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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 naval air arm has a history as long as that of the Air Force, and its demands have been large enough to support aerospace companies which specialized in meeting its particular needs, such as Grumman and, for a time, McDonnell. But immediately after World War II the Navy was in strategic and technological trouble.

Traditionally, the U.S. Navy believed that its purpose was to fight other navies. But from 1945 to 1947 America's only apparent potential enemy was Russia, a vast landpower which did not need the sea and was the antithesis of seapower in the geopolitics of Halford John Mackinder and Karl Haushofer. The battleship had been thought to be the main striking power before the war, but now all surface ships were in a supporting role; and it was believed by many that surface ships could no longer discharge even this role because nuclear weapons would easily destroy them. Furthermore, with large aircraft ranges becoming feasible, the usefulness of even the carrier was in question. The advent of the jet engine for aircraft made carrier operations difficult if not doubtful because jets accelerate and decelerate more slowly than piston planes. The agency which seemingly benefited from these developments was the Air Force, and therefore its struggle for survival through autonomy became a direct threat to the Navy's existence, or so the Navy believed. The Navy found it impossible to prevent the attainment of autonomy by the AAF in 1947. The sea service was able to keep its own air arm, and this ensured its organizational survival as a large service, but the Navy did lose to the Air Force the primacy in American defense that it had had before the war.

A partial response was the rise of a new Navy, different in leadership, strategy, and technology: an air navy. During the war naval fliers had come to the fore in operations, but command and administration were still vested in the "black-shoe Navy" or "Gun Club," nicknames for the battleship officers. At the end of the war Forrestal advanced young aviators to greater power because of their ability and as a counter to the AAF. The Navy deliberately included in its leadership young "brownshoe" aviators, and air officers came largely to dominate the Navy, although powerful ship and submarine factions continued to vie with the airmen for control.

The naval fliers broke with tradition by believing in both strategic bombing and the Air Force global view of air operations. They had not arrived at these views through deliberation or conscious imitation of the AAF, but the concepts had evolved in the course of conducting war. After destroying the Japanese Navy in a tactical role, the fliers looked for new targets, and among the new objectives chosen were Japan's industry and land bases. The fliers' experience against the Japanese homeland convinced them that they could operate in the face of land-based airpower; until this success they had feared such a method of operation and had been reluctant to support the concept of strategic bombing. The air Navy did not fully agree with the AAF on the usefulness of strategic bombing, however. The AAF viewed long-range bombardment as the most economic and effective way to destroy an enemy's source of power. The air Navy, on the other hand, thought that war could be conducted in this manner, but that it might not prove feasible in all cases. A war might still have to be won by attrition and mass assault using all military means, including strategic bombardment as just one style of attack. The new air Navy recognized, however, that adoption of the technique would be politically desirable in its struggle with the Air Force, should strategic bombing prove to be the main punch in war. When the air Navy openly adopted strategic bombing after World War II, and claimed it could perform the function better than the AAF, the latter in turn became alarmed for its own survival. The stage was set for years of bitter struggle because each service believed its continued existence was at stake.

Carrying out its new strategic concepts demanded technological change in the air Navy. The radius of action of Navy bombers in the "Marianas Turkey Shoot" was only 200 miles, appropriate for fleet actions between battleship or carrier lines. The 1946 Douglas A-1 Skyraider, the first attempt to increase range drastically, raised the radius of action to 700 miles. If Russia was to be considered as the potential enemy, this was marginal to inadequate. The radius-of-action requirement against Russia was 2,000 miles, and the air Navy in the immediate postwar years began thinking in terms of carrier-based strategic bombers on the order of the AAF's XB-47, which grossed 125,000 pounds. The adoption of nuclear weapons at this time also meant larger aircraft than those that had been carrier based. The North American AJ with two piston engines and one jet engine, under design for preatomic bombing, was adapted to carry a nuclear weapon. In the interim the Lockheed P2V was to be launched off carriers without a carrier recovery capability, an awkward, makeshift arrangement. A third technological demand was to adapt jet aircraft and carriers to each other. This was not only difficult technically but it was not given priority by the Navy's top leadership, which was cool to jets. The Navy did achieve an operational carrier-based jet squadron in 1948. After cancellation of the U.S.S. United States and the B-36 controversy, a supercarrier was finally built, and with the adoption of three British developments - the canted deck, the mirror landing system, and the steam catapult-the technological problems of operating jets from carriers were fully solved.

