Manufacturers Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Companies that produce vehicles for travel in air or space, or components of those vehicles.


The Wright brothers made the first powered flight in 1903, but the early years of aviation did not prove very lucrative for aircraft manufacturers. Most designers were sons of wealthy families with the time and money to pursue their interest in flying. Experienced engine designers migrated from the automotive industry, but even relatively successful manufacturers such as the Wright Company and the Curtiss Aeroplane Company had difficulty finding a consistent market for their planes. Most companies hoped for military contracts, but armed forces around the world were reluctant to adopt an unfamiliar weapon, and military purchases remained minuscule.

World War I

The demands of modern war soon demonstrated the usefulness of aviation. Aircraft had been used in reconnaissance roles in minor conflicts before the war began, and both sides soon recognized the potential of aviation. At first, aircraft served as spotters for the artillery, but fighters soon developed, followed later in the war by bombers. In Germany, Dutch designer Anthony Fokker created a device that allowed a machine gun to fire through a spinning propeller. Fokker’s E-I fighter entered service in 1915 and soon dominated the skies over the western front. Subsequent Fokker models demonstrated continuous improvement, culminating in the highly advanced D-VII, which so frightened the Allies that they demanded the surrender of all D-VII’s as a condition of the armistice. Other German manufacturers followed Fokker’s lead. Albatros and Rumpler produced excellent aircraft, particularly in the reconnaissance sector. Late in the war, Gotha developed a heavy bomber that Germany used to bomb targets in Great Britain. Despite Germany’s defeat, the nation’s aviation industry produced more than 44,000 aircraft during the war and utilized twenty-six engine and thirty-five airframe manufacturers.

To meet the German threat, Britain’s manufacturers expanded their operations. Sopwith proved one of the most effective, and the company’s Pup and Camel models pushed the existing limitations of performance. Other British companies, including Handley-Page and Vickers, competed strongly with Sopwith’s aircraft. Perhaps the most important manufacturing outgrowth of World War I on Britain’s industry was the development of two important engine manufacturers, Napiers and Rolls-Royce. Rolls-Royce would use its wartime experience to become one of the world’s foremost engine designers over the next eighty years.

Interwar Developments

After World War I, manufacturers to turned increasingly to the civilian market. The notoriety of aircraft during the war had done a great deal to increase public interest in aviation. In the United States, the federal government established air mail service and supported research into increased performance. Charles A. Lindbergh’s solo transatlantic flight in 1927 also caused a sensation. Responding to these developments, U.S. manufacturers found an increasing market for their products. Lockheed developed its Vega monoplane, which set a number of speed and altitude records. Other manufacturers, notably Douglas and Boeing, recognized the developing airliner market. By the end of the 1930’s, both companies had developed planes that incorporated such modern features as a comfortable cabin, retractable landing gear, and all-metal construction. U.S. manufacturers even designed airliners for transatlantic service, but World War II interrupted plans to produce these aircraft.

Despite the newfound commercial market, many aircraft makers still looked to the military as their primary customer. Despite Douglas’s success in the airliner sector, more than half of the company’s sales went to the military. Military designs took on a greater importance as war seemed more likely in the 1930’s. Many theorists, anxious to avoid the stalemate of World War I, saw air power as the deciding factor in future conflicts.

Germany’s rearmament program took place in direct contradiction of the Treaty of Versailles, which expressly forbade Germany to have an air force. Despite some resistance from leaders in the industry, most notably Hugo Junkers, Germany’s new military expansion began in earnest in 1933. Leaders such as Junkers who opposed the idea were swept aside and their companies became integral parts in the development of a new air force. Junkers, Domier, Messerschmitt, Focke-Wulf, and Heinkel emerged as the leading aircraft manufacturers in Hitler’s Third Reich. Throughout the 1930’s, these companies perfected designs such as Messerschmitt’s Bf-109 fighter, Junkers’s Ju-87 dive-bomber, and Heinkel’s He-111 bomber. These planes formed the backbone of Germany’s Luftwaffe at the outset of World War II and represented a serious challenge to the Western Allies. Germany’s aviation industry did not simply rearm the nation, however. Manufacturers provided employment for Germany’s depression-ravaged population and helped reinvigorate the economy. In 1934, Britain determined that it had to maintain parity in aviation with Germany and began its own rearmament program. The new surge in defense spending more than tripled employment in the aviation industry between 1930 and 1936. British companies lagged behind their German and American counterparts in terms of modern production facilities, and the sudden demands created by the decision to rearm revealed serious shortages in machine tools and trained personnel. Some companies, including Rolls-Royce, undertook training programs, but manufacturers often resorted to luring trained workers away from competitors. British companies also had difficulty adjusting their designs and manufacturing techniques to the requirements of mass production, something designers in the United States and Germany had already embraced. Nonetheless, British firms turned out such outstanding designs as the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire fighters and the Avro Lancaster heavy bomber.

