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British DH-4

Dayton-Wright produced the British DH-4 under license during World War I. The Model 4B-5 was nicknamed the Honeymoon Express because of its cozy cabin for two.

Standard J-1 monoplane

The Standard J-1 monoplane was an Army trainer used in World War I. Dayton-Wright, Fisher Body Works, and Wright Martin all built it.

Standard SJ-1 trainer

The Standard SJ-1 trainer was the best known product of Standard Aircraft Corporation.

Dayton-Wright XPS-1

The Dayton-Wright XPS-1 was the first army plane with retractable landing gear.

Vought VE-7 Bluebird military trainer

The Vought VE-7 Bluebird was an advanced military trainer, observer, and fighter of World War I.

The U.S. Aircraft Industry During World War I

The United States did not produce any aircraft of its own design for use at the front during World War I. Nevertheless, the war served as an impetus for the infant industry and gave several aircraft companies their start. Most wartime production revolved around the manufacture of training aircraft, of the British De Havilland DH-4 fighters, and of aircraft engines, where the automobile companies dominated. During peak production late in 1918, the U.S. aircraft industry employed more than 200,000 people.

Before beginning mass production, the U.S. government decided it would focus its efforts on producing a single European aircraft. In May 1917, the War Department sent the Bolling Commission, headed by Raynal C. Bolling of United States Steel, to Europe to inspect the industry and determine which aircraft to produce. They selected the British DH-4, designed by Geoffrey de Havilland. They chose the De Havilland partly because the British government granted free use of its license for the aircraft rather than because of any superiority to French aircraft, which required payment of a royalty to produce.

Not everyone favored this decision. The industry pioneer Groever Loening felt that promising U.S. aircraft designs such as the Martin MB-1 bomber, the Vought trainer, the Loening M-8, and the Thomas-Morse MB-3 were ignored in favor of foreign designs. He also felt that a conspiracy by the automobile companies existed to dominate the aircraft industry even before the war began. The decision to concentrate on a single aircraft also was criticized. Eventually, the Aircraft Production Board agreed a poor decision had been made, but the plan was abandoned too late for it to affect the war.

The largest contracts for manufacturing the DH-4 went to Dayton-Wright in Dayton, Ohio; Glenn L. Curtiss in Buffalo, New York; Fisher Body in Detroit, Michigan, and Standard Aero in New York. The contracts to these U.S. companies, however, were not without criticism. Some alleged that these companies lacked experience and that more experienced companies had been passed over. Critics also accused the companies of inflating their costs to increase their profits. And in spite of their best efforts, compared to the total number of aircraft used in the war, the number of DH-4s produced in the United States and shipped to Europe was small. Most U.S. troops in Europe flew French-made aircraft.

When the United States entered the war, bitter patent litigation had been going on for the last decade. At the urging of the government, the feuding companies joined to form the Manufacturers Aircraft Association. The members of this association entered into cross-licensing agreements that allowed manufacturers to use the technology that others had patented by paying a fee. The size of the fee depended on the significance of the patented technology. The largest fees—$2 million—went to the Wright and Curtiss companies. (The Wright brothers began the Wright Company in 1909. Orville sold his interest in the company in 1915—Wilbur had died in 1912—to a group of investors. These investors, in 1916, merged it with the Glenn L. Martin Company and the Simplex Automobile Company to create the Wright-Martin Company, which was primarily an engine producer. It was reorganized once again in 1919 as the Wright Aeronautical Company—an innovative and successful aeronautical engine company.)

Federal policy during the war dictated that the government should not rely exclusively on private industry for all its aircraft needs. Consequently, the U.S. government established the Naval Aircraft Factory (NAF) at the Philadelphia Shipyards to design and produce wartime aircraft as well as serve as a check on industry costs and profits. The facility was completed on November 28, 1917. Although industry resisted its establishment and its intrusion into the private sector, the NAF succeeded in designing and producing a number of naval airplanes. Its production included 50 Curtiss H-16s, and a total wartime production of 183 flying boats plus spare parts for the craft. It also built four Navy-designed Davis Gun Carriers.

