We Must Freeze Our Aircraft Designs!

Says Senator Harry S Truman

Harry S Truman, one of the country's most active Democrats, has been a military man most of his adult life. Born in 1884, this native Missourian served in the Army's Field Artillery School at Fort Sill, OK, during 1917-18, has been a colonel in the Reserve since 1927. He headed the Senatorial committee that recently investigated defense production. —Ed.

Recently returned from a nation-wide inspection of defense industry, the author believes US aircraft production must be frozen in order to get thousands of sorely-needed warplanes.

Chairman of the Senate Committee whose report he here analyzes, Senator Truman presents his own views and conclusions as to remedial steps necessary to further the National Defense program. Congressional committees, if they perform a job not otherwise taken care of in executive agencies, often are helpful. In World War I, investigations such as that made by the Truman Committee did not come until after the war. It may be significant that one day before the Truman report was made public the President recognized the lagging production situation and appointed Donald M Nelson as the country's war production chief. Whether Mr Nelson's policies will follow the lines suggested in the accompanying article remains to be seen. Many within the industry feel that Senator Truman did not put his finger on the trouble; that the causes for delay are much more fundamental. Meantime, production goes on apace. Some subcontractors have far exceeded their own expectations and promises. With time so precious and airplanes so vital, the questions raised by the Truman report must be handled intelligently, but without interruption of what is now going forward. —Ed.

The answer is a rather obvious "yes" to the question: "Shall we standardize or 'freeze' our military aircraft designs so as to speed up production?" We can have no real mass production to meet our staggering war needs without standardizing types and without freezing of basic designs for periods sufficiently long to make production methods effective.

That conclusion was reached by the Senate's special committee investigating the National Defense program (Truman Committee), after months of intensive inquiry. It must be followed as a guiding principle if the hope of attaining the national war goal fixed by President Roosevelt (60,000 planes of all types this year and 125,000 in 1943) is to be realized.

Without sacrificing quality, the objective can be reached provided our national genius is fully applied and some dangerous official methods and policies and attitudes are revised.

Mass output by freezing basic designs to an effective degree raises enormous and well recognized difficulties. The airplane is still in process of evolution as both a means of flight and weapon of war. If no changes in design whatever were permitted advances would be halted and American industry would soon lag in the race toward perfection.

The official view is discouraging to the whole idea of mass production. The War Department said in a statement to the Senate committee: "The popular notion that planes can be 'standardized' (frozen) and rolled off the production line like so many tin cans, is entirely fallacious."

With a strict interpretation of that statement there can be no argument, because obviously an airplane is not as simple as a tin can. But in its broader concept the attitude is open to sharp question as a result of the actual experience of Great Britain, Nazi Germany — and American industry itself. Many reasons exist to warrant the belief that an airplane is no more difficult to produce on a production basis than any other machine of similar complexity — provided only that fixed basic specifications be retained long enough to make it worth while actually to tool a plant for mass output.

Making a distinction between standardization of basic design and tight freezing to an unreasonable degree, the Truman committee thus stated the case in a section of its interim report bearing on aviation:

"The service agencies have a policy against standardization of aircraft because they say that standardization necessarily means 'freezing' design which automatically results in inferior aircraft.

"A recapitulation of the general evaluation of the types of airplanes manufactured in this country will indicate that the only field in which we have anything like a general superiority is in the production of bombers and that is the only field in which we have anything approaching standardization. If standardization necessarily means a loss of quality, then the performance figures are wrong.

"This objection, often raised, that standardization halts development, has been met with the suggestion that research and development could just as well be stimulated by a bonus or award system for new developments. Thus, we could acquire the benefits of standardization and retain the stimulus for technical advancements.

"Standardization, as followed abroad and in this country in the heavy bomber field, in the sense of limiting the designs of a given type to the best one or two or three available, and having those produced identically by all the companies, seems unquestionably desirable. It is significant that Britain and Germany have only two or three types of fighters, as against 10 or more produced by 10 companies in this country. It is significant, also, that here in the field in which our greatest job lay (heavy bombers) we have stabilized our production on two designs to be manufactured by several companies. We haven't yet, however, frozen the designs for any period.

"In the experience abroad and in our experience with heavy bombers it has not been demonstrated that such standardization means either freezing of design or inferior aircraft. By reputation our heavy bombers are the best in the world, while we have yet to get into production on a fighter which is rated as superior to the Spitfire or the Messerschmitt.

