When the history of this war is read in the cool light of the millennium, our peace-abiding grandchildren will smile calmly at our hysteria in the present period. They will read with dispassionate detachment about the miracle men who rose up among us insisting they could build thousands of airplanes out of ectoplasm over night. They will know that, even in their time, it requires several years for a newly conceived airplane of original design to reach the quantity production stage. They will wonder why we indulged in the luxury of thinking wishfully that we could fight the war with airplanes at the infant stage in their development, and they will wonder how in the world we ever won.
It would be an interesting industrial experiment to find out how quickly aggressive and presumably well-intentioned shipbuilders could handle the job of aircraft production but we must not expect to solve the present problems of. communication and transportation with equipment that will not. be available in quantity for another two years or more.
The design of any airplane is so complex that, if we waited to solve all of the problems on paper, we might never get the airplane built. So the customary procedure is to do most of the engineering before building the prototype and finish up the details and the unpredictable factors after a long and painstaking test flight procedure. No one in any country in the world has yet found a substitute for the grueling tests in actual flight that uncover and lead to the solutions of many practical design problems. A certain amount of production tooling can be designed during the flight test period but often there must be a compromise between the original design and the production model and this takes more time.
All this procedure is an essential preliminary to production of a plane in a factory planned specifically for the purpose. Much more must be done if the manufacturing job is to be done in a plant designed for some other purpose and converted for aircraft production. The automotive industry, which is much closer to aircraft manufacturing than shipbuilding, found in its conversion processes, that only 20 percent of its tools and a very small number of its buildings were suited to aviation manufacturing. Obviously, we could not hope to find suitable tools in shipyards where the whole technique of production is even farther away from aircraft manufacturing. Practically the only part of a shipyard that could be used in aircraft production is the mold loft and that is an important but very small part of the total facility.
Sooner or later we could train shipyard workers to handle the delicate non-ferrous alloys but it would probably take as long a time as it did in England to teach clam diggers to build airplanes at one of the shadow factories. That was a matter of years. And that leaves us with a single asset the possible conversion of shipbuilding management. How soon they could acquire the "know-how" to build aircraft is anybody's guess, but it would take a versatile man indeed to switch from ships to aircraft without a fairly long period of education.
Since our immediate concern in the present production program is the shortage of certain critical materials, we could not expect the addition of more plane builders to help. If we had sufficient time to modify designs to utilize some small part of the materials used in shipbuilding we would find that there are more serious shortages in these materials than in some of those used in aircraft work. Even if we succeeded by some strange magic in building the bare airframe out of a high proportion of shipbuilding materials or plywood, we would have to augment very substantially the program for production of engines, propellers, armament, instruments, wheels, tubing, cable, and the dozens of other items that cannot be made of wood but must be installed in airplanes before they are ready to fly and fight.
Our present program, which already provides for substantial numbers of cargo planes, is balanced to the point that if we are to build any more planes of any type we must provide additional expansion for the production of materials, power plants, accessories, and equipment. Without this additional capacity we have a choice of diverting these things from the present aircraft program or cutting into the allocations for ships and tanks. The only way we can get more cargo planes immediately is to convert some of the long range bombers now building into freight carriers. Whether the need for long range bombers, ships, tanks, or cargo planes is most urgent, is for our strategists alone to decide.
Our merchant marine is being reduced by enemy submarines that are built and operating now. We must meet this threat with the aircraft and the other means at our disposal room. We cannot hope to fight the battles of today with the aircraft of tomorrow.
This editorial, signed by Leslie E Neville, Editor, was originally published in the September, 1942, issue of Aviation magazine, vol 41, no 9, p 91.
A PDF of this editorial is available.