Guesswork to Clockwork

by G E Nistal

– a half-century of engine and aircraft development

Like most everything else, it was just an idea in the beginning when Sir Hiram Maxim invested $200,000, then watched his expensive enterprise become wreckage after thundering heavily along a circular track. The Lilienthal brothers of Germany nipped at the fringes of the secret when they soared in gliders during the same years. But they had no power behind them. Then Professor Langley fell short of success by a nose. His models flew, but the real thing failed. But the idea persisted that some man somehow, somewhere could use his engines to fly through the air.

About that time Professor Simon Newcomb, eminent physicist, deduced that man would never fly through the air in a plane. And a Mrs Beard in Dayton, OH, found herself running out of the house with a bottle of arnica every time a crazy contraption went through the air around an adjoining field. "These fellows," she would say to herself.

"These fellows" were Wilbur and Orville Wright. Their glider experiments in themselves made history. But to the Dayton bicycle builders, they were intended only as chapter one. Gliders gave them the platform for man and machine. It took short enough time to discover that there was no adequate powerplant available. So the Wrights, as they had built their own printing press while publishing a newspaper, built their own engine in the bicycle shop "factory." The engine emerged 200 pounds heavy and developing from eight to twelve horsepower.

On Thursday, December 17th, 1903, powered flight was born. By virtue of the toss of a coin on Kitty Hawk's cold bluff stretches, Orville became the eager midwife. Then, in 1908, the impossible was done — officially, publicly. Curtiss built his first hydroplane and, as a fitting climax, the Wrights won the contract award for the first plane that the United States Army Air Forces ever possessed. Their "contraption" exceeded the specification requirements and at last the world decided to "call" Professor Newcomb's bluff.

Even then, America was still sluggish where aviation industry was concerned. Britain, France and even Japan had millions invested in planes and research facilities when war was declared in 1914. While the US had appropriations for a bare handful of ships. By the time the Armistice was signed, the British had twenty-seven types of single-place fighters in service, the French had thirty-one types, and we had only nine. However, engine manufacturers had really gotten steam up; at the cessation of hostilities we had produced a total of 30,000 aircraft engines at a rate equal to that of British industry. Successor to the original bicycle factory through a series of mergers, Wright-Martin was turning out the familiar Hispano-Suiza engine, known to American pilots as the familiar "Hisso," which powered the French SPADS. Almost 4,000 of these engines were produced by this one corporation alone. Foundry techniques in casting engine parts were first developed at this time because of the defects found in the original French castings shipped here. Most famous of the aircraft engines from a publicity angle was Ford's inline Liberty engine, used in several ships of the DeHavilland series and also in many postwar American planes.

In 1923, the Wright J-3 radial was developed to become the forerunner of the now-famous "J-series" which powered planes on numerous famous flights during the succeeding decade. Planes themselves were advancing in adolescent style, experiencing "growing pains." The familiar Hisso, and later OX-5 powered Curtiss JN-4, called Jenny by her fans was the mainstay of this development. Originally built as an Army trainer, she was in use for almost a decade as mail plane, charter ship, civilian trainer, stunt plane, barnstormer, and as the general workhorse of America's "contraption-conscious" postwar generation.

In 1927, Lindbergh brought the possibilities of airplane and engine development to a point where he was every schoolboy's hero, the girls' number one glamour-boy, and the object of respect from mature folk as well. History and production flew in formation, one as gentlemanly to the other as Alphonse would have been to Gaston, or as Mary's lamb would have been to Mary. As one advanced, so did the other; as one met and conquered obstacles, so did the other. Until the 1930s, nobody took aviation too seriously; that is, nobody who wasn't in the business. But when the impossible began to be proven possible by one pioneer after another, Mr John Q Public at last realized that the die was cast. Whether he chose to believe it or not, airplanes and engines had thrown away their swaddling clothes and had graduated into short pants, even into knickers.

The old "tin goose" — the Ford Trimotor — came into being and people became familiar with the roar of its three Whirlwind. In 1926, the ultimate in "impossibility" was reached when the tin geese flew the mails! In some parts of the world — even as close as South America, later models of this same ship are still in service. The Wright Cyclone engine was developed about this time and progressed up to the point where it was almost standard equipment for transports. Our last production-line liquid-cooled engine, the familiar Curtiss Conqueror which developed 600 hp in the later models, was powering the Curtiss "A" and "O" series Falcons about that time. Today's Allison is the first high-powered engine of this type to be used since that time. The Douglas B-18 bomber, Curtiss A-12 Shrike attack ship, and the Boeing P-26 pursuit, were the ultimate in service design. Known to pilots as the pea-shooter, the latter ship was fast replacing the P-12 series in the Army Air Corps, but even as late as 1939, the P-12Es were in service in the Philippines. Engine design was still flying in formation, with the Shrike powered by 675-750-hp Cyclones, and the B-18s by the familiar Cyclone-9.