World War II

World War II meant enormous changes in the technology of aviation. Wartime demands put a great deal of money at the availability of manufacturers. Companies used these funds to design advanced aircraft and to convert their manufacturing processes to mass-production techniques. Most of the companies that came to dominate world aviation in the latter half of the twentieth century gained notoriety during World War II.

In the United States, giants such as Boeing, Douglas, and Lockheed continued work on large bombers and transports, which would give these companies a significant advantage in the postwar airliner market. Other companies, such as Grumman and North American, concentrated primarily on fighters and established themselves as leaders in the sector. Across the United States, thousands of people moved to take jobs in the aircraft industry, located primarily in Southern California, creating a significant demographic shift. The trend toward mass production in the prewar era became an absolute requirement with the demands of war. U.S. companies streamlined designs and production techniques to allow fast manufacturing with unskilled labor.

Britain’s wartime experiments with such ideas as jet propulsion and radar made that country’s manufacturers leaders in those important fields. The success of the Hurricane and the Spitfire in combat proved that Britain could produce aircraft of the highest quality. Unfortunately, the British aviation industry still had difficulty matching its competitors in the area of production. The creative designs of De Havilland helped make that company a fixture in Britain’s aviation industry, but its famed wooden Mosquito fighter-bomber required too much time and skill to produce on the scale demanded by total war. Even more conventional aircraft such as the Spitfire required three times as many man-hours to produce as the German Bf-109. Britain’s aircraft industry emerged from World War II with creative designs and world leaders in engine technology at Rolls-Royce and Bristol Siddley Engines, but the United States’ greater emphasis on mass production would relegate Britain’s manufacturers to a peripheral role in coming years.

Postwar Commercial Manufacturers

Britain emerged from World War II with a great advantage because of the country’s research into jets. U.S. companies continued to build planes such as Lockheed’s luxurious, piston-powered Constellation, but these models did not represent the future of air travel. The De Havilland Comet became the world’s first jet-powered airliner when it began service to the Middle East in 1952. The Comet’s smooth, fast performance made it a favorite of air travelers and presented a formidable challenge to U.S. manufacturers. Unfortunately for De Havilland, the Comet suffered a series of in-flight explosions due to metal fatigue that grounded the plane for two years while investigators tracked down the problem. During the interim, U.S. manufacturers caught up to De Havilland’s lead. Boeing’s 707 and Douglas’s DC-8 established American supremacy in the airliner sector. In the equally important engine manufacturing sector, U.S. companies Pratt & Whitney and General Electric overtook Rolls-Royce and Bristol Siddley as the world’s foremost manufacturers, adding to the United States’s competitive advantage. France’s Sud Aviation managed to sell a handful of its Caravelle medium-range jets to U.S. air carriers, but could not hope to compete with the highly efficient U.S. companies. By 1970, U.S. manufacturers produced 80 percent of the world’s commercial airliners.

European manufacturers realized by the mid-1960’s that they could not hope to compete with the powerful American companies and turned to international cooperation in order to maintain the continent’s struggling aerospace industry. Britain and France agreed in 1962 to undertake a supersonic transport program. The resulting Concorde proved to be a commercial disappointment, with only sixteen of the supersonic airliners being produced due to high manufacturing costs. Air France and British Airways began flying the Concorde in the mid-1970’s, but operated the transatlantic flights at a loss. Despite the difficulties, Concorde did give British and French manufacturers increased prestige and income at a time when American airliners had almost eliminated European companies from the sector. In an effort to reestablish a European presence in airliner manufacturing, corporate and government officials in Britain, France, and West Germany established a consortium called Airbus Industrie in 1967. After a great deal of political negotiating, Airbus produced the A300B, which entered service with Air France in 1974. Airbus continued to expand its product line in an effort to match Boeing’s offerings, and the European conglomerate found customers around the world but fared poorly in the United States. Airbus’s success through the end of the twentieth century assured European manufacturers of a promising future, though the consortium could not match the overwhelming success of Boeing.

Boeing’s dominance in the airliner industry was a result of the company’s diverse aircraft designs. The Seattle-based giant produced planes that offered air carriers a number of options in terms of range, passenger capacity, and engine configuration. Boeing’s U.S. competitors, Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas, did not provide the same diversity and assured Boeing’s position in the United States market. Airbus provided stiffer competition throughout the rest of the world, but Airbus could not offer anything that matched Boeing’s enormous 747 jumbojet, which became a fixture on long-distance routes.

Postwar Military Manufacturers

The prominence of air power during World War II grew during the Cold War, requiring nations to spend a significant portion of their defense budgets on aviation. This dependence proved to be very lucrative for manufacturers. In the United States, the demand for varying kinds of fighters, bombers, and transports offered an opportunity for most of the nation’s aircraft companies to find a segment of the market for their products. This new affluence did not come without challenges, the most significant being cost. The United States hoped to offset the Soviet Union’s numerical superiority with technology, and the resulting aircraft proved increasingly expensive. Companies sought to combine designs in the hope of saving money. Boeing used the same basic design for both its KC-135 tanker and its 707 airliner. In doing so, the company reduced its expenses by saving time in the design phase and by using many of the same tools, jigs, and other equipment on both aircraft.

