically changed the president's views and started a period of rearmamental instability for aircraft manufacturing. Hitler was believed to have successfully threatened Great Britain with his bomber fleet; and, shortly after Pearl Harbor, Harry Hopkins wrote of the effect on Roosevelt: “The President was sure then that we were going to get into war and he believed that air power would win it.”2 Although expressing a desire for an Air Corps strength of 30,000 planes, Roosevelt called in January 1939 for only 3,000 more planes for the Air Corps; he made this modest request in accordance with what he regarded as political possibilities.

The president's new attitude broke the Army's resistance to the Air Corps' demands for bombers. Before the presidential move the Army had forbidden production or development of four-engine bombers for the immediate future; now there were procurement orders for B-17's beyond the thirteen that existed during Munich, and development of the B-24 was started. From this time forward throughout the war the four-engine big bomber had an established position in America's airpower. The size, complexity, and cost of this class would greatly alter an industry in which twin-engine aircraft had heretofore been the largest normal product.

Problems began immediately. Years of peace had led to impractical mobilization plans. The Army had expected, if war broke out, to grow to 4,000,000 men, including 200,000 in its Air Corps. There were to be 12,000 planes, around 4,400 of which were to be small observation craft. As it turned out, the Army grew to about 7,600,000 men, including Army Air Forces (AAF) of 2,372,292 by 1944. The maximum number of aircraft was 79,908, over 13,000 of which were four-engine bombers. The prewar plans were known to be inadequate as soon as they were seriously examined, because they called for an impractical freeze on designs so as to produce 12,000 combat and 2,000 training aircraft within six months. The projections had been drawn up without basic information about the capacity of the aircraft industry, and had been evaluated by war games without any test of their assumptions, a common failing of military exercises. In July 1939 the Air Corps called a conference of aircraft manufacturers to prepare for war production. The manufacturers recommended that the required basic information, missing in the old plans, be prepared before further steps were taken.

Fortunately, a plunge into production was made, but it was for exports rather than for the U.S. Air Corps. Rushing to rearm, the British and French turned to the American aircraft industry for fighters, bombers, and trainers. To spur American efforts, they not only paid high prices but were willing to finance plant expansions in 1939 and 1940. The British alone ordered supplies worth billion and furnished 71 million for factories. The U.S. aircraft industry's total sales for 1939 were about 25 million, and the foreign business was thus very important in stimulating expansion in the industry, for the country as a whole still showed apathy until June 1940.

In the spring of 1940 Hitler launched his attack towards the west, spearheaded by tactical airpower and exploited by armor. The Luftwaffe made effective use of all elements of tactical airpower: air-superiority fighters, attack planes, and airborne forces. The impact on leaders is shown by French Premier Reynaud's desperate appeal for “clouds of warplanes” and Roosevelt's famous call to Congress for “the ability to turn out at least 50,000 planes a year.” As with Munich, this shock altered the composition of American airpower. In the thirties the Air Corps had believed the air-superiority fighter was obsolete. To correct this error, design was now started on the Republic P-47. The nucleus of American airborne forces, which would increase the importance and use of transports, was formed in June 1940. Observation planes, which had been small, simple, low-powered airplanes, and which had formed a large part of Air Corps strength, were proven obsolete in the Battle of France. Their functions were now divided, to be carried out by high-performance “reconnaissance” planes and by light planes. As night bombardment increased in Europe during this period, the Americans began work on the Northrop P-61, their first night fighter designed as such. These were important shifts to higher performance, larger aircraft using more complex equipment. The changes prevented the freezing of designs for production.

At the same time, bombers received renewed emphasis in numbers and types beyond the experimental XB-15 and XB-19. The Army airmen submitted specifications for the B-29 bomber generation in January 1940. As the possibility that Hitler would conquer Britain aroused interest in an intercontinental bomber, studies began which would lead to development of the giant six-engine XB-36. Again the trend was toward larger and more complex units, complicating the production problem.

