October 13, 2009
From Kitty Hawk to Boeing Field: the Aviation Industry
The following is an excerpt chapter from the Breakthrough Institute report, Case Studies in American Innovation: A New Look at Government Involvement in Technological Innovation. You can download the full report here or read more excerpts from the document here.
American names like Samuel Langley and the Wright brothers loom large in the history of early flight. But just a few years after Kitty Hawk, America was already lagging behind other nations in the mastery of aviation. European governments poured resources into aeronautics over the early 20th century, compelled by the military needs of the First World War. In 1913, America ranked 14th in government spending on aircraft development, languishing in the company of Brazil and Denmark. Even as Britain, France and Germany made leaps and bounds in aviation design, Langley's "Aerodrome" lay dusty and abandoned in a Smithsonian lab.
By mid-century, however, the U.S. was well on its way to restoring its place at the forefront of civil and military aviation. U.S. factories were churning out better planes, ever faster and cheaper, and American researchers were pioneering radical improvements in aircraft design. Government involvement, from research support to deployment initiatives, was the critical catalyst for this remarkable turnaround, laying the foundations for America's modern aviation industry.
The first step toward America's success came in the form of an unassuming piece of legislation, tacked onto the Naval Appropriation Bill of 1915, which quietly established the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), America's first government aviation initiative. With NACA, the government was finally taking the nascent aviation industry - and its vast potential in the commercial and military sectors - seriously. The new agency quickly set about performing the vital research and development that no individual firm could accomplish alone. Its first major accomplishment was the construction of a sophisticated wind tunnel, to be used in testing various shapes for wings and propellers. By systematically testing and observing many shapes and designs, NACA achieved significant breakthroughs that helped restore America's expertise in technically advanced aeronautics. Among these was the NACA cowling, an engine improvement that reduced drag and turbulence and saved huge amounts of fuel. Within only five years, it was standard equipment on every new plane produced. Another significant achievement was the NACA airfoil program, which tested and documented numerous wing designs to be matched with planes of different sizes.
Meanwhile, government demand, beginning during the First World War, gave airplane manufacturers a major boost at a time when private interest in their products was lacking. In 1916, American firms produced 411 planes in total. But in nine months between 1917 and 1918, domestic factories churned out over 12,000 airplanes and nearly 42,000 engines. Production fell after the war ended, but revived with the passage of new military procurement acts during the 1920s. Government purchases enabled the application of new advances in technology to domestic manufacturing, and equally importantly, nurtured the emerging companies of the American aviation industry. Among the companies sustained by government contracts was a little-known manufacturer called Boeing.
The technical advances stimulated by government support were significant achievements on their own, but they also complimented the efforts of the private sector. For example, Douglas' DC-3, developed privately in the 1930s, revolutionized air travel by greatly increasing the speed of flight and the distance possible in a single voyage. The plane's introduction enabled long-range air travel, and paved the way for the modern American airline industry. But while Douglas' in-house engineers came up with its overall design, the DC-3 was full of components and technologies developed through years of military research and deployment.
By the early 1940s, the U.S. aviation sector had been revived and dramatically expanded, in large part through the timely actions of the federal government, and the foundations of today's massive aviation industry had been laid. The early history of American aviation shows the crucial role that government support can and must play in ensuring the success of nascent industries of national interest.
- Bilstein, Roger (1989). "NACA Origins (1915-1930)". In Orders of Magnitude: A History of the NACA and NASA, 1915-1990 (chapter 1). URL
- Boeing Company. "DC-3 Commercial Transport". URL
- Boeing Company. "Heritage of Innovation". URL.
- Ruttan, Vernon (2006). Is War Necessary for Economic Growth?: Military Procurement and Technology Development. Oxford University Press.
- U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission (2003). "The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA)". URL.
You can download the full report, Case Studies in American Innovation here or read more excerpts from the document here.