European companies found the cost of the new high-tech military aircraft prohibitive, and so these manufacturers looked to combine operations with American or other European firms. When several European nations decided to adopt General Dynamic’s single-engine F-16 fighter in the early 1970’s, European manufacturers won the right to fill 40 percent of the European orders and 10 percent of American orders. This agreement helped solidify Europe’s aerospace industry while drastically cutting costs by eliminating the need for research and development.

In other cases, European nations combined their resources to produce original designs. When North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries decided to replace their American-designed F-104 attack fighters in the late 1960’s, the various governments decided to create a new European aircraft. The resulting effort, the Tornado, utilized components from Britain, West Germany, and Italy. The Tornado provided European nations with an aircraft that compared favorably with its American counterparts, and though rather expensive, the Tornado program gave European aerospace manufacturers valuable experience. Manufacturers learned the intricacies of managing such an effort in three different countries, each with its own currency, bureaucracy, and interests. The Tornado program also gave European manufacturers much-needed practice in designing high-performance fighters. European nations hoped to repeat the success of the Tornado with the European Fighter Aircraft, or Eurofighter. Work on the Eurofighter began in the 1980’s, but the enormously complex program ran into technical and political difficulties and remained in the developmental phase at the end of the twentieth century.

Behind the Iron Curtain, the Soviet Union established its reputation as an aerospace power. The Soviets enjoyed a closed market within their sphere of influence, but they also represented a threat to Western companies by competing in the developing world. The Soviet design bureaus of Antonov, Ilyushin, Mikoyan-Guryevich, Tupolev, and Yakovlev sold military and civilian aircraft to nonaligned nations in an effort to strengthen ties between the Soviet Union and the rest of the world. While less capable than Western aircraft, Soviet models were cheaper and generally adequate for most customers.

Corporate Changes

The escalating costs of manufacturing aircraft forced an ongoing series of mergers around the world beginning in the 1960’s. In Britain, consolidation throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s ultimately led to the creation of a single nationalized British company, British Aerospace (BAe) in 1977. The development of BAe followed a government takeover of bankrupt engine-designer Rolls-Royce in 1971, which had already merged with Bristol Siddley Engines in 1966. The Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher privatized both BAe and Rolls-Royce during the 1980’s, but the costs of manufacturing modern aircraft had forced British manufacturers to combine under one single parent company. France’s aerospace industry underwent a similar consolidation in 1970 when the government merged the nation’s already nationalized manufacturers into one state-owned consortium, Aerospatiale, to handle France’s commercial aviation production. Military production in France remained the province of Dassault, a privately held but strictly controlled firm.

American manufacturers fared better but still went through difficult times. Manufacturing giant Douglas merged with the smaller McDonnell Corporation in 1965, starting a series of mergers that continued throughout the remainder of the century. A downturn in orders in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s damaged the industry severely. Boeing laid off two-thirds of its workforce, and Lockheed was saved from bankruptcy only when the U.S. Congress guaranteed the company’s credit. Despite these setbacks, U.S. manufacturers maintained their dominant position in the world market. Boeing’s airliners proved enormously popular, while competing models from McDonnell Douglas and Lockheed found niches in the market. Increased military spending during the 1980’s also offered greater opportunity for U.S. manufacturers, but the new generation of U.S. military aircraft were extraordinarily expensive, and the government’s spending reductions following the end of the Cold War meant that only a handful of the new planes actually entered service.

Increased competition from Airbus irritated American manufacturers, but the U.S. government did not take direct action against European imports. Throughout the 1980’s, U.S. companies pressed for protection, but the government settled for a 1992 agreement in which European governments agreed to limit the direct subsidies they gave to Airbus in return for the U.S. government cutting back on indirect subsidies it offered to its own manufacturers. This agreement did little to limit Airbus’s continued pressure on the U.S. market, but Boeing remained the world’s leading commercial aircraft manufacturer through the remainder of the twentieth century.

Foreign firms also made headway in the small aircraft market, with models from Brazil, France, and Sweden challenging established U.S. companies such as Cessna and Beech.

  • 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.
  • Hayward, Keith. The World Aerospace Industry: Collaboration and Competition. London: Duckworth, 1994. A recent study that addresses trends in globalization, as well as political conflict over trade issues.
  • McGuire, Steven. Airbus Industrie: Conflict and Cooperation in U.S.-E.C. Trade Relations. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. A thorough investigation of the history of Airbus and its attempts to enter the U.S. market. The book also looks at the individual aerospace industries in Britain, France, and Germany.
  • Pisano, Dominick, and Cathleen Lewis, eds. Air and Space History: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1988. An extraordinarily thorough bibliographical guide. This book covers a wide range of topics in flight, including economic, political, technical, and corporate subjects.

Aerospace industry, U.S.


Airline industry, U.S.


Bell Aircraft


Cessna Aircraft Company

Fokker aircraft


Lockheed Martin

McDonnell Douglas

Messerschmitt aircraft

Military flight

Piper aircraft

Categories: History