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Schatzberg, Eric, 1956- / Wings of wood, wings of metal : culture and technical choice in American airplane materials, 1914-1945

6. Neglected alternative i: plywood stressed-skin construction,   pp. [114]-134

Page [114]

Neglected Alternative I:
Plywood Stressed-skin Construction
No IDEOLOGY ever dominates completely Regardless of the social glue that
holds particular communities together, individuals can always make room
for alternative visions and strategies that conflict with dominant ideologies.
Such alternative strategies did exist within the American aviation commu-
nity of the 1920s. Despite the strength of the progress ideology of metal, a
number of firms worked to improve wood airplane structures, and one fed-
eral agency received funding for serious research related to wooden air-
planes. These efforts produced, among other things, the Lockheed Vega, the
fastest single-engine commercial airplane of the late 1920s.
The "airframe revolution" of the early 1930s contained three main ele-
ments: all-metal construction, the fully cantilevered monoplane, and
stressed-skin structures. Both contemporary observers and historians have
viewed these elements as related. In the early 1920s, the idea of the neue Stil
firmly linked metal with the unbraced monoplane, while later in the decade
designers and researchers conceptualized stressed-skin structures almost
entirely in terms of metal. In the early 1930s, the military and commercial
airlines adopted stressed-skin structures and all-metal construction at the
same time.
There was, however, no inextricable link between metal and stressed-skin
structures. Stressed-skin structures were particularly susceptible to buck-
ling failures (chapter three). This susceptibility provided a strong argument
in favor of plywood, which possessed superior buckling strength compared
to aluminum or steel. The advantage of plywood was not merely theoretical.
A number of manufacturers in the 1920s developed successful wooden air-
planes with stressed plywood coverings, demonstrating the viability of ply-
wood structures as an alternative to metal stressed-skin airplanes. These
manufacturers also benefited significantly from federal research, although at
a level far below that devoted to metal construction. Belief in the inevita-
bility of metal construction led the aviation community to neglect wood
research, even in problems widely recognized as critical, limiting the ability
of plywood to compete with the new metal structures. Despite the promise
shown by plywood stressed-skin airplanes and the clear utility of wood re-
search for airplane designers, the progress ideology of metal undermined
further developments along this alternative path.

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