Aircraft industry

Among the many products developed and sold by American industries, aircraft have been one of the most successful and most conspicuous. Throughout most of the world, American aircraft have dominated the field for many years.

The beginning of America’s aircraft industry can be traced back to the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, whose successful first flight of a piloted airplane in 1903 was followed by their application for a patent. This was followed in 1909 by the formation of the Wright CompanyWright Company and the first sales of airplanes to the public. A rival company was started by Glenn Curtiss, GlennCurtiss, an adventurous flyer whose designs soon proved to be more attractive than those of the Wrights, and the Curtiss Aeroplane CompanyCurtiss Aeroplane Company soon dominated the market. By the time of the U.S. entry into World War I in 1917, there were three airplane manufacturers in the United States: the Wrights’ company (which primarily built airplane engines), Curtiss’s company, and the Glenn A. Martin CompanyGlenn A. Martin Company, newly formed in California. All three were involved in supplying aircraft to the military during the war.Aircraft industry

Post-World War I Expansion

During the 1920’s, three more major aircraft companies came into being: Douglas Aircraft CompanyDouglas Aircraft Company, Boeingthe Boeing Company, and Lockheed Corporationthe Lockheed Corporation. The primary customers of the time were the newly created airlines such as United, Trans World Airlines, and American Airlines, as well as the armed forces. The Military-industrial complex[military industrial complex]military foresaw the potential importance of airplanes in the event of another global war and encouraged aircraft builders to develop planes that would have long ranges and a capacities for heavy cargo. Curtiss built a popular trainer called the “Jenny,” and Martin built some of the first bombers.

Passenger planes did not at first command a very big market. Well-publicized plane crashes made potential passengers wary, and costs were high. Airlines survived primarily because of airmail subsidies. The first successful airliners were the Lockheed Vega, the Douglas DC-2, and the Boeing 247, all of which were capable of crossing the country in three or four hops. Overhead was high, and they carried few passengers (the Vega carried only six, the Boeing 247 carried ten, and the DC-2 carried fourteen).

Urged to create a better plane with longer range by the head of American Airlines, Douglas brought out a revolutionary new plane, the DC-3 aircraftDC-3. Introduced in 1936, the DC-3 quickly cornered the market. It carried twenty-one passengers, could fly nonstop from New York to Chicago, had a kitchen for serving hot meals, and developed a safety record unparalleled in the industry.

Boeing turned its efforts to the military market. Its first large bomber was the B-17, which was first flown in 1935 but fully realized its potential after the start of World War II[World War 02];aircraft industryWorld War II. Boeing also developed the B-29 bomber, which played a very important role in the war, as did the various military airplanes built by Lockheed, Curtiss, Douglas, Convair, and other smaller companies. More than 300,000 airplanes were built by the American aircraft industry during the war years.

Post-World War II Developments

Postwar conditions were similar to those that followed the end of World War I: Few new orders for planes were received by the aircraft companies, because used planes from the war were abundant and inexpensive. The DC-3, which had been called the C-47 in its military version, could be bought, converted to airline specifications, and flown very inexpensively.

In due time, largely because of the improved speed, comfort, and safety records of the airlines, more people chose to fly. Gradually, the demand for new and better aircraft led to renewed activity in the airplane companies. Douglas brought out the DC-4 and DC-5, but not until the introduction of the DC-6 did the airlines buy large numbers. The DC-6 was a much bigger craft, with four engines, retractable landing gear, and a pressurized cabin to allow flying above the weather. Furthermore, the long-range version of the DC-6 could fly across the Atlantic. Boeing also introduced a larger airliner, called the Stratocruiser. It was especially designed for long-distance flights and was unique for the era in having two decks, with the lower deck serving as a lounge or first-class cabin. Lockheed came out with an elegant design for a long-range liner, called the Constellation. Rather than a long, straight cylinder, the fuselage of the Constellation was tapered and curved in a streamlined shape, and the tail had triple fins. At the end of the era of propeller planes, Lockheed was building a larger version of the Constellation called the Super Constellation, and Douglas was building the DC-7.

Jet planes first became practical during the late 1940’s. Military jets were developed first, and they saw their first extensive use during the Korean WarKorean War. Jet fighters were manufactured by Lockheed, North American Aviation, and Republic. Long-range bombers were developed by Boeing, which introduced the sleek B-47 in 1947 and the eight-engine B-52 a few years later.

The first commercial jet was the British De Haviland Comet, which first saw service in 1952. After several tragic crashes, the Comets were withdrawn from service in 1954, and commercial jets were not reintroduced until 1958, when the Boeing 707 went into service. This was truly a turning point for the industry. With the rapid speed of the new jets and their improved safety record, people abandoned trains and ocean liners, and the Transportationtransportation industry was taken over by the airlines. Even some freight was switched from ships and trains to airplanes.

Boeing’s 707 was followed by others in the 700 series, some for shorter legs (the 727 and 737), some for intercontinental flights (the 747 and 777), and some for increased efficiency (the 757 and 767). Douglas developed the DC-8 as its first jet and later the tri-motor jumbo jet DC-10. Lockheed, after putting out a jet-prop hybrid called the Electra, which had wing-failure problems, introduced the L1011, and Convair came out with the short-lived 880 and 990. However, by the end of the twentieth century, only the Boeing planes were still in production in the United States. The Boeing Company’s revenue in 2007 totaled $66 billion. During the early decades of the twenty-first century, serious competition from Europe’s Airbus Industrie had begun to erode the near monopoly that the American aircraft industry had enjoyed for so long.

Further Reading

  • Bilstein, Roger. The American Aerospace Industry: From Workshop to Global Enterprise. New York: Twayne, 1996. A solid historical examination of corporate development in American aviation. The book also examines the role of general aviation manufacturers such as Cessna and Piper.
  • _______. Flight in America: From the Wrights to the Astronauts. Rev. ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. A good overview of aviation and space travel that also examines technological trends in aviation.
  • Boyne, Walter J. Beyond the Horizons: The Lockheed Story. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 1998. Examination of Lockheed from one of America’s foremost aviation historians.
  • Francillon, Rene. McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Since 1920. Annapolis Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1990. Discusses the civilian and military aircraft developed by both companies prior to their merger and after their combination.
  • Heppenheimer, T. A. Flight: A History of Aviation in Photographs. Richmond Hill, Ont.: Firefly Books, 2004. Thoroughly illustrated history of the aircraft industry.
  • _______. Turbulent Skies: The History of Commercial Aviation. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998. A comprehensive history of commercial aviation from the biplane era to the end of the twentieth century.
  • Millbrooke, Anne. Aviation History. Englewood, Colo.: Jeppeson Sanderson, 2000. International history of aircraft engineering and aviation.

Air traffic controllers’ strike

Air transportation industry


Arms industry

DC-3 aircraft

Howard Hughes

Supersonic jetliners

Transatlantic steamer service

Transcontinental railroad