Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, December 23, 2022

American Failure: Combat Aircraft Production

Wing Assembly at the Dayton-Wright DH-4 Plant
Read HERE About the Service of the U.S. DH-4

The United States did not produce any aircraft of its own design for use at the front during World War I.   American industry did make two contributions to the airwar.  Building the British designed DH-4, and equipping it with the ground-briaking Liberty-12 Engine.  By the end of the war, Dayton-Wright delivered 3,106 DH-4s, while the Fisher Body Division of General Motors built 1,600 and the Standard Aircraft Corporation added another 140, bringing the total to 4,846. The remaining 7,500 DH-4s still on order were cancelled.  Automakers Ford, Lincoln, Packard, Marmon, and Buick produced 20,748 Liberty-12s, with varying quality, before the Armistice.  These numbers, however, were far, far below the targets created shortly after America's entry into the war. This failure is considered the greatest failure of America's  mobilization effor in the Great War. [Of course, it must be kept in mind that the nation had only been at war for 19 months at the time of the Armistice.] Nevertheless, America's aircraft production proved to be a major disappointment and was the subject of numerous investigations and hearings that began even before the war ended.

Even as the war in Europe demonstrated dramatic improvements in the potential and sophistication of aerial warfare, the United States failed to develop this asset. During Pershing's Mexican expedition he had eight aircraft, from a total of 13 within the Army. These were antiquated and plagued with maintenance problems but they proved their worth. But, at the time of the entry into the war, the Army had only 35 qualified aviators, all residing in the Signal Corps, and not even a prototype for a combat aircraft. 

The Ford Liberty-12 Engine Plant
Read HERE About the Creation of the Liberty-12

A group of army officers under General Benjamin Foulois, who had been involved in U.S. military aviation since the days of the Wright brothers, formulated a production plan calling for construction of 22,625 planes, including training machines, together with 45,250 engines, although the actual types were yet to be decided. [Compare these hopes with the actual figures above!] Some officers at first expressed reservation about the size of the program but eventually acquiesced, in the assumption that their expert advisers were best qualified to know the nation's capabilities and because it was recognized that even if the program was not fully met it would still contribute to the establishment of aerial supremacy. So the War Department asked Congress for $640 million with which to carry out the program, assuring the members that the planes would be at the front by May 1918. The bill to provide this fund, then the largest single amount ever granted, was passed by the House on 14 July, approved by the Senate with a unanimous vote on the 21st, and signed into law by the president on the 24th.

Aircraft production proved to be another example of impressive work that might have made a difference if the war had lasted. The Army quickly determined that it would take too long to design a combat aircraft, so it employed an American model training aircraft but adopted European designs for the combat aircraft. Adoption of European designs involved questions of deciding upon the right design, introducing precision to conform to the American style of mass production, and metric conversion. Despite the best efforts of American manufacturers, by the end of the war the only American-built combat aircraft was an observation plane of British design. The other combat aircraft were built by Europeans, often with the United States furnishing the raw materials. In this case, France was having difficulties meeting its own aircraft needs and the United States took a lower priority. The United States made some significant contributions to aircraft technology, such as the powerful Liberty Engine and the development of a process for “doping” cotton to be used in the wings, but achieved no significant production of combat aircraft. 

Major Hap Arnold with the First Liberty-12
Off the Production Line

In order for the French and British to produce munitions and weaponry for the U.S. Army, the United States agreed to provide the steel for artillery and weapons, the spruce wood for aircraft, or other raw materials in return for European weapons. Although damaging to the notion of independent American power, the arrangement had one huge advantage. Raw materials used much less shipping space than finished products. If American industry had been able to enter mass production immediately, transportation of finished artillery or aircraft across the Atlantic would have been problematic until the United States could also develop the merchant marine fleet.

Transportation constituted an equally significant and intractable problem. The Army needed to move cargo and personnel within the United States by rail and to France by sea. Each form of movement created its own problems, some more difficult than others.  The German advance during March had brought about a change of priorities and a virtual embargo on the shipment of anything but infantry and machine guns for several months. Fighter production was still further delayed. An order for 3,000 SPADs placed with Curtiss in October 1917 was canceled in December when it was decided to purchase fighters in France, paying for them in part with material shipped from the U.S.Thus it was not until 2 August 1918 that the first squadron of American-built planes, powered by American engines, and flown by American crews, flew a mission across the lines. Production in the U.S. was reinstated later, but the war was over before any U.S.-built machines could be shipped to France. [Statistics indicate, however, that production rates for both the DH-4 and Liberty-12 Engine were beginning to increase dramatically, just as the Armistice was signed.]

A U.S. Built DH-4 with Liberty Engine That
Did Make It to the Front

Five separate reviews of the aircraft production failure were made during and shortly  after the war.  Reasons for the lack of production included:

  • Pre-war neglect of the aviation industry, and the consequent need to create an industry where none existed before.
  • Indecision regarding the types selected for manufacture.
  • Airplanes were not suited for mass production.
  • Control by the automobile industry and favoritism in placing orders.
  • Sustitution of the Liberty engine in almost every aircraft design.

All of these problems and setbacks were inevitable and should have been foreseen. Or, more precisely, it should have been foreseen that some such problems would occur, even if no one was sufficiently clairvoyant to predict what they might be. The solution of such problems is the function of management, and without such setbacks industry would run efficiently with no personnel between the board room and the shop floor, but we all know that it does not. Nevertheless, although the American airplane production failed shamefully, the war helped launch an aviation industry that would grow to be second to none. 

Sources: Supporting the Doughboys: U.S. Army Logistics and Personnel During World War I,  by Leo P. Hirrel;  "U.S. Aircraft Production: Success or Scandal?", by Paul Hare; U.S. Centennial of Flight Website.


  1. A significant factor impeding aircraft design and production prior to America's entry into the war were patent suits by the Wright Brothers regarding methods of aircraft flight control.

    Steve Miller

  2. Any quibbles on this pretty much prove the point. There was an American type that just about made it to the Western Front before the Armistice, the LUSAC-11 two-seater. The name stood for Le Pere United States Army Combat: since the designer La Pere was a Frenchmen, it's American credentials were even more tenuous, but it was built in the USA with American money. Only two were at the Front when the war ended, and by all accounts it was a good aircraft, setting several altitude records later.
    The article is purely about US Army aircraft: Curtiss had made some very good flying-boats that saw combat with the US Navy and the Royal Naval Air Service/RAF (they were even better with hulls improved by the British designer John Porte).
    As the Liberty: it was a fine engine when the quality control was sufficient, but it was physically large and was therefore no good for single-seat fighters. The only smaller engine the US had was the Curtiss OX5 which was obsolete by 1916, so they would have been dependent on European engines for some time.

  3. Even though the US did not get a production plane in service, they still produce more Handley Page 0/400 bombers then the British did an they started in 1916 while the US Grand Rapids Aircraft Company didn’t start until late 1917. If they had the 2819 Campaign as anticipated the US production would have made the difference.

  4. It should be 1919 Campaign, sorry fat fingers!