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World War II: American War Production--Aircraft

American World War II aircraft production
Figure 1.--Here Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighter aircraft are being constructed at a plant in Buffalo, New York during 1939. Into 1942 the P-40 was the Army Air Corps front-line fighter. Image courtesy of te Military History of the 20thb Century website.

The American aircraft industry and its expansion is one of the key factors in World War II. Air Force chiefs believed that the War could be won in the air. This proved not to be the case, but air superiority proved to be a key factor in American combat victories. And President Roosevelt well before the out break of war had given a priority to aircraft production. Here America had critical advantage as commercial airlines had developed in the 1930s, significantly expanding aircraft development and production capabilities. A major factor in American aircraft production was the power generation capacity of the United which was substantially increased as a result of New Deal hydro-electric projects which came o line just before the War. This was a development that Axis planners failed to take into account. This provided the capability for the United States to rapidly expand aluminum production. A hydro-electric project takes years to build. An aluminum smelter could be constructed in less than a year. The results were astonishing. Hitler was able to terrorize Europe with a 1,000 plane Luftwaffe in 1938. United States aircraft production (July 1940-August 1945) totaled an incredible 296,000 aircraft. It was enough not only to fully meet the needs of the American military, but also American allies, especially Britain and the United States. At the peak of production in 1944, American aircraft plants were turning out 11 planes an hour. America would end the War with the most powerful air force in the world operating all over the world. It would prove to be major factor in the Cold War.

Aircraft Industry

The aviation industry in the United States was a relatively small part of American industrial production before World War II. One source ranks it at only 41st in a list of major industries. The leading industry being the automobile industry. Even so, the American aviation industry was the largest in the world, in part because of demand from the growing demand for passenger aircraft. Europeans had little need for domestic aviation. America with substantial distances between cities did. President Roosevelt's decision to arm America as Europe moved toward war helped to further expand the industry. President Roosevelt gave a priority to air power in American defense planning. One of the results of that program was the Boeing B-17 which was designed to protect America from invasion. It proved ineffective against enemy fleets, but was along with the B-24 the mainstay of the American strategic air campaign against Germany. The British and French reacted slowly to German rearmament. This changed dramatically as Hitler began using the powerful Luftwaffe, first in Spain and then to threaten the Czechs and their British and French allies. The British and French unable to restore the imbalance in air fleets rapidly through domestic production, began to place orders for military aircraft in the United States (1938). This provided an important pre-War stimulus to the American aviation industry. The United States produced 6,000 air planes in 1939. Germany also developed a major aircraft industry as part of its rearmament program. The difference between the two countries is that America had a substantial capacity to increase airplane production. Germany had only a limited capacity to expand production. One reason America was able to expand aircraft production was its vast automotive industry. After America entered the War, a part of the automotive industry was diverted to aircraft production. American aircraft production expanded to an extent never imagined by the Germans and Japanese and to levels that surprised many Americans. And the industry produced many new many advanced aircraft types during the War. As a result the aircraft the U.S. Air Forces were using at the end of the War were different than those at the beginning of the War. This was in sharp contrast to the Axis air forces. Curtis, Grumman, Lockheed, and North American Aviation focused on fighters. Boeing focused on bombers.

