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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 42

42                                                        CHAPTER TWO
American institution for research in aerodynamics. In 1920, however, the
NACA remained just one of several federal agencies competing for influence
over the federal aeronautics establishment.53 By supporting research in
metal airplanes, NACA staff hoped to position the agency at the forefront of
aviation technology, insuring the NACA a central place in postwar aviation.
The NACA showed some interest in metal aircraft construction before
1920, but it only developed a real enthusiasm for metal after the arrival of
the Junkers transports.54 In July, Leigh M. Griffith, the senior engineer at
Langley, visited the Engineering Division of the Army Air Service at
McCook Field, which had just received the army's first JL-6. The Engineer-
ing Division continued McCook Field's wartime role as a development and
test center for new military aircraft. The Engineering Division proposed to
spend $250,000 to develop all-metal airplanes, but, reported Griffith, the
army engineers had no clear program for spending this money Griffith be-
lieved that the NACA "could become an important factor in the direction of
this all-metal development" if it submitted a well-defined program for re-
search on metal construction.55
Griffith's proposal for a research program was received favorably at
NACA headquarters in Washington.56 In a clear lapse of institutional mem-
ory, discussions of the proposed program contained no reference to the
metal airplane work of the Empire company, whose results justified only
cautious support for metal. Instead, discussions of the program revealed the
powerful though unarticulated influence of the neue Stil, which combined
metal construction and the fully cantilevered monoplane in a single aes-
thetic construct. In a memo to the executive committee on the proposed
program, NACA executive officer George Lewis shifted back and forth be-
tween problems of metal construction and internally braced wings, with no
justification for their inclusion in a single program. A major component of
the draft program involved aerodynamic research regarding the properties
of thick wings, which at that time were a necessity for fully cantilevered
construction. The program also proposed research into the properties of
duralumin and the most effective types of metal structures.57
In the end, the NACA technical committees failed to agree on a compre-
hensive research program. Nevertheless, enthusiasm for metal airplanes
found voice in the NACAs annual report for 1920, which contained a ring-
ing endorsement of all-metal construction. The report discussed airplane
materials in what appeared to be sober, technical language:
All-metal construction of airplanes has received the careful attention of airplane
manufacturers in Europe, with the result that apparently successful models have
been constructed. The war was fought with machines constructed of wood, which
from many standpoints is most unsatisfactory ... Wood has a nonhomogenous
structure, is uncertain in strength and weight, warps and cracks, and weakens

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