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The Jet Makers

The Aerospace Industry from 1945 to 1972

• Title
• Introduction
• Preface
• Acknowledgements

• I: World War II: Aviation Comes of Age
• II: The Aerospace Industry since World War II: A Brief History
• III: The National Military Strategy: Background for the Government Markets
• IV: The Principal Government Market: The United States Air Force
• V: The Other Government Markets: The Aerospace Navy, the Air Army, and NASA
• VI: Fashions in Government Procurement
• VII: The Heartbreak Market: Airliners
• VIII: Design or Die: The Supreme Technological Industry
• IX: Production: The Payoff
• X: Diversification: The Hedge for Survival
• XI: Costs: Into the Stratosphere
• XII: Finance and Management
• XIII: Entry into the Aerospace Industry
• XIV: Exit from the Aerospace Industry
• XV: The Influence of the Jet Engine on the Industry

• Notes
• Acronyms
• Annotated Bibliography




The triumphs and trials of the aerospace industry that are recounted above have ended on sour notes: the failures and near-failures of recent times as the industry entered recession and demobilizational instability. Reflections made in the trough of a cycle should not be unduly influenced by the grim outlook of hard times. Skepticism and pessimism would have been easy to adopt in an assessment of the aerospace industry in the late forties or since the Vietnam War: admiration and optimism would have been easy during and between the Korean and Vietnam wars.

An attempt will be made here to find a middle ground. The industry appears to be basically healthy. Despite a combination of recession and demobilization instability only one company, Grumman, underwent a “normal” business crisis. Lockheed was brought to its knees only by a series of massive blows, and it survives. Boeing, with government business running less than a third of sales in the early seventies, retrenched so successfully that it turned a profit, after taxes, in every year. The industry appears to be in a condition to weather further storms. Like other businesses, it should emerge from adversity in a leaner and tougher condition.

In the sixties two scholars evaluated the performance of the aerospace industry. In 1968 John B. Rae admired it in his book Climb to Greatness; although some of the disasters of the sixties were briefly mentioned, his story ended in 1960. This was a time when a highly favorable view of the industry could be taken. In 1965 Herman O. Stekler was critical, concluding that the industry's performance was not outstanding and could be improved.1

Both Rae and Stekler were correct. The industry has shown the strength to weather storms, and its accomplishments are impressive. If deterrence has been a success, its achievement has been based partly on the material muscle provided by the aerospace companies. Their hardware has also performed well in our recent military conflicts, and their equipment has won the race to the moon and explored other areas of space. American airliners are the world's standard and bulk large in U.S. exports. In short, the industry's technological accomplishments have met the fantastic demands which have been made. But these achievements have not been attained, with a few exceptions, with the kind of efficiency one expects from American manufacturing. The cause is primarily the government's, for the industry provided the technology that was ordered: technical sophistication regardless of cost. Yet, as has been seen, the industry was overly cooperative in ignoring efficiency.

Fortunately, efficiency is easier to obtain than improved technology. And hard times are the catharsis that cleanses capitalism of the waste that accumulates in prosperity. Therefore, the aerospace industry can do better than it has, and can respond to an order for technology with efficiency.

Within the overall performance of the industry, the advent of jet propulsion has been the dominant technical force.


Dominating all other facets of jet influence on design has been the geometric increase in unit productivity of aircraft. The jet's greatly increased power-to-weight ratio resulted in such improved distance, time, and payload performance that the airplane has far greater economic and military usefulness than ever before. This obviously benefits the industry.

The kind of aircraft which has most benefited from this improved efficiency has been the civil and military air transport. The jet has made the achievement of mass air transportation possible on a larger scale than the piston airliner could have accomplished. The military transport has provided a major increase in logistics capability and military force mobility for tactical airpower and for armies.

The jet has enabled fighter and attack aircraft to retain their effectiveness. Piston fighters or attack aircraft would have been at a relatively great disadvantage against antiaircraft missiles.

Big bombers have been the least affected by the jet engine. Had they not been made obsolescent by afterburner-jet interceptors armed with missiles and by antiaircraft missiles, they would have been made so in a piston-engine world by the rocket-engined interceptor with missiles and by the same antiaircraft missiles. The German Me 163 rocket interceptor indicated the possibilities for this during the piston-bomber era. The jet engine with afterburner cut off development of rocket engines for aircraft.

The overall result of the jet's impact has been to expand the total market demand for new kinds of aircraft, because of the increased effectiveness of transports and the sustained capability of fighters and attack planes.

The jet engine has spurred development of equipment, adding to aerospace industry sales. The jet provided the ability to lift great weights, so more equipment could be carried; at the same time the higher performance of the jet called for improved navigation and communication equipment.


The rebirth of the rocket engine roughly parallels development of the jet, but production of large jet aircraft preceded that of missiles, except for the V-1 and V-2. Further, larger missiles were not practical until thermonuclear weapons were available in small size. Therefore, the jet engine did not accelerate the basic development of missiles, but only contributed to earlier solution of lesser missile problems. Since space vehicles were a follow-on to the big missile, the relationship between space hardware and jet aircraft is similar to that between the missiles and the jet.

