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
During the 1920’s, three more major aircraft companies came into being:
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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