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From the Summer 1996 Issue, Volume Five, Number Three:

DH-4s Equipped with American Liberty Engine

U.S. Aircraft Production: Success or Scandal?

By Paul Hare


The United States entered the Great War under the confident promise that it would "darken the skies over Germany" [1] with the "greatest aerial armada ever seen" and quickly authorized the expenditure of more than $600 million with which to. create it. Yet, as critics are quick to point out, by the end of the war 17 months later, there were only 196 American-built aircraft on active service on the Western Front, and the whole program was already the subject of several government enquiries.

In fact, in addition to the 196 [2] machines, which were all Liberty-engined DH-4's, actually in service on 11 November 1918, 33 had already been lost in action; there were 270 more in training units, 323 in supply depots, 415 in transit and more than 2000 awaiting shipment to Europe. All in all a total of around 3540 combat aircraft had been built as well as more than 6000 training types. In addition more than 1400 fighter aircraft had been purchased in Europe. This all adds up to a far more impressive total than 196, although it is still a considerable shortfall on a promised delivery of approximately 20,000 and that by July 1918.

That the program was not a success is therefore obvious. And yet, despite numerous suggestions of impropriety, was it the scandal that has so frequently been alleged? So just where did it go wrong? And why?

History of the Program:

After its declaration of war, the United States lost no time in attempting to apply its vast resources to the conflict in Europe. Not only did its reserves of manpower far exceed those remaining to any of the combatant nations, but it saw, in its newly forged industrial might, a way to bypass the stalemate and squalor of entrenched warfare, and so help to bring about the defeat of Germany.

Not only was the airplane a new and exciting weapon, it had been created in America, by Americans. Now, together with the U.S. mass production methods, it was to be America's contribution to the war effort.

In April 1917 the U.S. Army had just 224 planes. American manufacturers, who had among them built just 49 planes in 1914, built barely four times that number in the 12 months before America's entry into the war. But now, in a wave of confident optimism, the demands upon this fledgling industry rose steadily; 1000 machines a year, 2500,3700..[3]

Then on 24 May President Woodrow Wilson received the following cable from Alexandre Ribot, the French prime minister who, with his army in revolt, clearly needed assurance of forthcoming support:

"It is desired that in order to cooperate with the French aeronautics the American government should adopt The following program: The formation of a Flying Corps of 4500 aeroplanes to be sent to the French Front during the campaign of 1918... 2000 planes should be constructed each month as well as 4000 engines, by the American factories. This is to say that during the first six months of 1918 16,500 aeroplanes (of the latest type) and 30,000 engines will have to be built. The French government is anxious to know if the American government accepts this proposition, which would allow the allies to win supremacy of the air." [4]

The Technical Board quickly considered this proposal and just three days later recommended its adoption. The reco~endation was immediately supported~by Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, who told Congress that "it lives up to America's tradition of doing things on a grand scale." [5]

A group of army officers under General Benjamin Foulois, who had been involved in U.S. military aviation since the days of the Wright brothers, formulated a production plan calling for construction of 22,625 planes, including training machines, together with 45,250 engines, although the actual types were yet to be decided. Some officers at first expressed reservation about the size of the program but eventually acquiesced, in the assumption that their expert advisers were best qualified to know the nation's capabilities and because it was recognized that even if the program was not fully met it would still contribute to the establishment of aerial supremacy. So the War Department asked Congress for $640 million with which to carry out the program, assuring the members that the planes would be at the front by May 1918. The bill to provide this fund, then the largest single amount ever granted, was passed by the House on 14 July, approved by the Senate with a unanimous vote on the 21st, and signed into law by the president on the 24th. [6]

R.C. Bolling
Meanwhile, on 17 June, a fact-finding mission led by Colonel R.C. Bolling had left for Europe. With Bolling were two aeronautical engineers from the army, two from the navy and seven civilian experts who among them covered the fields of engines, metallurgy, production and finance. Their task was to study the airplane designs available to the allies and recommend which ones they thought the U.S. should adopt. Accompanying them were 93 skilled workers from American factories who were to study European production techniques, and compare them with their own.

