Much has been written regarding the air war contributions of aviation manufacturers; somewhat less has been said about the automobile industry which discarded convertibles and tudors to build bombers and fighters. Unfortunately, too little tribute has been paid to manufacturers of tires and tubes who switched to aircraft production within a few months after Pearl Harbor. Perhaps the slight was unavoidable. This writer, for one, had more or less assumed that piano plants and tire companies were doing a wartime aviation job primarily to keep their doors open, to keep their time-clocks ringing. But I visited Goodyear's plants at Akron last month and had my eyes opened. I saw aircraft and aircraft components moving from design departments and shipping platforms which eighteen months ago handled nothing bigger than quantity shipments of the familiar 6.00 x 16 hides on the family flivver.
Rolled from more or less comfortable Pullman berths even aviation writers travel by rail in these times into the cold, damp dawn of the world's rubber capital, I encountered the newest building in the Goodyear production empire the Goodyear Research Laboratory. Now dedicated to military material creation, this three-story building will ultimately become a quarry for milestones the starting point for many of the miracles we expect from tomorrow's peace. Dr L B Sebrell, who heads the research division, led me into a high-ceilinged room on the ground floor to demonstrate one of his pet war babies Pliofilm. Only the baker and chewing gum maker visualized wide use of its crystal-clear transparency and moisture resistance before the Nips dropped in on Hawaii. Now, a two-ply Pliofilm sheet protects American aircraft engines during shipment to combat areas. In the days before Pliofilm, engines were specially greased for shipment, then degreased at field repair shops before installation in fighters and bombers. So chewing-gum wrappings are now saving up to seventy-five man hours on factory-to-fight time of Allied aircraft while giving Cyclones and Wasps the best protection from moisture they've ever known.
In an adjoining research room, I watched the men behind our successful use of magnesium castings in aircraft. Here at Goodyear, a technician studies casting samples with the aid of an RCA electronic microscope which extends from floor to ceiling. Employing a beam of electrons instead of light rays, this gargantuan instrument gives 100,000 revolutions magnification fifty times greater than that of light microscopes. A built-in camera records the magnified image for a young doctor in the next room who spends most of his time making fluoroscope photos of actual castings for Goodyear air wheels, compares them with pictures of perfect magnesium samples photographed by the electronic scope.
From the research laboratory, I traveled across the city to one of the company's rubber division plants, watched housewives and high-school students building leak-proof fuel tanks. When a new plane like the Hellcat, for instance first passes the drafting table stage, Goodyear sculptors create a plaster form in the image of open space in the new plane's wings and fuselage, fashioning fuel-line fitting holes with care they once assigned to the detail on a Crucifix. Fiber, fabric and fabulous chemigum is shaped, gummed, cut, and molded on these forms to emerge as fuel cells impervious to Jap and German aircraft shells. They are heavy, cut performance of planes considerably. But they save pilots lives. Even the Japs have found out that life-saving is important.
In the basement of this building, Goodyear operates a veritable commando course for aircraft tires. Spinning at speeds simulating 200-mph. landing speeds, these tires are braked against a drum more abrasive than the primitive airfields of the desert. On adjacent machines, tires are run for days on end out of alignment, improperly inflated, deliberately cut and bruised to determine the life expectancy of shoes on our fighters and bombers.
Some fifteen minutes away from the rubber plant lies Goodyear's airport, with three modern buildings nestled in the shadow of the venerable dirigible dock. Blacker than night, so large that it sometimes rains inside, the dock is rated as the biggest "single story" factory in the world. The Akron and the Macon, both born in this gigantic black shed, are gone. Now, men and women use its vast area for the fabrication of aircraft parts, for work on Goodyear's latest blimp, so different in design, size and performance from the "K" ships that Dr Karl Arnstein, the nation's top lighter-than-air engineer for two decades, calls it "a new invention." No details can be released on the new craft but the Germans, who taught Dr. Arnstein the secrets of lighter-than-air design, will soon regret the aptitude of their pupil.
Alongside the sprawling dirigible dock lies Plant B, a factory originally built as a one-story unit, where war work now flourishes on two floor levels. Already using every available foot when the Navy asked them to build subassemblies for Grumman, Goodyear executives found space for the new products by simply adding a mezzanine to Plant B. The result air wheels and blimp gondolas move smoothly off the ground floor while a half-story higher, Grumman Avenger tails take form under supervision of Annapolis graduate Zeno Wicks.
Rarely, if ever, does a writer find Army and Navy materiel in process of manufacture at plants a few hundred feet apart, so the contrast between complete Vought Corsair production in Plant D, subassembly fabrication for Martin, Boeing and Northrop in Plant C is impressive. Little can be said of this subcontract work, beyond the fact that Goodyear builds wing sections and engine nacelles for the B-26, fuselage center sections for Boeing's newest four-engine heavy bombers, fuselage tail sections for Northrop. In the Corsair plant, ships come from the line in quantity sufficient to keep eight test pilots employed all the time, while R L Stephens, chief of the flight test section, and Art Chapman. Beau Brummel chief of flight operations, spend occasional time in the air.
This production record stems largely from utilization of a "sick bay" parallel with each Corsair assembly line. When everything runs smoothly, these open lanes adjacent to conveyor lines appear to be wasted space. But when a Corsair reaches a point where it may be delayed for longer than the allotted time waiting for rudder pedals, for example it is pulled into sick bay, waits for the missing parts while planes behind continue to move forward until they reach the rudder pedal stage, pedal-equipped ships ahead also move along. This rubber plant variation on aircraft manufacturing themes is completely logical for floor space is the least expensive element in any manufacturing process.
Government expeditors, genuinely pleased with Goodyear output on a dozen contracts, might credit everything to manufacturing secrets, production shortcuts. Nothing is further from fact. For a long time, Goodyear has depended on Akronites for skilled and unskilled labor, employing approximately 8% Negro labor to match the city's population percentage figures. When war and the draft came to Ohio, Goodyear recruitment executives moved into Kentucky, West Virginia for Akron plant help, into the Southwest with construction of a new plant at Litchfield Park, AZ. Decimation of engineering ranks was countered with employment of scientifically-inclined young women who are paid and educated by the company at Akron or Cincinnati Universities. Already employing four women for every six men the personnel department this summer strengthened its factory force by hiring 1,600 high-school boys. Most of these boys are now continuing their schooling, and work at Goodyear after school and Saturdays. Those nearing eighteen are still working full time while they wait for Uncle Sam's draft call.
Otherwise, the firm's success with aircraft production can be traced to a seldom—publicized kinship between rubber and airplane manufacture. Requiring specialized machinery for tire production, Goodyear has worked with metal for more than forty years, has 1,500 men in the engineering department who boast at least thirty years' background in machine shop practice. Other Goodyear engineers learned stress calculations while the company was building the Akron and Macon, still another group had developed a method for spot-welding aluminum. With a loss of one-sixth of its employees to the armed forces, heaviest drains in the engineering departments, Goodyear has successfully boosted its manpower from 3,000 to 32,000 in one year with plenty of ingenuity but no trade secrets.
So the tire company which started with capitalization of $50,000 in 1898, survived World War I postwar indebtedness totaling $88,000,000, is now stretching out across the Ohio countryside as a prime mover in the aircraft industry, while continuing to stretch its rubber plant skill and resources in the interest of ground and sea forces. This two-way stretch will shortly have the Goodyear winged foot walking all over the Axis.
This article was originally published in the November, 1943, issue of Air News magazine, vol 5, no 5, pp 18-19, 54.
The original article includes 5 captioned photos and a two-page Duotone background photo.
Photos credited to Goodyear.