What is important to the aerospace industry is that jet production preceded that of missiles. This changed the “tin benders” into machinists. Had the jet not come along, it would have been far more natural for the automakers to have produced missiles than for the aircraft makers to do so. The auto firms were interested, as we have seen, and they would probably have taken over the business. Therefore, the advent of the jet engine indirectly prepared and enabled the aerospace industry to dominate missile and space development and production, operations which are now a major share of its sales.

The advent of the jet also prepared the industry for its R&D work. Too much had to be learned too soon to rely on NACA, and the industry itself entered R&D perforce. By 1967, without counting Atomic Energy Commission or NASA contracts, defense work occupied one-fifth of America's civilian electrical and mechanical engineers, two-fifths of the physicists outside teaching, and three-fifths of aeronautical engineers.2 Some benefits besides the jet-missile-space accomplishments have resulted. Research has received more attention compared to development, correcting a long-term American failing. The defense work helped to develop high-speed computers and miniaturization. There were detrimental results as well from the emphasis on defense R&D. The education of scientists and engineers shifted toward more technically sophisticated fields and away from productivity. By 1972 production engineering was not taught in most technical schools. Patent applications in the United States by American citizens declined sharply after 1952, while those filed in this country by foreigners reached almost one-half of the total by 1972.3


Aside from the marketing factors already discussed in this chapter, the jet engine created a surge in the market. As the text has shown, re-equipment with jet aircraft took two decades: the last major remnants of the piston age, attack aircraft and short-range airliners, died out during the Vietnam War. The replacement of aircraft took place earlier than would have been the case with new piston aircraft models, because the piston aircraft had reached a point of diminishing returns in improvement. Also, since the jet technology had been in its infancy, models became technologically obsolete before they wore out. The peak effects of the reequipping and rapid technological obsolescence were reached during the Korean War. This circumstance should always be considered in connection with that war's mobilization and industrial history.

The surge in markets which was produced probably is now over, and the effect in the future will be fewer sales because of the high performance of the jets. The jet airplane is more rugged and expensive than the piston. It also appears to have now reached diminishing returns in technical improvement, although the advent of the jet age delayed the moment when aeronautics reached such a plateau. Replacement of jet aircraft should be at a lower rate than was the case for piston aircraft, although there may be special cases like the recent major improvements in eliminating smoke and noise from jet engines, which inspired rapid replacement of the dirtier and noisier jetliners. Thus the advent of the jet meant a large acceleration of aircraft sales for two decades, followed by a permanently lower level until there is another major breakthrough in engine efficiency. The durable-goods aerospace industry is, for the most part, selling to a mature market, where replacement should be at a respectable level in our air age.

The reduction in the number of units sold, the increase in capital, equipment and handcraft methods required, and the higher costs of inventories for larger, more complex units have caused financial burdens to increase. Therefore, financial needs and risks are much greater for the aerospace industry as a result of the jet.


As might be expected, different firms have taken advantage of the technological revolution to different degrees. As stated before, there must be something more than coincidence in the fact that the most successful aerospace firm since World War II, McDonnell, was a jet-age company. Boeing was, of course, a giant in the piston era; and it obviously mastered jet technology as well. At the other extreme, Grumman faded in the fifties and sixties as the jet age progressed, and Fairchild has not prospered since its success with piston models. Martin never mass-produced a jet airframe of its own design except for its mediocre Matador and Mace guided missiles. Curtiss-Wright's jet designs got nowhere. Thus, of the twelve giant companies, only eight truly mastered and participated in the new technology successfully and on a large scale by the seventies.

For the giants, the jet revolution was an opportunity. Despite external forces and internal inefficiencies which wrought vast changes, Boeing, Douglas, General Dynamics, Lockheed, McDonnell, North American, Northrop, and Republic capitalized on jet technology and maintained U.s. leadership in aerospace production in the period 1945 to 1972.


Looking back on the complex story of the United States aerospace industry from 1945 to 1972, one can discern some points which can explain the restoration of American leadership in aviation by the sixties.

There was the bitter experience of battle against effective German and Russian jets. Also it was, for the most part, the same enterprising business managers, scientists, and engineers who gave America leadership in the piston era who were around to repeat their success with the jet engine. They had the requisite skills, means, courage, and motivation to take the necessary risks - they simply carried on. Then, in a country which has natural advantages for air transportation, there was the pressure of economics.

Most important would have to be the manifold competition. Winning the cold war was viewed by Americans as a matter of life or death. We wanted superior technology in order to survive and were willing to pay the cost. There was also the rivalry between the two aerospace military services, which, for a while, was viewed by each as a matter of survival. Then there was the desperate competition between companies. This, too, was for life or death. Thus competition was pervasive and for the highest stakes.

The other nations which contended with America lacked some of the above factors, and they made some major mistakes.

America's leadership in the jet age was not foreordained but earnedforged in the challenge of competition.