Civilian aviation was also in the same formation, keeping pace with the rapid advances of service design. The Douglas DC-1, the forerunner of our present commercial airliners, was first operated for transport in 1933. In testing the ship, the pilot purposely cut the switches on one of the engines while taking off. The transport left the ground and climbed steadily, the first time such a feat had been performed by a twin-engined ship. A year later the DC-2 was born, and its first flight was made under the guidance of two fellows named Jack Frye and Eddie Rickenbacker, both now airline presidents. On this flight, these men roared into Newark 13 hours and 4 minutes out of Los Angeles, clipping three hours off the schedule and establishing a new transcontinental record. Further modifications transformed it into the familiar DC-3, which combined all the knowledge of thirty years of aviation, and is now the standard aerial transport in the United States and many other countries of the world as well.

While all this was going on, the Cyclone-14 came into being during the middle thirties to catapult the seven-horse-power-per-year average rate of increase in development up to 33% in one year. The family trees of the Cyclone-9 and 14 have branched out to such an extent that almost half of the service-type ships in this country, a large percentage of heavy duty civilian craft, are now powered by such engines. The Flying Fortress, the Lockheed Hudson, the Douglas Dauntless, the DC-3, and the Army's C-60 are powered by the Cyclone-9, while the 14 powers the North American Mitchell, the Douglas Havoc, the Martin Baltimore, the Grumman Avenger, the Curtiss Helldiver, and the Martin Mariner.

"Big Bertha" of the engine industry is the Cyclone-18, first introduced in 1939 as the powerplant for the Consolidated Model 31 and Pan American's Clippers. This engine has progressed to the point where it has become the specification power plant for the Lockheed Constellation and the Martin Mars, as well as the Douglas B-19. Horsepower output is rated at over 2200, and new engineering features, withheld from publication because of security reasons, make it one of the mightiest powerplants of the day.

An illustrious wingmate to the Cyclone-18 is the Double Wasp-18, manufactured by the Pratt & Whitney Engine Division of United Aircraft Corp. Developing 2000 hp for takeoff at sea level pressure, it is known technically as the R-2800 series. It has been in production for over a year and has seen combat service on almost all fronts. Operational specifications and performance figures are restricted for reasons of security, much the same as the figures on the latest Cyclone. However, it is known to those in the industry that it powers some of our most recent battle-planes. The Curtiss Commando, Grumman Hellcat, Martin Marauder, Lockheed-Vega Ventura and the Vought-Sikorsky Corsair are among some of the ships in combat service with this engine.

During the late twenties and early thirties, record-making and breaking was quite the style. You might say that the style was set by Admiral Byrd and Floyd Bennett when they flew over the North Pole in 1926. Then came Lindbergh, Chamberlin, Levine, the famous Amelia Earhart and Byrd again, across the Atlantic, followed by Balchen, Acosta, and Boardman. Maitland and Hegenberger flew nonstop across the Pacific and Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith linked the United States with Australia and then continued on around the world. Admiral Byrd again made the headlines when he repeated his North Pole flight at the other extremity of the globe and established a "first" over the South Pole as well. Capt Frank Hawks roared around from one city to another both here and in Europe making and breaking records on almost every flight. The Army Air Forces even got in the swing of things with the famous Question Mark which established an endurance record of 150 hours in the air. Passenger-hopping had become passé and stunt-flying, wing-walking and mid-air plane changes were the fad. All going to prove one major development; that planes and engines had arrived at the point that they were no longer "contraptions," but an integral part of our daily scheme of things. In other words, the flying machine was no longer something to take "Josephine" for a ride in, but was now a means of getting somewhere quicker and easier, and a means of showing that the American people had what the aircraft industry calls today, the "know-how."

War is tough on planes and war is tough on engines. In fact, war is tough on anybody concerned with it. Someone said long ago that experience is the best education. That applies to industry as well. Engineering problems caused through the various combat techniques are solved with the perspiration from many an engineer's brow. Both ships and engines are being subjected to stresses and strains that a lifetime of commercial service would not cause. Maintenance riddles are being solved on the spot by GI ingenuity and production mechanics' headaches so regularly that all of our Allies consider America's flight and ground crews as masters of the shortcut. Troubleshooting and ingenuity are essential parts of the American "mechanical mind." After the war. the aviation industry will use the tough problems of today as stepping stones to better aircraft and engines. The transition from guesswork to clockwork will have to be changed to terms more fitting the occasion.

This article was originally published in the May, 1945, issue of Air News magazine, vol 6, no 4, pp 21-25.
The original article includes 29 photos of planes or engines.
Photos credited to Wright Aeronautical, USAAF, Lockheed, US Navy.