Aircraft Design - The Definitive Guide To Aircraft Production & Characteristics In WW1 And WW2


aircraft design and manufacturing

As with any relatively new industry, a host of problems were involved in the development of early WW1 airplanes. There was very little standardization and handling the machines in flight was tricky enough without the added complication of significant differences in controls. For example, the early Curtiss machines had a foot throttle that operated much like automobiles of the day in the United States and Europe. In comparison, WW2 aircraft production had the benefit of time to mature, learning valuable production methods from the early days of aircraft design and manufacturing.

The First U.S. Military Aircraft – The Dawn Of A New Era

The first known military aircraft was the Wright 1909 Flyer, was purchased by the United States Army Signal Corps. Realizing the potential of powered flight, on 23 December 1907, the Signal Corps of the United States Army issued specifications for a heavier-than-air flying machine. A copy, titled SIGNAL CORPS SPECIFICATION NO. 486, was sent to the Wright brothers on 3 January 1908. It was widely believed that these specs were written with the Wright airplane in mind. Specifically, their airplanes had never carried more than one person, they had never flown more than 35 miles per hour, they had never traveled more than 24 miles in a single flight, and they had never trained anyone else to fly their airplane. But the Wrights signed the contract, biting off more than they had ever chewed before and with only six months to chew on it.

Flight trials with the Wrights' entry began at Fort Myer, Virginia, on September 3, 1908. After several days of successful flights, tragedy occurred on September 17, when Orville Wright crashed with Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge, the Army's observer, as his passenger. Orville survived with severe injuries, but Selfridge was killed, becoming the first fatality in a powered airplane.

With President William Howard Taft in attendance, who smartly arrived in another invention of the day, the automobile. Another memorable event was that the trials were filmed by legendary American inventor, Thomas Eddison. On June 3, 1909, the Wrights returned to Fort Myer with a new airplane to complete the trials begun in 1908. Satisfying all requirements, the Army purchased the airplane for $30,000, and conducted flight training with it at nearby College Park, Maryland, and at Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio, Texas, in 1910. It was given to the Smithsonian Institute in 1911.


aircraft design of the Wright brothers

Aircraft Production – A New Industry Is Born

With very little aircraft production technology available at the turn of the century, an additional challenge was in the military aircraft design and construction. The Wright Brothers and other designers new to the industry understood that these machines were new, and while engineers had an essential understanding about aerodynamics, they had never ventured before into building flying machines. Indeed, many of the early manufacturers of aircraft, both in the United States and abroad, were companies involved in radically different projects other than aviation. Prior to building airplanes, the Wright brothers made bicycles. Glenn Curtiss, who went on to be one of the key founders of the American aviation industry, built bicycles and motorcycles, and had even set a world land speed record of over 136 mph on a motorcycle of his own design.


aircraft design, workshop

The Birth Of Aircraft Design And Manufacturing – Workshop To Mass Production

In WW1 over 200,000 military aircraft were produced world-wide by the end of the conflict. The seeds of this production effort began at the Wright Brothers bicycle workshop in the small mid-western town of Dayton, Ohio. Whatever theories about flight the brothers discussed at the dinner table didn’t have to travel far to become reality, just a short distance, next to the family home.

The epitome of small business of the day, the brothers were adept at manufacturing, assembling, and repairing bicycles. Meaning that in addition to being creators their main asset was that they were skilled craftsmen of their day. It didn’t take longer for the brothers to establish the criteria for their dreams of powered flight. For reasons of availability, low weight, and prior manufacturing experience, most early aircraft were of wood and fabric construction. At the lower speeds then obtainable, streamlining was not a primary consideration, and many wires, struts, braces, and other devices were used to provide the necessary structural strength. Preferred woods were relatively light and strong (e.g., spruce), and fabrics were normally linen or something similarly close-weaved, not canvas as is often stated.


aircraft design and production

World War 1 – The War To End All Wars

Surprisingly, the Wright Brothers would find that the greatest interest in their aircraft would be in Europe as they took their groundbreaking invention overseas. Early European aircraft manufacturers would soon determine that aircraft made of wood and fabric were difficult to maintain and subject to rapid deterioration when left out in the elements. This, plus the need for greater strength, led to the use of metals in the construction of aircraft. Different aircraft design than that of the Wright Brothers was the Blériot XI monoplane first used in war. BlériotXI monoplane first used in war. On October 23, 1911, during the Italo-Turkish War, an Italian pilot made a one-hour reconnaissance flight over enemy positions near Tripoli, Libya. The first general use was in World War I, when the Fokker aircraft company used welded steel tube fuselages, and the Junkers company made all-metal aircraft of dual tubing and aluminum covering. As the clouds of war grew darker and darker the interest in aircraft became a necessity. First as a tool of reconnaissance, later evolving into a full fledge tool of killing in the air.


