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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 [192]

World War II and the
Revival of the Wooden Airplane
RARELY DOES AN ABANDONED TECHNOLOGY get a second chance. But wooden
airplanes did get a second chance, one provided by the production demands
of World War II. During the war, aluminum shortages and overtaxed metal-
working industries constrained ambitious aircraft programs among all
major belligerents. In the United States, the army responded to the alumi-
num shortage by launching a major program to substitute wood for alumi-
num in noncombat airplanes. While the aluminum shortage lasted, wood
seemed to cast off its traditional symbolic associations, at least in public,
and became "modern" enough for use in airplanes. But the military and the
aviation industry could not reverse two decades of neglect overnight, and
the American wooden airplane program made only a minor contribution to
the war effort. Other combatants, in contrast, had much more success with
wood, using it to build some of the best combat airplanes of the war.
The Aluminum Shortage in the United States
From the end of 1940 until the summer of 1943, the American airplane
industry faced a severe shortage of aluminum, the single most important
material for military aircraft. This shortage resulted directly from the expan-
sion of U.S. military aircraft production that began soon after the Czech
crisis of September 1938. Hitler's bellicose Nuremberg speech, along with
the British and French capitulation at Munich, convinced President Roose-
velt that he needed to expand U.S. air power. On November 14, 1938, FDR
startled his senior advisers by calling for an air force of twenty thousand
planes and the capacity to produce twenty-four thousand more each year. At
this time the Air Corps had only twenty-one hundred serviceable aircraft.
FDR eventually reduced his request to three thousand aircraft, in part to
fund necessary expansion of ground facilities such as airfields and service
depots. Congress acted quickly, allocating $178 million for the purchase of
over thirty-two hundred airplanes to begin July 1939.1 The Czech crisis also
sparked a rapid growth in foreign demand for American military airplanes.
Foreign orders, led by the increasingly desperate French and British, soon
dwarfed the Air Corps' own expansion program. By the end of 1939, the

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