Sweeping Planes Off From The Floor

by Lawrence Merz Persons

From the rubbish piles and scrap heaps of the aviation plants, efficient methods are salvaging materials for hundreds of new aircraft.

Hundreds of additional airplanes are being constructed monthly from the millions of pounds of salvaged scrap swept up from the floors, collected in trash cans and otherwise "recovered" from the aircraft manufacturing plants of the United States. Long before civilians ever heard of a "salvage drive,"' aircraft manufacturers recognized the importance of their scrap material and took steps to collect and resmelt it. Today it is literally true that hundreds of combat planes are being made out of scrap that was once thrown away. At one plant alone, it was discovered, for example, that enough aluminum scrap was unavoidably created during the construction of two of its giant bombers to furnish an aluminum skin for a third one. At another plant enough scrap aluminum to build 64 dive-bombers was salvaged within a period of thirty days.

It has been written of the Chicago stockyards that they are so efficient that the only thing the operators haven't been able to salvage and use is a pig's squeal. It might perhaps more truly be said of today's average airplane production plant that the only thing which hasn't been saved is the whine of the machines and the racket of rivet guns, as new planes roll off the production lines to join those which have previously taken to the air.

Statistics reveal that battling the Axis with scrap is a battle fully as realistic as any being waged in the front line trenches„ though of course not as sanguinary a one. If you have the idea that the salvaging of miscellaneous and formerly wasted material is just a joke, a lot of "hooey" engaged in because somebody started a "drive", and that soon it will be dropped or forgotten, you' re wrong. Ponder for a moment such facts as these: Within a period of only 30 days enough scrap aluminum was gathered at the Long Island City plant of Brewster Aeronautical Corporation to build sixty-four Brewster dive-bombers, and enough scrap steel to construct seven 27-ton tanks or twenty-one 8-inch antiaircraft guns. The thirty-day recovery included 145 tons of aluminum scrap, 105 tons of steel, 3 tons of stainless steel, 1,000 pounds of copper and 700 pounds of rubber.

Over at Douglas Aircraft Company's plant in Santa Monica, California, they'll tell you that literally hundreds of combat planes are being "swept up off the floors." Last year, for example, enough dural was reclaimed from scrapheaps to furnish the entire aluminum content for a huge fleet of Douglas attack-bombers. Speaking of aluminum, Westinghouse Electric thought it did a pretty fair,job when it reclaimed 120,000 pounds per month for an annual total of around one-and-one-half million pounds. Yet that total, big as it was, amounts to only one-half of that salvaged by Douglas Aircraft. Westinghouse also reported an additional salvage of 1,180,000 pounds of other non-ferrous metals per month — so much in fact that at the year's end it took 3,000 freight cars to haul it away. Had all those cars been hooked up to one engine and a caboose, it would make a train 25 miles long. And anybody will admit that is a lot of scrap.

Even the largest manufacturers now look upon "waste" materials as money on deposit. Take Buick, for instance. During 1941 it is said to have piled up a scrapheap of 244,000,000 pounds. In fact Buick is so stingy of its leavings that it even recaptures exhaust steam, uses and reuses it, and then converts it back into water, before calling the job done.

At Boeing Aircraft Company the stuff that is swept up from the floors is adjudged worth more than a million dollars a year. One government bureau has figured out that just the sheet scrap from the nation's aircraft p1ants alone, if properly segregated, would save enough aluminum to build 250 B-17s a month and in addition save enough magnesium to make 50,000 incendiary bombs monthly. Though that may seem like a lot, you must recall that every operation in the primary shops, where the metal is cut up, produces trimmings, ends and metal "sawdust." For example, into Boeing trash bins go, in the order of their importance, aluminum, stainless steel and plain steel scrap. Steel and dural borings, or metal sawdust, is swept up around the routers and milling machines, taken to the salvage yard and sifted through a screen. Dural tubing, valuable for its magnesium alloy, is another important gift to the melting pot. Strips of sheet metal from the punch presses and brass borings from the lathes are also important items. Still others include clamps, rubber and metal caps for tubing, bolts, nuts, screws, rivets, metal and iron washers, short pieces of insulated copper, burlap, wiring, etc. Personal tools appear occasionally and one week two small electric motors are reported to have been discovered amid the "trash." Even old rags, once headed for the incinerator, now go to the laundry, where they are washed, baled and returned to the factory. Every month Boeing sends two tons of used tabulator cards, made from high grade manila stock, to an out-of-town pulp mill. Small stuff such as bolts, nuts, screws, etc., are reclaimed and returned to the shops from whence they came, though huge quantities of. the scrap are sold. Aluminum, of course, is remelted and rerolled, though its final destination is determined by the War Priorities Board.