As a start was made towards greater production, government management of aircraft manufacture began. Congress backed Roosevelt's “go-ahead” signal with emergency legislation which permitted placement of contracts without the time-consuming safeguards and red tape of peacetime. Congress also provided government funds for plant expansion and other capital investment needs for production, for the aircraft industry was concerned about overexpansion after its experience in World War 1. In its desire to assure aircraft production, the government began enlistment of the automobile industry for additional capacity. Although the government cleared the way, the aircraft industry now faced its biggest challenge: to convert to line production from the only manufacturing system it had known, the job shop. This revolution was to influence every phase of the business, calling for new organization, additional plant space, and more production equipment.

Effective, directed mobilization of the aircraft industry thus began in June 1940. Although the president's initiative has been aptly called a get-rich-quick scheme, it provided a start, a goal, and the motivation needed at the time. Even so, it was still only an interim stage and was not the all-out effort that was to come later.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor ended the period of partial mobilization. In January 1942, in response to the prospect of war on two fronts, the president again vastly increased aircraft production goals, asking that 125,000 planes be built in 1943.

After the destruction of American battleships at Pearl Harbor and British battleships off Malaya, the airplane became the striking arm of the Navy. This change from peripheral to central status revised the demands for aircraft, and the impact was not only in numbers. Although the Navy had traditionally used air-superiority fighters, and had striven to have the best, the Brewster F2A and Grumman F4F were out-classed by the Japanese Zero. New designs were called for, and modification of the old. Also, the vastness of the Pacific put renewed emphasis on longrange aircraft.

With American entry into the war, the German Navy started an offensive in the western North Atlantic. The U.S. Navy asked for help from the Army Air Forces and also from the Royal Air Force (RAF), who had wide experience fighting German submarines before America entered the war. The Navy adopted four-engine, land-based aircraft because of their range and their successful use by the RAF's antisubmarine Coastal Command, and this led to further pressures for quantity production of the big bombers. Effectiveness of the German drive also encouraged experiments on aircraft giantism as possible means of by-passing the high-risk surface transportation-and with an eye toward future peacetime airliners with low seat-mile-cost.

By this time enough progress had been made on mobilization for this shock to result primarily in problems of scale. But this period was one when shortages of raw material, purchased parts, and equipment were at their worst.


In 1943 comparative stability arrived. Plant expansion had taken place, material shortages were eased, and management had adjusted to quantity orders, subcontracting, licensing, line production, and large organizations. Designs could now be reasonably standardized, and 87 percent of the production from 1940 to 1944 was of only nineteen models. Plant layouts were changed to eliminate backtracking of components, and assembly lines were instituted: production was scheduled and controlled to produce the continuous, smooth processes necessary for quantity production; tool engineering was centralized, and manufacturing information was organized and coordinated even between companies. The automobile industry became a partner and contributed greatly to the use of line-production techniques. An example of their contribution is in B-24 fuselage fabrication: where Convair had assembled a shell and then installed equipment, Ford formed two half-shells, installed the equipment, and then united them. Since production becomes increasingly difficult as a product becomes more dense, a trend which has been characteristic of aircraft design, this simple improvement was an important one. The usefulness of the automobile industry was greater in this period of wartime equilibrium than it was at earlier or later stages, for the car manufacturers' system emphasized elaborate and time-consuming tooling, which must have long production runs of fixed designs to be economical.

Rough spots remained. Spare parts were not ordered in a way to minimize the disruption of production. Labor turnover, shortages, and absenteeism were a problem. The aircraft industry recruited women, the aged, the disabled, high school boys, farmers, and workers from service businesses such as automobile salesmen for the labor force, but this did not relieve a shortage of skilled workers. For too long Convair was unable to make the transition to quantity production, and had a midwar reorganization of its management. The conflict between quantity production and design change was not fully resolved in any company. A compromise solution attempted to make the best of the situation: factory design changes were introduced less often than required for combat, safety, or efficiency, and finished aircraft were then reworked in a “modification center.” In another kind of change, bigger bombers and transports continued to claim increasing emphasis through 1945.

The final production achievement was impressive by any measure, as shown by Table 1-1. The trend in emphasis to large bombers and transports is clearly evident and presaged the coming of age of aviation.