Lockheed P2V
The Navy's makeshift attempt at a strategic bomber included use of Lockheed P2V's launched from aircraft carriers. The P2V could not be recovered on carrier decks. Courtesy Lockheed Aircraft Corporation

Other solutions to the problem of aircraft range were available to the Navy. A second possibility was to build a force of flying-boats for strategic bombing. For long-range operations the flying-boats would be serviced by submarine and surface tenders at changing sheltered locations. It was believed that the flying-boats would have the performance of land-based bombers, and their tender system would avoid carrier vulnerability and carrier dependence on overseas bases. Proponents believed this would make the system better than the Air Force's. Development of this concept included the Martin P6M Sea Master as the bomber, begun in 1948, and the General Dynamics XF2Y Sea Dart as a fighter, begun in 1952. Despite years of effort, however, the technology of this system was never mastered. In 1959, when supremacy of the fighter over the bomber had clearly been established, and ballistic missiles were becoming operational, work was finally abandoned on the flying-boat strategic-bomber project, and those few which had been built were destroyed.

Martin P6M Sea Monster
The Martin P6M Sea Master was the key aircraft in the Navy attempt to create an ocean-based grand-strategic attack force. Courtesy Martin Marietta Corporation.

General Dynamics XF2Y
The fighter part of the Navy's water-based strategic force was to be General Dynamics' XF2Y. Courtesy General Dynamics Corporation.

A more successful method to extend range was found in refueling. The small Douglas A-1's and A-4's were nuclear armed in the fifties but lacked range. With the jet reequipping following Korea, an aircraft was designed especially to be the carrier's nuclear strategic bomber: the medium size Douglas A-3. A supersonic successor was also developed, the 1958 North American A-5. To help with the persistent range problem of these aircraft, aerial refueling was adopted, and the Navy chose to mainly rely on the method the Air Force had rejected: the "buddy system" in which like aircraft serve as tankers. A Navy version of the transport C-130 served as a tanker as well.

This line of carrier strategic bombers ended quietly in the sixties. In 1963 Secretary McNamara witnessed carrier maneuvers and promptly challenged the Navy to justify the ships. In the ICBM era, and with the vulnerability of large aircraft, McNamara was still critical of continued strategic operations after the Navy had made its case. The A-5's were converted to reconnaissance aircraft, and the Navy dropped its strategic bomber role. The ease and quietness of this move indicates no great stress. The Navy had by this time an assured grand-strategic role with its submarines; the carrier long-range bombers had never been more than a small operation compared with Air Force capability; the Navy no longer feared that strategic airpower would make naval power obsolete; and the Navy was still not of one mind.

There had always been officers who believed that the need for tactical airpower was enough to assure continuance of a large carrier force. The limited conventional war in Korea gave this group strong reinforcement despite the problems the war uncovered for the Navy. The shocking realization that its fighters were unable to contest the MiG-15 meant that development of modern fighters and attack aircraft had to be pushed, and the reluctance of senior officers to accept jet performance was overcome. This meant extensive naval conversion to jets during and after the Korean War, although only 16 percent of the inventory in jets had been achieved by mid-1953. Since then, the air Navy has concentrated on the role of fighting limited wars in the same way as the Tactical Air Command's Composite Air Strike Force. Its excellent performance in the international crises since Korea has reinforced it in this role, and in Vietnam the tactical airpower supporters in the Navy found justification in the circumstance that the carrier's tactical forces were used for strategic purposes. Maintenance of a large naval tactical air force seems assured. It has been, and should continue to be, a substantial market for the aerospace companies.

