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

3. Metal and its discontents,   pp. [44]-63

Page 52

52                                                   CHAPTER THREE
the Dornier and Rohrbach designs. These stringers kept the edges of each
panel rigid, preventing buckling as long as the stringers themselves did not
Although these techniques improved the weight efficiency of metal air-
planes, they had a price, quite literally All-metal designs required a mas-
sive amount of riveting and a large number of different parts, which greatly
increased labor costs. Initial costs are typically high in the early stages of
most innovations, and metal airplanes proved no exception. But even as
manufacturers gained experience, all-metal airplanes still remained far more
expensive than composite airplanes built with wood wings and steel-tube
Proponents of metal admitted that wood had some advantages for build-
ing experimental designs and small quantities, but they insisted that these
advantages would disappear with quantity production. Metal, argued Hugo
Junkers, was essential for "modern methods of manufacture, such as ...
interchangeability, standardisation, [and] wide application of machine
work." William Stout asserted, with characteristic hyperbole, that small
metal airplanes could be produced at even lower cost than cars or trucks,
given an equally large market. A 1930 survey of American airplane manu-
facturers found that "many [manufacturers] consider general use of metals
or alloys as necessary to attain mass production," a goal "of vital importance
to the progress of the ... industry."25
Despite the supposed advantages of metal in production, early metal air-
planes cost considerably more than those built with composite structures.
In 1924 Admiral William A. Moffett, head of the Navy Bureau of Aeronau-
tics, reported that the "high cost of this type of construction" continued to
limit the navy's use of metal airplanes; the following year Comdr. H. C.
Richardson reported to Congress that metal flying boats were costing the
navy five to six times more than comparable wooden types.26 The devel-
opment costs of metal airplanes were particularly high, as demonstrated by
the army's DB-1 metal bomber. The first DB-1 prototype cost Gallaudet
$148,000, which included a $43,000 loss on the fixed-price contract. The
Air Service paid Gallaudet another $150,000 to redesign the DB-1, but the
new model also proved unsatisfactory The DB- 1 was among the most costly
development projects undertaken by the Air Service in the early 1920s; only
the huge Barling NBL-1 bomber cost more.7
The widespread faith that metal airplanes would ultimately prove cheaper
to build than wood airplanes helped sustain support for metal construction
during the 1920s. Yet subsequent experience proved this faith unfounded.
Metal airplanes remained more costly than mixed wood-and-metal types
throughout the 1930s, even though costs gradually decreased as airplane
manufacturers gained experience with metal. A 1930 German study, which

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