Production 1940 1943 1944
Pounds of airframe20,336,000 597,358,800 915,047,900
Number of aircraft5,982 85,363 95,274
Four-engine bombers61 9,615 16,334
Large transports (25,000 lbs. and up, including C-46's and C-47's) 1793,4436,792


Increased production of transports reflects the growth in American use of air transportation in the war. During the world-wide conflict, there was a need to move men and cargo quickly and far, and the technology and productive capacity were available to meet the demands. The extreme example was the airbridge to China, where planes proved to be indispensable in supporting Chiang Kai-shek after all surface communication was cut off by the Japanese. This aspect of aviation was unplanned and unexpected, despite the expansion of the prewar airlines, which had approached global systems. Before the war the Air Corps had used air transport on only a small scale for the expeditious movement of supplies. The prewar transoceanic efforts, typified by the use of a few flying boats, were soon to be dwarfed by America's military airline fleets. At the end of the war the AAF's Air Transport Command (ATC) was operating 3,700 transports over transoceanic and transcontinental routes. Its airways spanned the North and South Atlantic, crossed Africa and India to China, went to Alaska, and reached across the Central and South Pacific to Australia, the Philippines, and the Ryukyus. In July 1945 close to 275,000 passengers were carried, and 100,000 tons of mail and freight. The Naval Air Transport Service (N A TS ), which had 431 aircraft at the end of the war, flew routes running to the western Pacific, Alaska, South America, and West Africa. Commercial airlines augmented these activities, flying routes abroad under contract to the armed services, and Convair operated an air transport service (Consairways) to the South Pacific. The entire transport effort consisted of airliners, airliner designs converted to military use, bombers converted into air transports, and flying boats.

The dominant use of large, land-based aircraft, bombers and transports, required a revolution in airfields. The traditional sod fields were inadequate. Heavy take-off weight, tricycle landing gear, high speeds, high wing-loadings, and the resultant long take-off rolls demanded lengthy, level, high-load-bearing surfaces. A frenzy of runway construction by the AAF and Navy ensued to support the operations of thousands of four-engine bombers and transports around the world.

The major accomplishments in construction and manufacture obscured the lack of accomplishments in aerodynamics in America. In an earlier war, in 1917, the United States had found itself well behind other nations in aviation, and an agency had been created for the specific purpose of “regaining and then maintaining the lead in aeronautics which had been given to America by Orville and Wilbur Wright.” The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, now the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA) was directed to “supervise and direct the scientific study of the problems of flight, with a view to their practical solution, and to determine the problems which should be experimentally attacked, and to discuss their solution and their application to practical questions.”3 Yet by World War II NACA's work consisted mainly of cleaning up drag and improving the structures of current designs. The nature of this work is refinement and the quick fix; it is not on the cutting edge of technology. The concentration on short-term, “win-the-war” projects by NACA may have resulted in many accomplishments, but it did not substantially advance the field of aerodynamics. Ever since World War I American aerodynamic and structural design had been advanced primarily by German concepts supplemented by British, Italian, Japanese, and Russian research. With the advent of World War II German support had been removed, and by 1945 the United States was again well behind. Germany's lead in jet-engine development, shared by Britain, was the most serious problem left to American aeronautical designers at the end of the war, and they generally followed patterns already set by the Germans.

Although far behind, the United States did work hard to get a jet into the air during the war. Lockheed was engaged to build a jet fighter, using the British De Havilland Goblin engine. Speed was called for, and Lockheed gave Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson full authority for the project. He set up his special unit, the famous “Skunk Works,” with 23 engineers and 105 shop men, and he did 96 percent of his own fabrication and all inspection. Lockheed's normal development procedure of engineering conferences was by-passed; only 700 drawings were made; sometimes parts were made from a drawing, and sometimes the reverse was done: simplicity was Johnson's keynote. The XP-80 cost only 63 percent of the XP-38 prototype, which had been made by the customary system of development. It was accepted by the AAF only 143 days after the start of development, even though the engine had not been on hand until the 132nd day. After General Electric had designed an improved Whittle-type engine, the 1-40 or J33, the XP-80A was designed around it: the United States had a jet fighter and one of the best aeronautical designs in its history by the end of 1945.