ww1 aircraft design and production

The Race To Manufacturer Aircraft – European Powers Take The Lead

World War1 was the first conflict to exploit assembly-line production, with the outcome heavily influenced by the industrial coordination of the countries taking part in a conflict that would soon engulf Europe. The concept of mass production recently refined by American automaker, Henry Ford was soon adopted in Europe. For the Allies in particular, the aircraft design and production of airplanes and other war materials sped up dramatically thanks to the implementation of the assembly line. There was a significant increase in the number of women employed in factories and these women filled in a number of key roles. They ran drill presses, did welding, operated cranes, used screw machines, and handled all manner of metal working equipment. When the U.S. entered the war, it brought with it much-needed manpower and the means of mass production. Assembly lines increased production in France too. The Germans called the Great War “Materialschlachte”—a battle of materials. The armed struggle between industrially advanced European powers pitted their military forces and also their economic and industrial capacity against one another.


aircraft design, production graph

WW2 – A Global War

By the end of the worst military By the end of the worst military conflict in human history, worldwide aircraft production in WW2 reached an astronomical number of over 809,693 planes produced in a short span of six years. This incredible number literally dwarfed the 200,000 airplanes in WW1, a scant twenty plus years prior. This historic achievement is even more remarkable as it was accomplished as the world was rebounding from a worldwide depression as factories around the world were shuttered.


ww2 boeing aircraft design

The United States Leads The Way – The Arsenal Of Democracy

Of the major combatants in WW2, the United States led the way with slightly over 300,000 airplanes produced. The USSR came in a distant second with 158,000, the UK 131,000, Germany 120,000, and Japan 79,000. Despite Italy’s years as an Axis power, they were only able to produce less than 12,000 aircraft. France’s production numbers were even worse due to their surrender early in the war, a paltry 5,000 units produced. It has to be noted that in regards to U.S. production almost 275,000 were produced after Pearl Harbor at the end of 1941. In the peak production month of March 1944, more than 9,000 aircraft came off the assembly lines.

As a necessity of war, the aircraft manufacturing industry’s transformation, around the world, from an enterprise of craftsmen building airplanes by hand to a powerhouse of men and women toiling with assembly-line efficiency. The aircraft manufacturers were dedicated to engineering and manufacturing excellence. What happened was that whole nations came together for a single purpose, and successfully committed itself to doing all that was necessary for their side to win in this endeavor. All aspects of what nations accomplished during World War II, both at home and on the global battlefronts, were unlike anything before or since.


aircraft design, ww2 planes

Icons Of WW2 Aircraft Manufacturing – Boeing, Super Marine, Yakovlev, Mitsubishi and Messerschmitt

In the United States great manufacturers emerged and hit their stride during WW2. Iconic companies such as Boeing, producers of the legendary B-17 four engine bomber, better known as the “Flying Fortress” along with the B-29 “Super Fortress” which also was known for several groundbreaking innovations. The first heavy bomber to be equipped with a pressurized cabin that didn’t require pilots to wear bulky heated suits in environments that could reach minus 30 degrees at heights of 20,000 feet, and uncomfortable oxygen mask that would often freeze-up due to condensation. Another innovation was remotely fired 50 caliber machine guns. Douglas Aircraft produced its share of war wining aircraft – the venerable DC-3 (DC stands for Douglas Commercial), arguably the best and most widely used air-transport aircraft in WW2. The DC-3 began its early life as a passenger aircraft for the fledgling airline companies TWA and American Airlines. The DC-3 reached a civil production run of 607 airplanes. When pressed into WW2 service an astounding 10,000 plus airplanes were produced. 4,937 built under license in the Soviet Union as the Lisunov Li-2 and prior to WW2 487 Mitsubishi Kinsei-engined aircraft built by Showa and Nakajima in Japan (1939–1945), as the L2D Type 0 transport. In addition to the DC-3 another iconic aircraft emerged from the design-tables, SBD Navy Dive Bomber, operating off Aircraft Carriers and land-based airfields came into its own in 1942 in the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway in the Pacific in 1942.


ww2 aircraft design and production graph

A Matter of Defense

In the U.S., airframe weight produced topped the two-billion pound mark; engine deliveries totaled more than a billion horsepower from 1940 through 1945. In terms of production dollar value, the industry leaped from forty-fourth rank in the national economy to number one here and abroad. These are truly impressive figures. They tell a statistical story of a production achievement unparalleled in industrial history. Confronted with a war assignment of building planes in unprecedented numbers under conditions that imposed one roadblock after another. To the leaders of the young industry, which had limped through the mid-thirties with very limited orders, the production demands of the government seemed all but impossible to meet. Nevertheless, the industry approached the task with what might be termed intuitive optimism, a feeling that it could be accomplished, even though the evidence pointed to the contrary during the dark early days. The demands were not only met-they were exceeded.

