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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 117

PLYWOOD STRESSED-SKIN CONSTRUCTION                                117
Development of the wood monocoque fuselage continued after the war,
building on the work at McCook Field. Not long after the Armistice, Alfred
Verville, a civilian engineer at McCook, designed a racing monoplane based
around a monocoque fuselage of the Deperdussin type. Verville simplified
the Deperdussin process by building the fuselage in two half shells. The
army entered the Verville racer, designated the VCP, in the 1920 Pulitzer Air
Race, the most important aerial competition in the United States. The VCP
won the race with an average speed of 178 mph. Not to be outdone, the navy
decided to compete in the 1921 Pulitzer race, and it turned to the Curtiss
Aeroplane and Motor Company. Following Verville's example, the Cur-
tiss company designed the first of a series of biplane racers with plywood
monocoque fuselages. Army and navy variants of the Curtiss racers domi-
nated American racing through 1925.8
After the Armistice, Curtiss and other manufacturers also designed ply-
wood monocoques for new commercial models. Unfortunately, manufac-
turers could sell few new airplanes of any type in the early postwar years due
to the glut of war-surplus airplanes. In 1919 Curtiss developed two com-
mercial airplanes for the anticipated postwar market, the Oriole and the
Eagle. Both models had plywood monocoque fuselages. The Oriole was a
three-seat, open-cockpit biplane, while the Eagle carried six to eight passen-
gers in a comfortable enclosed cabin. Little is known about Curtiss produc-
tion methods for its monocoque fuselage, but Curtiss engineers obviously
believed that their methods would allow them to meet the expected robust
demand. The production potential of the Curtiss fuselage was never tested,
however. Curtiss built only a few Eagles, while sales of the Oriole amounted
to a few dozen at most.9
More interesting from a production standpoint was the Loughead S-1 of
1919. Brothers Malcolm and Allen Loughead had established the Loughead
Aircraft Manufacturing Company in 1916. The S-1 was a single-place sport
biplane, designed to serve the demand expected from thousands of demobi-
lized army pilots for a small, low-cost airplane. Anthony Stadlman, Loug-
head's head of production, worked out a plywood molding method for the
S-I superior to those developed for McCook Field during the war. Malcolm
Loughead applied for a patent on this process in 1919.10 The S-i fuselage
skin was formed in halves in a concrete mold cast in the precise shape of the
fuselage. Workers placed three layers of spruce veneer strips in the mold,
each layer well coated with glue. A layer of cloth separated each veneer
layer, as in the Deperdussin fuselage. All the layers were assembled at one
time. A cover was then clamped over the mold, and a rubber bag inside the
cover was inflated, placing uniform pressure on the shell. This pressure was
maintained until the glue set. Workers then glued the completed half-shell
to the bulkheads and stringers.1
The Loughead brothers spent almost $30,000 on the S-1 prototype, but
they failed to sell a single airplane due to the postwar collapse of the airplane

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