The Marines have specialized within tactical airpower in their almost exclusive concern with close support of ground forces. Since this function can be and usually has been performed by obsolescent aircraft, and since the Navy does procurement for the Corps, the Marines have had little direct effect on the aerospace industry. The principal influence has been to promote the helicopter as a short-haul tactical air transport.


The Navy, like the Air Force, worked on missiles in the postwar years. As with the jets, taking the technology to sea was a problem. The early missile fuels posed huge safety and control problems in shipboard use. Confined quarters, the unstable launching site of the surface of the sea, spillage, and pinpointing the ship's position led the Navy temporarily to abandon big missiles except for the Vought Regulus, an unmanned airplane. Regulus went into shipboard and submarine service on a small scale in the fifties but had the same limitations as the Air Force unmanned aircraft. As in the Air Force and Army, smaller solid missiles were widely used by the Navy.

When it became apparent that the ICBM was feasible, the Navy joined the scramble to exploit the new technology. To save money Defense Secretary Charles E. Wilson directed the Navy in 1956 to combine its development with that of the Army's. Since the Army was already well along with its program, the Navy was faced with adapting the Jupiter to shipboard use if it wanted an IRBM. The liquid-fueled Jupiter had been developed for land use, however, and it posed grave handling problems to the Navy. While attempting to solve these problems, the Navy also sought to make solid fuels useful in big missiles. Just when systems had been evolved which appeared to make the Jupiter acceptable, the solid-fuel technical problems were solved. Admiral William Raborn, head of the Special Project Office for the IRBM, asked Secretary Wilson for independence from the Army system, basing his argument on cost reduction, and approval in late 1956 led to development of the Lockheed Polaris and Poseidon systems for submarines.

The presently invulnerable nature of the submarine-launched ballistic missile has made it a desirable weapon despite lower accuracy. With the Polaris system the Navy finally moved into unquestioned partnership with the Air Force in contributing a grand-strategic system to U.S. defense. The Navy's strategic and tactical aerospace power has been a continuous major market for the aerospace industry, and should continue to be one.


Autonomy for the Air Force did not eliminate the Army as a customer of the aerospace industry. Out of a combination of Army concern, logic, and the Air Force's willingness to compromise to achieve autonomy, the ground service kept an air arm. To the aerospace industry this was advantageous, for it added a customer that could be expected to compete with the other air services, as boundaries between missions and roles are seldom clear-cut or absolute. But the Army also presented a potential threat to the future survival of the aerospace industry and the Air Force. In the immediate postwar period the threat was little more than a cloud on the horizon, but the industry was conscious of it.

Artillery had apparently reached the practical limits of its range, and a return to rocketry was a natural solution. To the soldier, the missile was a continuation of the function of artillery. To the airman, the missile was an extension of aerodynamic technology. They were both right; technology was leading to a confluence of weaponry. The concern of the aerospace industry arose from the fact that the Army had a government arsenal system in existence with a long tradition behind it. Since the Air Force believed until 1947 that missiles would make bombers obsolete, it was faced with yet another threat to its survival besides lack of autonomy and the air Navy's strategic interests. At this early indefinite stage a clash of the Air Force with the Army over missile roles and missions could be postponed, but its eventuality, plus the technical possibilities of winged missiles, led the Air Force to start research programs with its ally, the aerospace industry. In the past the companies had done some research, but principal reliance had been placed upon NACA's leadership. Now the advanced technology of the jet-propelled, winged missile and the possible Army threat to its survival spurred an important new departure in the aerospace industry: major research contracts.

Launch of a Lockheed Poseidon
The Fleet Ballistic Missile gave the Navy an assured grand-strategic attack role. Here is the launch of a Lockheed Poseidon. Courtesy Lockheed Aircraft Corporation.