Howard Coffin, chairman of the Aircraft Production Board, instructed Bolling to "Get all the facts before recommending a decision, and remember our motto is 'Vite." ' [7]

And "Vite" it most certainly was. The mission arrived in Liverpool on 26 June for a tour of English factories, left for France on 2 July, reached Italy on 15 July and the majority sailed for home on the 27th, having already arranged for sample planes and full sets of drawings to be shipped back to the U.S. By 15 August the mission s recommendations were concluded, but along with them Bolling, who stayed behind in Paris, also expressed his personal opinion that it would take up to nine months to reach full production and that, allowing time for crating and shipping, little would reach Europe before the following July. [8]

The first sample plane, a DH-4, arrived in the U.S. on 18 July, [9] even ahead of the mission's recommendations or its return. The Italian manufacturers were equally prompt, but the French were less efficient and the sample SPAD did not arrive until mid-September. The drawings that accompanied these machines were blueprints and therefore had to be redrawn to provide negatives, to adapt them to U.S. mass production methods and, in the case of the French and Italian designs, to convert them from metric measurements. This latter was not parochialism, or chauvinism - American tools worked in feet and inches only and it was easier to re-draw the components that to re-equip the factories.

The prototype of the American version of the DH-4 made its first flight on 29 October and, once a few teething troubles were sorted out, production started in earnest. The first production models were completed in February 1918 ready for shipment and the first of them reached France on 11 May.

But the German advance during March had brought about a change of priorities and a virtual embargo on the shipment of anything but infantry and machine guns for several months. Thus it was not until 2 August that the first squadron of American-built planes, powered by American engines, and flown by American crews, flew a mission across the lines.

Fighter production was still further delayed. An order for 3000 SPADs placed with Curtiss in October 1917 was canceled in December when it was decided to purchase fighters in France, paying for them in part with material shipped from the U.S. A total of 1434 was thus obtained. Production in the U.S. was reinstated later, but the war was over before any U.S.-built machines could be shipped to France.

Possible Causes of Failure:

The aircraft production program was for America almost a statement of identity, and as soon as it was realized that targets were not being met strenuous efforts were made to find the cause. Or, more particularly, to find a scapegoat, for it was considered "without personal malfeasance there was no reason why American industry could not succeed." [10]

Charles Evans Hughes
Led Production Investigation
Before the war was over four independent investigations were in progress, one headed by former Supreme Court Justice Charles E. Hughes; another by a subcommittee of the Military Committee of the Senate; by a special committee of the House of Representatives, and a fourth by Gutzman Borgium (sculptor of Mount Rushmore).

In 1920 the Republican Party published a review of the program which, not unnaturally, alleged that its failure was entirely due to Democratic bungling and incompetence. Since then the program has been subjected to a great deal of study, and different researchers have offered different reasons for the failure. Five of them crop up time and again. These are:

  1. Pre-war neglect of the aviation industry, and the consequent need to create an industry where none existed before.
  2. Indecision regarding the types selected for manufacture.
  3. Airplanes were not suited for mass production.
  4. Control by the automobile industry and favoritism in placing orders.
  5. Sustitution of the Liberty engine in almost every aircraft design.

These criticisms are all valid to some degree and may have contributed to delays in the program but, even if taken together, still fall short of the whole answer which, I believe, lies elsewhere. But first let us examine them each of these reasons in turn.

1. Pre-war neglect.

In 1914 there were fewer than 16 aircraft manufacturers in the United States, with a combined output of fewer than a hundred machines, a situation not vastly dissimilar to that of any European country. But even to a nation deliberately isolated from the war it was obvious that aviation was growing and, headed by men of sound business sense, the U.S. aviation industry also was growing.

By 1917 it had a potential annual output of around 7000 [11] machines, although that potential was not being utilized. By that time Britain and France could each produce four or five times that number.