By the end of the worst military conflict in human history, worldwide aircraft production in WW2 reached an astronomical number of over 809,693 planes produced in a short span of six years. This incredible number literally dwarfed the 200,000 in WW1, a scant twenty plus years prior. This historic achievement is even more remarkable as it was accomplished as the world was rebounding from a worldwide depression as factories around the world were shuttered.


aircraft design and building airplanes in ww2

A Clear Road To Victory

A substantial share of the credit belongs to firms that had little or no experience in building aviation products. They made enormous contributions to the over-all effort Others had similarly impressive records. In addition, the accessory manufacturers-the firms building a vast variety of products such as instruments, landing gears, and hydraulic and pneumaticsystems-moved with great effectiveness in performing their role as a vital part of an unexcelled development and-production efforts. Had it simply been a case of cranking up a production machine already in being, accelerating deliveries of tested, proven aircraft by the addition of personnel and tools, the industry’s job would still have been a mighty one. But the mass-production machine did not exist-it had to be created. There were too few tested aircraft types available; there were too few skilled people, too few facilities, too few tools.


aircraft design of military airplanes

USSR – Aircraft Design Bureaus And Production

Although the In the Soviet planned economic system, free market competition between companies was seen as wasteful, instead, under Stalin’s direction, the Soviet system was a multi-tieUSSR would come in a distant second to the United States in aircraft design and production, their system of design and production differed great from their counterparts and adversaries. red system the chief components of which were design bureaus, known as systems OKBs(Experimental Design Bureau), and manufacturing complexes. The OKBs did not possess the means to mass-produce manufacture aircraft nor were they intended to, nor were the manufacturing complexes able to design aircraft or tied to individual OKBs instead they would produce whichever aircraft were assigned to them.

Operational requirements for proposed aircraft were created by the Soviet air forces to which individual OKBs would create a design informed by state research institutes, which would provide them with information on aerodynamics and available systems; because they were designed to similar requirements and research input, competing designs were very often very similar in appearance. These competing designs would then be evaluated against each other and a winner chosen. Ideally a single winning design would be chosen which would then be assigned to one or more manufacturing complexes.


aircraft design, airplanes

Mass Production

The concept of mass production was a key component of war materials for many years prior to WW1. What was relatively new to WW1 was the introduction of aircraft production. Military demand and production provided a crucial stimulus for the technological breakthroughs necessary for mass production. Eager to take advantage of the new technology of powered flight, countries around the world sought competitive advantages in mass producing war materials.

With each conflict, belligerents introduced new weapon systems, forcing their competitors to find systems to counter-act them. This was the case of design and production of aircraft.

The main characteristics of mass production are: • Specialized machines. • Interchangeable parts. • Division of labor.

In WW1, faced with a war of epic proportions, at that time, warring parties soon found it necessary to scale up on a scale once thought impossible. It would not take them long to utilize the processes underway in others aspect of the war industry. Large factories, staffed by thousands of employees, powered the by energy source of the day – coal. Women would soon take the place of men on the factory floor, as men were now dying by the thousands on distant battlefields. Women were more than capable of many tasks; They ran drill presses, did welding, operated cranes, used screw machines, and handled all manner of metal working equipment. This would also be the case in World War 2. In America, marginalized communities of African Americans would flock to northern cities seeking better opportunities. The challenge of developing an aircraft industry would be a challenge met in WW1. The difference between a large factory in World War 1 and World War 2 is very different. In WW1, between 1913 and 1919, total manufacturing output rose 1.65 times while individual industries enjoyed the following output increases: machinery (3.1 times), steel (1.8 times), chemicals (1.6 times) and textile (1.6 times).


aircraft design of p51 plane


In WW1 the production process of Job Shops was a major part of the production cycle. The job shop was made up of a number of general-purpose tools, with similar types of equipment grouped together in one area. Parts were made in lots, then sent off to an assembly area. This process would soon become unsuitable for production volumes needed in WW2.In WW1 large manufactures began using the assembly process of Ford Motor Co, In WW2 the process became widely used. In addition, the process of “feeder systems”, a process where smaller companies would feed the larger companies a steady stream of specialized parts. Inter-factory supply channels were established for the flow of parts and there was an incredible amount of detail involved in getting the right part to the right place at the right time. New tools, processes, and techniques had to be devised to meet the demands of line production. An even greater challenge for aviation firms, who on the other hand, had to divert valuable management and engineering talent to the task of putting the licensees in business at a time when they could not spare a single worker from their own programs. They had to build the initial parts, components, and assemblies to provide the licensee with a "shakedown" assembly line. By the end of WW2 manufacturers were well suited for what was to come next in the future. The age of computers and robotics.