When in the early fifties it was apparent that the ICBM/IRBM was feasible, the interservice rivalry for possession became strong. Each service believed that its future role and, therefore, its size depended on being selected to employ the new weapon. The pressure for rivalry grew when these glamorous potential weapons were funded far more generously than other weapons systems. The intercontinental-minded USAF worked from the beginning directly on the ICBM. The Army hoped to gain the advantage by working up to the ICBM in steps. It believed its arsenal, using the German veterans of the rocket center at Peenemünde, could develop a better missile earlier than the Air Force's industrial contractors could. But when Russian advances became alarming, the Air Force, in scaling down to an IRBM (Douglas' Thor) from its ICBM (General Dynamics' Atlas), was able to produce a missile comparable to the Army's Jupiter in roughly the same time. The Air Force now had a psychological advantage: it had long espoused strategic attack and was popularly associated with it, and it had now proved capable of matching the Army's prim my weapon. Army failure to achieve an IRBM of unquestioned superiority to the Air Force's Thor effectively blocked the Army from starting the next step to the ICBM, which was imminent for the Air Force by the time Jupiter was finished. A decision in 1956 in favor of the Air Force ended the Army effort on long-range missiles, and operation of the Jupiter was given to the airmen. However, a market for Army shorter-range missiles, like the Martin Pershing, continues for the aerospace industry. Loss of the German team to NASA, together with Army experience in the fifties, led to increasing adoption of Air Force procurement systems, including the substitution of industrial contractors for the arsenal system, a most welcome development to the aerospace industry.

Thwarted in its aerospace ambitions, the ground service did develop into an air Army. The Army and Air Force have long found their tactical views difficult to reconcile, with the Army seeking to use airpower for frontal attack on the battlefield and the Air Force claiming that it is more effective support to clear the air of enemy aircraft and to attack the enemy in his rear. Even on shared ground-the desirability of tactical airlift-contentions have risen because, until the administration of President Kennedy, the Air Force stinted on air transport so as to give funds to the bomber force. The Army's recourse has been to try repeatedly to gain the close air support and tactical airlift missions. Aside from the overt attempts, there has been the natural evolution of arming helicopters and moving to aircraft with greater payloads, including twin-engine aircraft. Starting with small numbers of very light aircraft, the air Army has become a significant customer of the large aerospace companies. The Army's airmobile division concept, its confirmation that helicopters can go anywhere a truck can and perform more effectively, and its Vietnam experience have meant a rapid growth of an air Army, a valuable customer for the aerospace industry.


The Army's evolution into a significant customer of the aerospace industry parallels that of another governmental unit, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Created in 1958 to close the wide technological gap opened by the Russians, NASA had an explosive growth that far overshadowed the air Army. NASA's formation around the cadre of NACA, its absorption of the Army's German missile team, the use of military boosters, and the circumstance that the aerospace companies won the big contracts demonstrated that the space program was the conclusion of a technical progression of airplane to missile to space vehicle.

The dominant portion of NASA's effort in the first ten years was the manned program, the race to the moon. North American, the biggest contract winner for the race, had sales of over $2 billion in 1964. Of this business, 40 percent was for space-for North American's Apollo spaceship and Saturn's second stage. Big business, too, were McDonnell's Mercury and Gemini spaceships, Boeing's Saturn first stage, and Douglas' Saturn third stage.

With the culmination of Apollo, space has ceased to be a priority, crash program. Like the missile programs from the midfifties to the midsixties, the space program produced a warlike business surge for the aerospace industry. Like the missile business, it will continue but at a level lower than that of its earliest years.

NASA's share of the government markets for aerospace has been about one-sixth of the recent total; the Air Force has received about one-half; the Navy, one-fourth; and the Army, one-tenth. During the entire period of this study the Air Force market was roughly twice as large as that of the Navy.

The agencies are, in the sense of different demands, distinct markets; yet the government also can be considered as a single market, since procurement procedures are basically uniform.

Martin Marietta Titan III, with centaur upper stage
The military ballistic missile has been adapted for use as a space booster. This vehicle is a Martin Marietta Air Force Titan III with a General Dynamics Centaur upper stage. Courtesy Martin Marietta Corporation.