US prewar aircraft manufacturing was a bourgeoning industry prior to the Great Depression. Interwar production numbers peaked in 1929 just prior to the Great Depression start. Production bottomed out in 1933 and then began a long slow recovery. The aircraft industry did not reach pre–Great Depression production levels before the World War 2 onset. A total of 35,580 aircraft were produced in the United States from 1922 to 1938. Franklin Roosevelt famously set the goal at 50,000 aircraft per year. Not only was this a higher production number in one year than in the prior seventeen-year period but on average these aircraft would be bigger, more complicated, expensive, and often using unproven cutting-edge technology.
Aircraft manufacturing during the 1920s and 1930s was the antipathy from automobile industry’s mass production. Highly skilled laborers often working as teams assembled the aircraft per detailed and often complicated work instructions covering a multitude of steps. Part interchangeability was the hope for situation but often grinding and shimming was required in order to achieve fit. Changes occurred on almost every aircraft resulting in very few identical planes.
In 1938 a total of 3,623 aircraft were produced in the United States and of that total 1,823 were civilian aircraft. Almost 97% of the civilian aircraft were small single engine planes which would not meet most military needs. The United States was not starting from scratch, but they had a long way to go to meet the President’s stated goal.
Wartime Needs and Production
Aircraft of every variety were needed from trainers, observation, fighters, cargo, to bombers. The Aeronca L-3 an observation aircraft used by the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) was one of the smallest and least expensive planes. This plane was built upon an existing commercial trainer design thus keeping cost and development time down.
At the other end of the spectrum the Boeing B-29, also known as the Superfortress, was the costliest project of the war. Over three billion dollars were spent bringing the Superfortress into being. Even though 3,898 B29s were procured by the USAAF in many ways it was still in its developmental stage. The B-29 was the forerunner to many planes of the 1950s and 1960s. For example, the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, a commercial airliner, was based upon a military cargo version of the B-29.
In total over 304,139 aircraft were procured by the US Military Services from US aircraft manufacturers during the war years, 1939-45. From a low of 921 in 1939 to a high of 96,318 in 1944.
In the 1920s the United States had a booming aircraft manufacturing sector. However, it was hobbled like most industries around the world by the Great Depression. From this nadir a phenomenal achievement by men, women, companies, militaries, and governments working together was undertaken and completed.
US Prewar Annual Aircraft Production Data
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Source: Holley , Irving Brinton, Jr. “United States Army In World War II Special Studies Buying Aircraft: Materiel Procurement For The Army Air Forces.” 1964, Page 10, Center of Military History United States Army, Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 64-60000, https://history.army.mil/html/books/011/11-2/index.html, Data accessed on July 12, 2022
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