Development of the XP-80A came in the final months of war, and at a period when economic instability was to be anticipated and avoided if possible. In World War I there had been no preparation for demobilization. Contracts were ended abruptly, resulting in chaos and bankruptcies. This time, as early as November 1943, government procurement agencies wisely began to prepare for the distant reductions. Recommendations were made to Congress, and the Contract Settlement Act was passed in July 1944. Terminations were to be negotiated procedures, orderly and as rapid as possible. They would be final save for fraud, so that contractors would be free to move directly into reconversion plans and not be forced to tie up their capital in reserves held against unexpected or capricious governmental contract review. The program was carried out with apparent great success despite a reduction of 0 billion in contracts. Factories were disposed of as surplus, and litigation was avoided. The termination system may have contributed to the absence of a general postwar depression.


The use of airpower on a grand scale in World War II ultimately produced an American demand for aircraft in the thousands each month. The general growth in aircraft size and complexity is illustrated by the weight changes between 1940 and 1945, shown in Table 1-2.


Aircraft 1940 1945
Army Fighter 5,376 lbs. (P-40) 7,920 lbs. (F-80A)
Army Fighter Bomber 5,376 lbs. (P-40) 9,900 lbs. (P-47D)
Army Heavy Bomber 24,458 lbs. (YB-17) 69,000 lbs. (B-29B)
Navy Fighter 4,036 lbs. (F4F) 9,205 lbs. (F4U)
Navy Bomber 5,903 lbs. (SBD-l) 10,589 lbs. (SB2C)
Transport 18,200 lbs. (C-47) 37,000 lbs. (C-54)

In successfully responding to the challenge, the aerospace industry attained its modem shape. Its management now had experience with handcrafting as well as with serial production; with small as well as vast operations. Much of the management was young enough to remain in control for many more years, providing continuity, and there was a large pool of experienced engineering talent and workers.

There probably also was a general letdown, to be expected after the wartime exertions. At Lockheed, for example, after the hard-driving development of the XP-80, the project engineers had a sickness rate of 30 percent. Decreasing production requires adjustments in attitudes, just as increasing production does, and there was no experience in this kind of adjustment, necessarily critical in a competitive industry. In the aircraft industry particularly, because it had been “capital intensive” in human engineering resources, the natural reluctance to cut overhead tended to be intensified and delayed too long. The return to handcraft manufacturing quantities meant fewer production engineers, a cutback easily overlooked and omitted. During the war, costs had been of small importance compared to rapid production; in peace, the values had to be reversed.

The industry's plant and equipment were adequate and not a burden, thanks to governmental willingness to furnish most of the war expansion facilities and then to sell them off cheaply. Prudent policies had created by the end of 1945 a financial reserve of 11 million available for reconversion and readjustment. There was a collective bank debt of only 3 million, and working capital of the fifteen main aircraft companies was over 20 million.

Government procurement practices had proven acceptable. Letters of intent were used to save time before formal contracts. The problem of costs and profit settlement where expenses were difficult to forecast and nearly all aircraft production is of this sort because it involves new or evolving designs-had been met by the cost plus fixed fee (CPFF) contract arrangement according ,to which the government pays all reasonable costs and a fixed profit based upon the forecast cost. With this system aircraft costs and profits appeared to be acceptable because there were no violent objections to their level.

At the end of the war it appeared that, with the countries long regarded by Americans as the world's troublemakers in ruins, a long period of peace was assured. This prospect, plus the specter of the usual postwar depression, might have been frightening for the aircraft industry. Yet airpower had become so important it could reasonably be expected to receive a larger share of peacetime appropriations than it had before the war. Further, the jet revolution, obviously in its early stages, might mean extensive reequipping. The airlines had boomed in the war, and excellent transport designs were available for the postwar civilian systems. World-wide transport operations had become commonplace, and sales to airlines could make the difference between solvency and bankruptcy. The general public was much more airplane-conscious than before the war, and the millions of young men who had served in military aviation were a friendly constituency and potential customers. The large airplane, with its high unit-cost, might prove to be the industry's salvation even if unit sales were low. Worry over foreign competition was not in evidence.

The aircraft industry entered the postwar era with both concern and hope.