University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
Link to University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
Link to University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
History of Science and Technology

Page View

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

2. Engineering enthusiasm: World War I and the origins of the metal airplane,   pp. [22]-43

Page 37

Figure 2.7. The huge Staaken E4/20 all-metal passenger monoplane, ordered de-
stroyed by the Allies in 1922. National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institu-
tion (SI neg. no. 76-17370).
then designed a large all-metal passenger airplane, probably based on war-
time plans for an all-metal bomber. Construction of the airplane, known as
the Staaken E4/20 (or E.4.250), began in May 1919, but was not completed
until September 1920 (figure 2.7). The Staaken E4/20 was probably the larg-
est passenger transport of the period. Its four 240-horsepower engines were
buried in the leading edge of a thick monoplane wing. The structure was
formed almost entirely from flat duralumin sheet, including the fuselage
skin and most of the wing. Specially shaped "stringers" riveted to the inside
of the skin provided additional stiffness, similar to Dornier practice. The
plane had a top speed of 144 mph, and could carry up to eighteen passen-
gers. However, its load-carrying efficiency was quite low, with its useful
load amounting to only 28 percent of its gross weight, and it had a very high
landing speed of 80 mph. After its test flights, the Inter-Allied Aeronautical
Control Commission judged the Staaken E4/20 to have military value,
which contravened the Versailles treaty The commission ordered the air-
craft destroyed, and it was scrapped in November 1922."5
Many aviation historians portray Rohrbach's work, and the Staaken E4/20
in particular, as forerunners of the modern all-metal airplane.3" Indeed, the
Rohrbach airplane anticipated the main features of seminal designs like
the DC-1 of 1933, namely the unbraced monoplane with a stressed-skin
structure built primarily of aluminum-alloy sheet. Yet the Staaken was far
from an efficient airplane. Rather, it embodied technological enthusiasms
nurtured by war, its grand size deriving more from German desire for
long-range bombers than any realistic appraisal of civilian air transport, and
its esoteric material a byproduct of another wartime excess, the military
zeppelin. No airplane of its size would prove successful in civil aviation
before the 1930s. The Allies were indeed justified in ordering the airplane
destroyed, for it was more appropriate for military than civilian purposes.37

Go up to Top of Page