"Standardization, once achieved, has many obvious advantages. It should be carried out not only in the production of types but in the hardware, fittings, equipment etc, in all planes for our own use and for the use of our allies. Production, over-all quality and performance would be increased. Maintenance and supply problems would be greatly decreased.

"So far we have accomplished little, except in heavy bombers, toward any real standardization. The only real effort which is apparent on the part of the service agencies and many manufacturers is toward the standardization of hardware, fittings etc.

"Some manufacturers have gone so far as to say that they couldn't manufacture the designs of another company and that other companies couldn't manufacture their designs. Perhaps they are right. But the fact remains that it is being done here and abroad. In the meantime, we continue to purchase 10 or more pursuit types from 10 companies, eight or more dive bomber types from eight companies, etc. It is needless to say that most of the types are generally considered to be mediocre, at least.

"In addition to the situation outlined above, we find that we are buying as many as four or five types from one manufacturer, which are often built side by side. Most production experience seems to indicate that the most efficient operation is that which is confined to the fewest types of construction."

On the matter of pursuits, the Bell P-39 is being produced now at a satisfactory rate, the committee found, and is generally considered the only American-built pursuit plane presently in production that is satisfactory to the British and to our own Air Forces. Of two other principal types on which testimony was given by Lieut Gen Henry H Arnold, chief of the Army Air Forces, neither is a completely proved model and one will not be in quantity production for months to come. The Army's heaviest reliance has been and still is on a pursuit type which has not been found satisfactory by either the British or our own airmen.

Unquestionably we have barely tapped thus far the potentialities of American industry, largely because of inefficient methods of procurement by the Army and Navy, which demand much hand work and a high degree of skill by a large percentage of workers. The vast and unnecessary number of changes in design during the process of manufacture attest the failure in foresight of the armed forces and of the former Office of Production Management, which have been handicapped by lack of organization, aided and abetted by procedural red tape.

The Truman committee in its report said there was no intent to criticize any individual in the Services or any manufacturer. The chairman likewise subscribes to the statement that "all of them have done a creditable job insofar as the methods followed have allowed them to do so."

Failures and shortcomings must be examined nevertheless in considering the possibilities of meeting war demands by mass production. Our pre-war plan called for production of approximately 30,000 combat planes annually, to be reached in late 1943. That program has been stepped up several times since war came and now demands radical changes in our methods.

Prior to September, 1939, because the services refused to consider the airplane as more than a supporting weapon; because of national pacifistic tendencies; and because of a lack of money for aircraft, both the industry and the service procurement agencies were operating on a small scale. Since that time, however, the industry has had all the orders it could handle, and since May, 1940, when the President fixed the aim at an air force of 50,000 planes, with industry geared to produce that many every year, the armed forces have had more money for planes than they could contract to spend.

For the subsequent failures to meet either American or Allied demands, the Senate committee found several primary explanations. Apparently there has never been any real planned and coordinated program for the production of aircraft. Both the Army and Navy have tended merely to buy what the manufacturers had to offer. Though it was formed to organize and manage production, the OPM served as a mere rubber stamp. After placing orders totaling billions and cooperating in Government financing of plant expansions to the extent of nearly a billion dollars, they failed to follow up and left the problem of getting the airplanes made to the manufacturers.

The committee found that since manufacture was started with the premise that mass production is impossible, the plane was often designed without proper regard to its adaptability to production. Rubber and soft metal dies are generally used in many processes for which steel dies would be more efficient. These must be supplemented by skilled hand labor, and waste tremendous quantities of aluminum. One company official asserted that the method wasted as much of the metal as it used in the production of bombers.

Steel dies are much more accurate and efficient, but are costly and require months to make. And the manufacturer has learned through bitter experience that in those months so many basic changes in design will have been ordered that his steel dies will be useless. Costs under the present system tend to be astronomical, with four-engined bombers costing completed from $477,000 to $1,161,000 each and pursuits as much as $120,000.

Under the present system, the manufacturer is continually harassed by hundreds of detail changes required by the services, many of which are either unnecessary or should have been foreseen. By the War Department's own statement, Boeing's B-17 is a design about five years old and the company in January, 1940, was tooled up for quantity production. Yet in 1940 only a few Boeings were delivered to the Army, although they had been under service tests for five years.

