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

7. Persistence pays off: military success with metal airplanes,   pp. [135]-154

Page [135]

Persistence Pays Off:
Military Success with Metal Airplanes
BY THE MID-1920S, the military's vigorous support for metal construction
had failed to produce a single metal airplane suitable for service use. Both
the army and navy had cooled in their enthusiasm for all-metal airplanes,
and each service seemed resigned to purchasing airplanes with steel-tube
fuselages and fabric-covered wooden wings, at least temporarily Despite
this more pragmatic attitude, the earlier efforts to develop metal airplanes
had generated considerable momentum, both in the military and among
private manufacturers.1 The military's continuing pronouncements in favor
of metal construction encouraged private manufacturers to risk their own
funds on new prototypes, even when military contracts were not forth-
coming. Military projects also helped diffuse the skills needed to design and
build metal airplanes throughout the aviation industry The army's metal
spar study provided many airplane companies with experience in designing
metal structures, while the duralumin fabrication techniques developed at
the Naval Aircraft Factory were freely transferred to any company with a
navy contract (see chapter four). In time, this momentum began to yield
success. By the late 1920s and early 1930s, both the army and navy were
purchasing metal airplanes as standard service types.
The army and navy pursued somewhat different strategies for meeting
their goal of all-metal construction during the second half of the 1920s.
Both services continued to support some metal airplane projects, though at
lower funding levels than in the early 1920s. The army used the momentum
for metal construction to convince manufacturers to contribute substan-
tially toward development costs. This strategy led to the Thomas-Morse 0-6
observation plane, the army's first metal airplane successful enough to
undergo service tests, and its successor, the Thomas-Morse 0-19, the army's
first metal airplane to be procured in quantity In contrast to the army, the
navy vigorously pursued the development of large metal flying boats at its
own facility, the Naval Aircraft Factory (NAF). NAF personnel designed and
built a series of experimental airplanes to perfect the metal flying boat; in
the late 1920s the NAF transferred these designs to industry for production.
Meanwhile, the Air Corps had become concerned about a potential shortage
of aircraft timber, which provided an excuse for increased efforts to ob-
tain suitable metal airplanes. At the same time, the army began losing its

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