2. Indecision regarding the types selected.

America entered the war during the period known as "Bloody April" 1917, when the Royal Flying Corps, equipped with aircraft outdated by the new German fighters, suffered heavy losses, and naturally wished to avoid a similar fate befalling its own flyers. Furthermore, the Ribot cable that inspired the program had stipulated that the new American-built machines should be the latest type. And this it was determined to achieve. But in attempting to match the European "state of the art" the Americans faced a dilemma - if experimental designs were selected they might prove to be useless in combat, yet proven designs could turn out to be obsolete by the time they reached Europe.

The Bolling mission therefore used its best judgment to select machines which were just about to enter production in Europe and whose design seemed likely to endure. It was noted that both rotary and stationary engined fighters were employed by every air force and the mission therefore recommended an example of each type. [12] So by August 1917 these combat types had been selected:' [13]

  • SPAD XIII with either 200-h.p. Hispano-Suiza or U.S. Liberty
  • SPAD XV (monocoque) with 150-h.p. Gnome
  • Martinsyde F-3 with U.S. Liberty DH-4 with U.S. Liberty
  • Handley-Page 0/400 with two U.S. Liberty
  • Caproni bomber with three U.S. Liberty

The two heavy bombers, the Handley-Page and the Caproni, were, however, not considered part of the immediate program and can be ignored. In addition, the Bristol Scout and SE-S were selected, not for combat but as advanced trainers.

The monocoque SPAD and the Martinsyde did not live up to their earlier promise and were dropped. At the same time the U.S. Army decided that the days of the single-seat fighter [14] were numbered and the Bristol Fighter was adopted instead. This change of policy certainly delayed fighter production to a considerable extent, but had no effect upon the DH-4 program, which nevertheless fell short of expectations.

3. Mass Production.

Before the war airplanes were built singly, relying upon the skill of the trained craftsman to ensure that each component fitted correctly. In Britain, as production volumes grew and the supply of suitable craftsmen proved inadequate, a system of "dilution" was introduced whereby semi-skilled workers took over the more basic tasks, leaving the fit and finish in the hands of fully skilled tradesmen. America, on the other hand, was the birthplace of Henry Ford and of mass production, where components were cranked out en masse by unskilled hands who each did a few simple operations and never saw the assembled product.

The Wilson administration saw no reason why airplanes could not be mass produced in large numbers just like cars or bicycles. However mass production can work effectively only with a standardized product, and detail changes are not easily effected without serious disruption to output. This makes a mass-produced, state-of-the-art design almost a contradiction in terms. Yet once a design is established, a strut or a spar can be turned out as quickly and simply as a hammer shaft, Wheel spoke or chair leg.

4. Control by Auto Industry.

In May 1917 the U.S. government placed formulation and management of the aircraft production program in the hands of the newly formed Aircraft Production Board, headed by Detroit businessman Howard E. Coffin. Coffin had been chairman of the pre-war Industrial Preparedness Committee, whose function had been to prepare an inventory of factories capable of making munitions should the need arise. He was therefore uniquely placed to understand the production capacity of U.S. manufacturing companies of any kind.

Other members of the board were Brigadier General George Squier, the Army chief signal officer, and Admiral David Taylor, chief of the Navy Bureau of Construction, and three other civilian businessmen. This board was superseded on 1 October 1917 by the "Aircraft Board" which included most of the original members together with additional military representation.

These boards operated purely in an advisory capacity and although their recommendations were generally followed, the actual orders were placed by the Signal Corps. Orders were given to established aircraft companies such as Standard and Curtiss as well as to newly formed firms like Dayton-Wright and Fisher Body. It is true that the Singer Sewing Machine Company, owner of the largest~neer shops in American, offered its services yet received no orders, but I believe this was more due to haste than to any motives of favoritism or personal gain.

5. Substitution of Liberty Engine.

12 Cylinder Liberty Engine
From the outset it was realized that the whole program would hinge upon the availability of suitable engines in sufficient numbers. In Europe airframe manufacture had already begun to outpace engine production, leading to stockpiles of engineless planes, and America naturally wished to avoid finding itself in a similar situation.

The need for increased numbers of training machines would require a similar increase in output of indigenous designs, principally the Curtiss OX-S and Hall Scott which powered them, and would leave their manufacturers no spare capacity for the production of other types.

