Climb to Greatness
The American Aircraft Industry, 1920–1960
The history of the American aircraft industry is a “success story... in the best American tradition: of small beginnings, handicaps overcome by skill and persistence, and a climb to outstanding achievement.” In this account the author describes and explains the phenomenal growth of the industry from shoestring beginnings in the 1920's to a 17 billion dollar plus industry in the 1960's, when 80 per cent of the world's airliners were American-built. Focusing on problems on problems of manufacturing aircraft, Rae describes developments in design from “wood-and-wire puddle-jumpers” with in-line piston engines and Ford's “Tin Goose” to all-metal, cantilevered-wing airliners with giant turbine engines and jet planes moving through the stratosphere at supersonic speeds.
The author discusses specific characteristics of the American aircraft industry – rapid rate of technological growth, dependency on a considerable amount of scientific research and on a U.S. government market – and relates these characteristics to the industry's business and financial organization and over-all growth. He identifies the individuals who organized and managed aircraft manufacturing companies and finds that, for the most part, they were engineers with technical skill and training, dedicated to aviation, who had the experience of rebuilding a near-defunct industry and reconstituting it when new technologies demanded change.
In this work the author observes that while the Federal government has been the aircraft industry's largest customer, the industry has not been dominated by government procurement agencies. Instead, these agencies (with high standards and limited resources) have served to maintain competition in the production of airframes, engines, and other components. And the industry has remained a competitive one in which a minor technological superiority could constitute a strong advantage. It has had to develop specialized production techniques, for, as the author points out, “the manufacturing operation was predominantly qualitative; the task was to manufacture a complex article to a very high standard of precision, so that each airplane was essentially a spate product rather than a replica of the initial design.” Dirigibles, the “aeronautical dinosaurs” of the 1920's lighter-than-air school of thought, gave way to a revolution in design and construction of airplanes (1925-1935): the all-metal airframe, radial air-cooled engine, and controllable-pitch propeller. During this period aircraft companies ad a crucial role in translating advances in aeronautical science and technology into operating aircraft. Another landmark period, the mid-1950's, saw the practical operation of helicopters and jet planes, and the development of missiles and space vehicles. By 1960 the American aircraft industry was leading the world in the design and manufacture of large turbine-engined places, bombers, cargo-liners, and passenger transports, thus bringing to a peak the accumulated American experience in building all-metal, canti-levered-wing airliners and marking the transformation of the industry from “aircraft” to “aerospace.”
Climb to Greatness is a fascinating account of a vigorously competitive private enterprise that attained an incomparable standard of technological performance in the brief span of 40 years. The industry's success story is the more remarkable for surviving fluctuations of public policy to reach its brilliant achievement with commercial (jet-powered) transports.