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

10. World War II and the revival of the wooden airplane,   pp. [192]-222

Page 217

suffer from deterioration or manufacturing defects, users of the Mosquito
treated these in the same manner as similar difficulties with metal airplanes,
as solvable problems rather than inherent flaws.
For critics of wood construction in the United States, the success of the
Mosquito was an anomaly in need of explanation. In April 1941 General
Arnold witnessed a demonstration of the Mosquito in England and returned
to the United States thoroughly impressed. After Arnold's visit there was
some discussion about building the Mosquito in the United States, which
ended when the British decided to build the airplane in Canada. Wright
Field then asked a number of companies to comment on the Mosquito's
design, and received responses almost uniformly hostile. These criticisms
revealed that American engineers could not recognize a brilliantly designed
wooden airplane when they saw one. Beech Aircraft had the strongest objec-
tions, concluding that the Mosquito "has sacrificed serviceability, structural
strength, ease of construction, and flying characteristics in an attempt to use
a construction material which is not suitable for the manufacture of efficient
airplanes." Attitudes like these made it quite difficult for American manu-
facturers to design and build successful wooden airplanes.87 The Mosquito
also came up in September 1943 at a meeting of the NACA Materials Com-
mittee, when J. B. Johnson announced the army's decision to stop buying
wooden airplanes. When questioned about the Mosquito's success, Johnson
attributed it to Britain's uniform humidity An army officer suggested that
the Mosquito might have been a better airplane if built of aluminum.88
Perhaps. But in fact the Mosquito was built of wood, and no nation pro-
duced a comparable airplane in metal, let alone a better one. The success of
the Mosquito contradicted those who argued that wood was inherently an
inferior material for airplanes. There was nothing magic about the Mos-
quito. It owed its success largely to the uninterrupted experience of the
de Havilland firm in the design and manufacture of high-performance
wooden airplanes, beginning with the Comet racer that won the 1934 En-
gland-Australia air race. This race is more often remembered as a triumph
for the American all-metal airliner, since second and third places were taken
by a Douglas DC-2 and a Boeing 247, standard commercial airplanes that
any airline could buy9 But de Havilland, rather than turning to metal like
the rest of the industry, used the experience gained with the Comet to de-
velop other wooden airplanes, most notably the four-engine Albatross air-
liner. The Albatross was not a great success, but it gave de Havilland the
experience needed to succeed with the Mosquito, experience that American
firms lacked.90
The Mosquito was not Britain's only successful wooden airplane of the
war. The rearmament program of the late 1930s awakened the British mili-
tary to its dangerous dependence on imported aluminum. Britain did not
have a large aluminum industry of its own; in 1938 British production

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