Aluminum Industry

A major factor in American aircraft production was the large aluminum industry and power generation capacity needed to rapidly expand production. Aluminum was until the 20th century a very difficult element to produce. And as a result was more valuable than gold even though it is the third mot abundant element in the world's crust and the most abundant metal. It had a wide range of potential uses, but only if it could be produced at low cost. And this finally began to occur in the late-19th century just as America's industrial expansion was transforming the country. The Electric Smelting and Aluminum Company (Cowles Electric Smelting and Aluminum Company/Cowles Syndicate Company, Limited) organized in the United States and Britain to extract and supply valuable metals (mid-1880s). The Cowles brothers produced various alloys in quantity sufficient for commerce. Charles Martin Hall of Ohio in the United States and Paul H�roult of France independently developed the Hall-H�roult electrolytic process that substantially reduced the cost of extracting aluminum from ores like bauxite. Refinements of the process are still the principal industrial process for producing aluminum. Alfred E. Hunt using Hall's process founded the Pittsburgh Reduction Company, the origins of the Alcoa corporation (1889). Other early producers using H�roult's process was Aluminum Industrie in Switzerland, now Alcan (1889) and British Aluminium now Luxfer Group and Alcoa in Scotland (1896). Aluminum was still expensive, however, because electricity was costly. The electrolysis technique of producing aluminum from bauxite requires large quantities of electricity delivered steadily. Electricity costs gradually declined as improved generation and transmission capabilities were developed. No where did this occur more rapidly than the United States. America was the most prosperous country in the world. American workers were the highest paid in the world and thus important consumers. They brought not only light bulbs, but large quantities of electrical devices. In this increased demand for electricity. And as demand increased along with technical innovations, production costs fell. This greatly benefited the aluminum industry which by the 1930s was making consumer products. The Depression adversely affected the industry by reducing demand. Other development had a more positive impact. The New Deal's Rural Electrification Administration (REA) electrified rural America, further increasing demand. And vast new hydro-eclectic projects significantly expanded power production. This meant that on the eve of World War II, American industry had access to huge quantities of low-cost electricity. This was something the Axis planners did not take into account in assessing the potential industrial capacity of the United States. The Columbia River in the Northwest played an especially important role in the American aluminum industry. The industry was the first major industrial customer of Columbia River hydro power. The aluminum industry which at first was relatively small, grew to employ around 11,000 people in the Northwest and consume 3,150 megawatts of electricity. Colombia River power developed just in time for World War II. No country in the world had a comparable electrical generation capacity. The American electrical power generation capacity would also ply a major role in the Manhattan Project. The Bonneville Dam came on line just as Hitler began to use the German Luftwaffe to terrorize Europe (1938). The Grand Coulee Dam was completed further expanding power production just before Pearl Harbor (1941). The first Alcoa smelter was in Vancouver which was the birth of the Northwest aluminum industry. Other aluminum smelters quickly followed given the rapidly expanding demand from defense plants. Reynolds Metals Company constructed the next one, at Longview, Washington, about 40 miles north of Vancouver (1941). Other plants were built by the Defense Plant Corporation, which was formed by the Federal government to rapidly expand critical industries. The plants were dispersed geographically around the Northwest, so that they could benefit multiple communities. Each used electricity primarily from Bonneville. Boeing, which was already building B-17 bombers n Seattle, was a primary consumer of aluminum from the Northwest smelters. This was just the beginning as after Pear Harbor, American aircraft production increased exponentially. One source estimates that electricity from the Grand Coulee Dam alone provided the power to make the aluminum used for an estimated one-third of the American aircraft built during World War II.

Military Policy

President Roosevelt well before the out break of war had given a priority to aircraft production.