Some of the specific difficulties faced by the manufacturer are indicated by an instance cited by a manufacturing executive and related by the committee. It is remarkable that this executive made no criticism of the service agencies involved and indeed seemed to feel that the delays were inevitable. The committee related:

"The development of the armament on the rear cockpit of a plane manufactured by the company was one of the stories told to show the situation wherein production delay was occasioned by specification changes. It appears that the original specifications called for one .30-caliber machine gun, manually operated, in the rear cockpit. While the plane was still in the design stage it was decided that it should have two .30-caliber machine guns.

"Subsequently, it was decided that one .50-caliber machine gun would be better than two .30s. Still later it was apparent that two .50-caliber machine guns were needed, so this change was ordered.

"Experience proved that at high altitudes it was impossible to handle these heavy guns, so a power turret was ordered to swing the guns on a horizontal plane. Later experience showed that it was just as difficult to move the guns vertically as it was to move them horizontally and that the turret would have to be powered for vertical as well as horizontal movement.

"This evolution resulted in many delays and an inestimable loss of production, but unquestionably resulted in the development of a fine power-operated turret. Some who are perhaps unduly critical say, however, that the need for such a turret has been apparent for many years and it should have been specified originally."

Original specifications for the same plane called for a device for the analysis of the exhaust gases. After a quantity had been ordered the Army directed their removal as unnecessary and because they added between $200 and $300 to the cost of each plane. This change involved more than 200 detail changes.

At a hearing on the west coast one company official testified that increases in armament requirements for a bomber were so great that the plane had to be almost entirely redesigned to accommodate the extra weight. The examples could be multiplied by the hundreds.

A number of possible explanations were found for the fumbling approach to the problem of military aircraft development. One was the suggestion that there were too many fingers in the pie. Not only are the Army Air Corps' materiel division, the ordnance department, and the signal corps involved in furnishing equipment, but specifications may be drawn by several people. Each is concerned primarily with guns, or radio equipment, for example, and the final specifications result from a process of balancing and counter-balancing. There are many instances of lack of coordinated planning and proper organization, and the manner in which development and production have been hindered by short-sightedness.

Our armed services have always seemed extremely reluctant to accept or develop new ideas until they have been fully proven to be not only desirable but necessary. Even after foreign governments were building planes with four and even eight machine guns, our standard was two light guns. Many of our difficulties in adding arms stemmed from the fact that designs allowed for a weight of only two weapons. As late as 1940 our services still claimed that leak proof fuel tanks were not worth their weight, although the Nazis had adopted them and the British had found it suicidal to fight in planes lacking this equipment. In 1940 our armed services did not consider armor worth the weight it displaced in gasoline, and many of our planes still lack this protection.

Although the Moss supercharger (to permit high altitude operation) is one of the highly regarded developments in years, the inventor, Dr. Sanford A. Moss, complained last June that high-ranking military officials remained cool to his device for many years. Although the Navy takes credit for the original development of the dive bomber, the commonly told story is that this American design was actually ruled out by the Navy as ineffective until it had been proved abroad.

The manner in which we have failed to make full use of the actual existing production facilities of numerous small manufacturers is another story and too long for detailed recital here. It can be said in summary, however, at the present time everything is being done that can be done under existing conditions to speed production by 19 favored manufacturers of military aircraft — but the committee found that there were more than 60 aircraft manufacturers who had been unable to secure any substantial place for themselves in the urgent effort to expand our aerial defenses.

The same absence of a planned and coordinated program which has figured in other difficulties is a primary explanation for this concentration on the larger manufacturers. Other explanations include an apparent ingrained distrust of small companies, a lack of knowledge of their facilities, reluctance to place a greater supervisory load on already overworked Army and Navy personnel and the inability of the smaller concerns, because of inadequate resources, to sell their designs to the Government.

The answer to the valid problem of supervision is the Civil Aeronautics Administration. A CAA survey of facilities should require a month at most, and the smaller manufacturers have indicated they could begin production within three months after receiving orders.

Merely to criticize would be futile if conditions as set forth here were impossible to remedy — but they are not at all. The exigencies of war already have started a trend toward reorganization of methods and policies to conform to military needs. The Truman Committee advised specifically:

"By streamlining methods somewhat, allowing easier presentation of new developments, by standardizing types, by encouraging production methods and by using to the fullest extent the facilities of the small companies and the Civil Aeronautics Administration, the production rate can undoubtedly be quickly increased to give our forces in the field the equipment which they so vitally need."

This article was originally published in the April, 1942, issue of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 35, no 4, pp 18-19, 68, 70, 72.
The original article includes production line photos of the P-38 and P-39 lines, and a photo of Senator (later, President) Truman.
Photos are not credited.
A PDF of this article is available.