Out at one of the new Wright Aeronautical plants, "somewhere in Ohio," they have developed a fast chip handling system that collects tons of steel, aluminum, magnesium, brass and bronze chips every 24 hours. In less than 40 minutes a miniature haystack of long, curly shavings can be removed from a machine to a special metal container, dumped into a conveyor train, crushed, freed of machine oil and compactly stowed away in a railroad gondola car. When as many as 10 to 15 gondola cars are loaded, a gasoline tractor hauls them swiftly away to a chip processing plant. Here the gondola: are dumped, the metal cargo being tossed into drain pans where a portion of the machine oil still clinging to the chips is drained off. Then the bunches of chips or shavings are pulled apart so they can more easily be stuffed into a hammer mill crusher which presses them even more compactly. Chips which have been cut from oil coolants come from the crusher to be dumped into a standard industrial centrifuge. Whirled at 780 revolutions per minute these chips lose their last trace of oil which spins oft to be drained and reclaimed. Oil-free chips drop onto a belt conveyor which hoists them into a 100-ton storage hopper 40 feet above a spur track on which railroad gondola cars are waiting. A chute opens and down hurtle 25 tons of metal into a gondola, ready for shipment to a processing plant for utilization again in the war effort.

Enough rubber to completely equip four B-17 Flying Fortresses was located within a single week in the New Jersey plants of Curtiss-Wright Corporation's propeller division. From long lines of machine tools used in making propellers come ton upon ton of. scrap steel shavings, turnings and overage. Welders now toss butt ends of expensive and now rare tungsten into special receptacles. Copper from electric wiring, brass from discarded electric light bulbs, tin containers from cafeterias and worn files, of valuable carbon steel, are all being salvaged. Cutting and lubricating oils and solvents are being reclaimed by means of filtration and distillation. Packing cases are dismantled and the lumber used for shipping Wright equipment. Worn and useless burlap bags are returned to the manufacturer so the jute may be reclaimed and later rewoven. Waste paper from offices and shops is shredded and baled for use in repacking.

Twice the tonnage of the famed B-24 Liberator is rescued today from the rubbish pile at Consolidated Aircraft, according to executive vice president I M Ladden.

"Prior to Pearl Harbor most of our scrap materials were dumped or burned as not worth the trouble of saving," comments Mr Ladden, "but today a salvage personnel of 17 people sifts floor sweepings and combs refuse waste baskets. And what comes out? Well in a single month, 35 tons of aluminum shavings were saved, together with 11 tons of paper, 266 tons of scrap iron, 20 tons of neoprene and rubber, 45 tons of steel shavings, half a ton of Plexiglas, 4,350 gallons of waste oil, 6 tons of stainless steel, 3,342 pieces of 3-ply panels, 515 barrels and drums, a ton of wool fabric, 6 tons of shoddy and burlap, 700 bearings, 670 pounds of manila rope, 10 tons of lead dross, 848 electric drills, 2 tons of bronze shavings, 1 ton of copper, 26,695 gallons of paint thinner and tons of miscellaneous rags.

"Eight thousand, five hundred gallons of waste crankcase oil, from engines being tested, for which Consolidated Aircraft used to get 3¢ a gallon, is now being converted into cutting oil worth 27¢ a gallon. Since it costs about 20¢ to refine a gallon, the company saves 7¢ a gallon instead of 3¢. Even yet we are not satisfied. We expect to recrack the oil and reuse it in engine tests. We had been selling our scrap wood as such. Now we are recovering two tons of bolts, nuts, washers and screws from the wood before it is sold and are seriously thinking of converting the wood itself into wood flour, from which roofing paper and insulation can be made. It takes 80 girls, working in two shifts, to sort rivets, screws and nuts which are swept up from the floor daily at a rate of about a ton a day. During a single recent month we salvaged 209,631 pounds of bomber parts which various inspectors had rejected. We seek the causes of the "rejects," try to have the defects corrected and so finally okayed. Four hundred tons of aluminum are saved monthly by cutting scraps into sub-standard sizes — anything from two inches by six inches to 36 inches square — which we use in building Consolidated bombers. Our Salvage Director has become so enthused over the results accomplished by our salvage program that he now personally saves string, paper bags and old razor blades."