Wright-Martin, which had previously acquired a license to build the Hispano-Suiza, would naturally concentrate upon that type. That virtually exhausted existing production capacity and the engines needed to power the proposed fleet of combat machines would therefore need to be built by other manufacturers, i.e. the automobile industry.

Rolls Royce, whose V-12 Falcon and Eagle engines already powered the Bristol Fighter and DH-4 respectively, was unhappy [15] with the idea of its engines being produced under license in the U.S., thereby establishing post-war competition. Furthermore, the design of these engines did not render them immediately suitable for mass production anyway. [16] In their place the U.S. Standardized Aero Engine, most commonly called the Liberty, was to be used instead. Broadly similar to the Eagle in weight and power output, the Liberty had been specifically designed for mass production. It was based upon an existing Packard design and "embodied the best American ideas in combination with information from Europe regarding the best foreign designs." Accepting that reduction gears were proving troublesome [17] the Liberty was designed without one, thus reducing both cost and production time, although there was some loss of propeller efficiency due to its high rotational speed. This was partially offset by the saving in weight.

However, the Liberty proved to be too big and heavy for the Bristol Fighter and production of this design was canceled after only 27 had been built. However, in the DH-4, and later in other designs of similar configuration, the Liberty more than proved its worth.


Edgar Gorrell
Documented WWI Air Effort
All of these problems and setbacks were inevitable and should have been foreseen. Or, more precisely, it should have been foreseen that some such problems would occur, even if no one was sufficiently clairvoyant to predict what they might be. The solution of such problems is the function of management, and without such setbacks industry would run efficiently with no personnel between the board room and the shop floor, but we all know that it does not.

To ascertain the cause of the shortfall in production, I believe that it is necessary to examine only ~one aspect of it, and that is the U.S. Standardized Aeroplane Engine itself. Designed in America, by engineers from the American automobile industry specifically for mass production in American factories, and subject to no interference or delay by any outside agency, it was built in great numbers, yet production of it still fell far short of the program requirements. It did so for the basic and simple reason that all production targets were unattainable within the time allowed.

The whole situation may be summed up in the words of Winston Churchill, who once said of military supply plans, "The first year - nothing; the second year - a trickle, the third year - all you want." [18]

Had the war continued into 1919 America's promised aerial armada might well have darkened the German skies, but let us remember the millions of men suffering in the Flanders mud and be grateful that the whole thing ended when it did.


1. Charles Hughes: "Report on Aircraft Production Inquiry" U.S. Congressional Records (Hereafter: "Hughes Inquiry")

2. All production figures are taken from Colonel ES. Gorrell's "History of the American Expeditionary Force." U.S. National Archives. (Hereafter: Gorrel History).

3. U.S War Department. "The Signal Corps and Air Service: A Study of Their Expansion in the United States. 1917-1918" War Department Document 1109, 1922 (Hereafter: Signal Corps and Air Service).

4. National Archives

5. "Signal Corps and Air Services"

6. "Hughes Inquiry."

7. Letter from H. Coffin to R.C. Boiling. U.S. Air Force Records Dayton, Ohio.

8. Letter from R.C. Bolling to Chief Signal Officer, U.S. Army, dated 15 August 1917. National Archives (Hereafter: "Boiling Report").

9. "Gorrell History."

10. Charles O'Connell: "The Failure of the American Aeronautical Production Effort During the First World War." Ohio State University 1978. (Hereafter: "O'Connell Thesis). I

11. "Hughes Inquiry."

12. "Boiling Report."

13. "Gorrell History."

14. Cable No. 252; R.C. Boiling to U.S. Signal Corps. National Archives.

15. Ian Lloyd; "Rolls-Royce, the Growth of the Firm," London, 1978

16. "Bolling Report."

17. Letter from Colonel ES. Gorrell to U.S. dated 4 October 1917 National Archives.

18. "O'Connell Thesis."

Paul Hare is a British aero historian who has written extensively on aspects of early 20th century aviation and is the author of the definitive history of the Royal Aircraft Factory. This article was adapted, with the author's permission, from a presentation at the 1995 conference of the New England-New York chapter of the Western Front Association.

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