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

1. Materials, symbols, and ideologies of progress,   pp. [3]-21

Page 10

support for metal construction encouraged other manufacturers to develop
metal commercial airplanes.
Despite the strength of the progress ideology of metal, the technology of
wooden airplanes did not remain static in the 1920s. Chapter six describes
one such development, the plywood stressed-skin airplane. This form of
construction demonstrated its viability in the Lockheed Vega, the fastest
single-engine commercial airplane of the late 1920s. The streamlined,
stressed-skin Vega anticipated the sleek metal airliners of the 1930s. Never-
theless, the progress ideology of metal inhibited development of airplanes
like the Vega. The federal government provided only minimal support for
research on wood construction while vigorously supporting research on air-
craft metals. In the late 1920s, the federal government began eliminating
support for research on wood glues, even though the majority of commer-
cial aircraft still relied on glued joints. In 1931 deterioration of glued joints
contributed to the crash of a Fokker trimotor that killed football coach
Knute Rockne.
Meanwhile, the military continued to support development of metal air-
planes, despite the repeated failures of the early 1920s. In the early 1930s,
both the army and navy finally developed all-metal airplanes suitable for
combat use. Chapter seven recounts these developments. In parallel with
the military's continued support for metal construction, a number of private
firms sought to develop comparable designs for commercial aircraft. These
all-metal, stressed-skin airplanes had limited success until after the Rockne
crash in 1931, when the airlines turned decisively in favor of all-metal con-
struction. After the introduction of the Boeing 247 in 1933 and the Douglas
DC-2 in 1934, all-metal airplanes became standard for scheduled air travel
in the United States. Chapter eight describes the triumph of these all-metal
airliners and the role of military support in their development.
Innovation in wooden construction continued, however, even after the
apparent triumph of metal. In the late 1930s, a few creative designers devel-
oped molded plywood airplanes using new resin adhesives based on ther-
mosetting plastics. These new adhesives eliminated the worst problems of
traditional wood glues, especially the tendency to deteriorate when damp.
Chapter nine describes the development of these "plastic" airplanes in the
late 1930s and their failure to gain military support before World War II.
Mobilization for World War II dramatically reversed the decline of
wooden airplanes in the United States, a story told in chapter ten. When a
serious aluminum shortage developed in late 1940, the army launched a
major program to increase the use of wood in noncombat airplanes. The
military could not reverse two decades of neglect overnight, however, and
in 1943 army officers pronounced the wooden airplane program a failure. In
contrast to the United States, other countries had considerably more success
with wooden airplanes. The most striking example was Britain's all-wood

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