The huge Glenn Martin plants in Maryland discovered that about one-third of the aluminum alloys used in the construction of Martin planes ends up as scrap in the form of clippings, blankings, punchings, shearings, turnings and borings. Thus, for every two Martin bombers built, enough scrap is unavoidably created to build a third — provided the eight different alloys are kept separate. Segregation of scrap is one of the secrets of salvage operations. Mixing metals is like mixing sugar and salt. When that happens you get a substance that is good neither for sweetening nor seasoning. So with mixed metals. Mixed, they cannot be turned right back into production. Hence, at North American Aviation, brightly colored discs are hung above the machines, each disc denoting a different type of metal. Near the machines are barrels painted in corresponding colors. Salvage workmen clean the metal from the machines and deposit it in the various barrels, according to color.

At Bell Aircraft too, proper segregation of scrap is regarded as vitally important, as by keeping each type of metal separate, the smelter is saved the expensive, time-consuming task of removing some elements and adding others to bring the mixture into a proper alloy. By Bell's segregation process the smelter is able to convert its scrap into "original specification" aircraft alloys with little or no trouble. Every week at least 1500 necessary and hard-to-get Cleco clamps are salvaged from sweepings at the Bell plants. Elusive aluminum rivets, dropped in the heat of production, are saved and sent to a nearby vocational school where they are used by students in rivet practice, serving a highly useful purpose in the training of future aircraft workers.

How seriously the working personnel of aircraft plants are taking the salvaging of scrap as a means of doing their bit toward winning the war is well illustrated by an editorial which recently appeared in the house organ issued by Republic Aviation, out on Long Island. It begins with the explanation that an employee handed the house organ editor an envelope with the remark "Here's an editorial for you." Opening the envelope, the editor found it contained seventy-eight 3/16 flat-head rivets — two good handfuls of them. The editorial which resulted read as follows:

"Those 78 rivets had been picked up on the Republic parking lot, picked up in an area of six feet, where they had been scattered by some clown who is lazy, thoughtless and selfish, and in all probability as un-American as any Nazi saboteur. "Seventy-eight 3/16th rivets cost Republic and the American taxpayers — us guys, brother — about 50 cents. They are ten ounces of aluminum. They are capacity for a machine a half-minute or so, in an overworked aluminum plant.

"Some bird took too many from the rotobin. When the quit whistle blew he still had them. He ducked for the parking lot and when he got there he felt the rivets in his pocket. He didn't want to ride home with them there. Too heavy. He'd only have to bring them back.

"Conservation, saving materials? Trying to win this war?

"He never had ideas like that. The hell with the rivets, he thought.

"Some of us who have kid brothers, or sons, or pals in Ireland, England, Australia or Alaska — or maybe in a Jap prison camp — would like to catch up with that guy. Some of us who have authority, would like to fire him right out of Republic.

"Some of us who don't have any gold on our badges but who have a pretty fair right cross, would like to poke him right in the nose.

"Keep it up, fellow. We'll catch up with you."

While that sort of a spirit prevails among the men who staff the big aviation plants who can doubt that victory lies ahead? By the thousands and tens of thousands they seem to have adopted the motto in vogue at the Glenn Martin plants: "Aim straight at the scrap bins and score a hit on the Axis!"

Ingenious as our conservationists have already proven themselves, we'll be doing things yet undreamed of before the fires of this war are finally banked. We'll be doing them not merely to save an enormous quantity of basic materials in the present emergency, but because no up-and-coming, on-its-toes business can afford to be unmindful of the era of peace and commerce that will follow. And perhaps, in the final analysis, we' ll be doing them not so much for financial profit as for the Yankee joy of plucking full-fledged bombers, transports and other aircraft out of the ashcans. When even the "by-products" of bombers are being turned into more bombers, we are learning the very practical lessons of thrift, a newly- found virtue that Americans can undoubtedly hold onto long after this war is ended.

This article was originally published in the February, 1943, issue of Flying Aces magazine, vol 43, no 3, pp 16-17, 79-81.
The PDF of this article [ PDF, 9.7 MiB ] includes four photos of recycling activities at aircraft plants and a photo of a B-17F seen from o'clock low.
Flying Aces was printed on unpolished pulp paper, which has aged considerably, so that the resulting quality of the printed photos is not up to the standards of the original or of many of the other magazines that have survived to the present.
Photos are not credited.