Annual Production

We do not yet have data on 1939 production. America expansed aircraft production to 23,000 planes in 1940 both to equip its own military and to assist Britain and France. Great priority was given to aircraft production even before the War. President Roosevelt gave a priority to aircraft even when Congressional military budgets were very limited. The famed B-17 Flying Fortress was developed very early (1935) and entered into service (1938) just as Hitler was using the Luftwaffe to force the Allies to back down and the Czechs to accede to his demands. Actual American production was, however, very limited until the War. We do not yet have overall American 1939 aircraft production data, but American plants were producing aircraft for the Allies as well as the U.S. military. This was complicated for several months after the outbreak of the War because of the Neutrality Acts. Production in 1940 (July-August) totaled 3,600 aircraft, about half of which was trainers. This reflected the need to train large numbers of pilots at the beginning of the War. Most were still were Americans, but included some Allied pilots, especially British. While the numbers seem small compared to what was to come, they were still substantial at the time. The British fought off the German Luftwaffe (July-September 1940). This would be the only successful Allied campaign of the War in which American aircraft did not play a successful role. American aircraft production increased sharply in 1941, but we are not sure just how much as we do not yet have full 1940 data, but we suspect that it was about three times. Production reached 18,500 in 1941. Less than half were combat aircraft, again primarily because of trainer production. At the end of the year of course, America was thrust into the War because of the Japanese carrier attack on Pearl Harbor (December 1941). This removed all Congressional budget constraints on production. Production more than doubled in 1942 to nearly 47,000 aircraft. More than half were now combat aircraft, although trainer production was still sizable. The United States once actual combat commenced was shocked to learn that its fighters in particular (both the Army P-40 and the Navy F5F Wildcat) were inferior to Axis fighters. American fliers had to develop tactics to reduce that advantage until American aircraft plants could develop and produce more advanced types. Combat results in the Pacific were especially shocking because American planners had so underestimated the Japanese. Aircraft production was so sizable in 1942 that 1943 production did not double, but it nearly did. Production reached 84,900 aircraft, substantially more than the entire Axis. Over 60 percent were combat aircraft. The production of trainers peaked at 21,000 planes in 1943. The aircraft loses at Pearl Harbor which were at the time were substantial were a mere 2-days output of American aircraft plants. And the quality of aircraft was improving. The Grumman F6F Hellcat which became the primary U.S. carrier fighter reached the fleet and transformed the Pacific War. By 1944 America built 96,300 planes, more planes than were possessed by the Axis combined and this does not include British and Soviet production. The Germans built 40,000 war planes in 1944, but the arrival of P51 Mustangs in the skies over Germany resulted in the destruction of the Luftwaffe. And American production was75 percent combat aircraft. Trainer production declined to 8,000 and was exceeded by transport aircraft, primarily the C-47. This was the peak of production, an incredible 11 planes an hour were rolling out of American aircraft plants. And the quality of the planes produced was now preeminent. Except for the German Messerschmidt Me-262 Schwalbe (Swallow), the American planes were by 1944 the best planes flown by superbly trained pilots, many now with extensive combat experience. Production included both the P-51 Mustang that could accompany the Allied bombers in strikes over Germany and the B-29s that could reach the Japanese Home Islands from the newly won bases in the Marianas. Aircraft production was dialed dialed back in 1945 as Germany surrendered (May 1945) and Japan (August 1945). Production totaled 45,900 aircraft (through August 1945). That included more than 80 percent combat types. Total American aircraft production (July 1940-August 1945) totaled 296,000 aircraft. [U.S. Army Air Forces]

Air Craft Types

American defense spending was very limited during the inter-War era. This was especially the case of the Army. Thus when World war II began the United States did not even have an effective tank. There was some spending on the Navy and Air Force (at the time the Army air Corps). The basic thesis which emerged in the 1930s because of the casulties in France during World War I was that the United states wold fight any future war with technology rather than massive ground forces. The Navy and Air Force were emphasized in the belief that they could intercept enemy forces trying to cross the Atlantic or Pacific. Thus the Navy and Air Corps were given priority with the limited defense soending. The United States before the War began working on strategic bombers. Not many planes were built and delivered to the Air Corps, but research and development soending resulted in considerable progress that would prive vital when the War began. And once the War began massive resources wee made available. As a result, few of the aircraft in use at the beginning of the War were still in service at the end of the War. The United States introduce a large number of aircraft during World War II, including various types of bombers, fighters, reconnaissance, transport, and other types.

Jet Aircraft


The Cold War

America would end the War with the most powerful air force in the world operating all over the world. It would prove to be major factor in the Cold War.


Military History of the 20th Century website

U.S. Army Air Forces. Army Air Forces Statistical Digest, World War II. Table 79.


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Created: 12:40 AM 6/21/2010
Spell checked: 10:17 AM 9/8/2012
Last updated: 10:43 PM 7/13/2018