In addition to the growth experienced by existing aircraft companies, a number of new aircraft companies sprung up during the war. The Dayton-Wright Company was one of these. The company was formed in 1917 by a group of Ohio investors that included Charles F. Kettering and Edward A. Deeds of Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (DELCO). Orville Wright lent his name and served as a consultant, but, except for its location on the site of the original Wright Company in Dayton, Ohio, Dayton-Wright had no connection to the Wright brothers. During the course of the war, Dayton Wright produced about 3,000 DH-4s, as well as 400 Standard SJ-1 trainers. But the company was hurt by the reputation of the DH-4s it produced as "flaming coffins" as well as by the scandals it faced.

Deeds and Kettering had previously worked together in several ventures. Deeds' DELCO produced automobile self-starters developed by Kettering. The two used DELCO's profits to form the Dayton Metal Products Company. Then they formed the Dayton Airplane Company in 1917, which was soon reorganized as the Dayton-Wright Company. When the war began, Deeds was commissioned and put in charge of procurement for the Aircraft Production Board. He divested himself of his financial interest in Dayton-Wright but awarded the company two contracts to produce more than 4,000 DH-4 and Standard J-1 aircraft. Given the company's inexperience, the size of its contract led to charges of favoritism. A Senate committee corroborated these allegations, and President Woodrow Wilson appointed a commission headed by future Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes to investigate. Although mismanagement and favoritism were documented, charges were not brought, and the company survived the scandal. It went on to produce the XPS-1, the first airplane held by the U.S. Army with retractable landing gear. Dayton-Wright closed in 1923 when General Motors, which had purchased it in 1919, left the aircraft business.

Lewis and Vought also was established to profit from the opportunities presented by the war. Vought had worked as an engineer and designer since 1909, learned to fly in 1910, and in 1916 became the chief designer of the Wright Company. He designed the Wright-Martin V, which first flew in September 1916. In 1917, with the financial backing of Birdseye Lewis, Lewis and Vought was established. After Boeing, the company (under various names) is the oldest airframe manufacturer in the United States. The company decided to concentrate on producing much-needed trainers. Vought's design of the successful VE-7 "Bluebird" in 1917 provided the basis for establishment of the Chance Vought Corporation in 1922.

Another wartime firm, Standard Aero Corporation, was a 1916 re-creation of an earlier flying boat company headed by John A. Sloan, son-in-law of Thomas Edison. The Standard Aircraft Corporation was formed from Standard Aero when the United States entered the war in April 1917. Its best-known product was the SJ-1 trainer, which was produced by other companies such as Dayton-Wright as well as by Standard. Standard built about 800 of the SJ-1; Dayton Wright built about 400.

The Lawrence Sperry Aircraft Company was another wartime company with a short lifetime. It was established on May 5, 1917, by Lawrence Sperry, a talented engineer who was granted 26 aviation patents. Sperry had begun experimenting with gyroscopic stabilizers in 1913, which led to a practical automatic pilot. He built the first U.S. amphibians and in 1915, developed the first retractable landing gear. Sperry designed an aerial torpedo that used his gyroscope as the basis for its automatic pilot. It would be a forerunner to the guided missile, but it was not put into production. His Messenger, a light sportplane or "flivver," was produced for the Army Air Service, and he collaborated with the designer Alfred Verville on a pursuit ship for the Army. Unfortunately, Sperry crashed into the English Channel at the end of 1923, and his company died with him.

By the end of the war, the aircraft publication Jane's (1919) listed some 31 aircraft manufacturers in the United States. Only a few contributed significantly to war production. Still, at its peak, wartime employment approached 175,000, and manufacturers were building at the rate of 12,000 or more aircraft per year by the end of the war. But with the war's end, production shrunk to almost nothing. Only a few manufacturers would survive.

—Judy Rumerman


Crouch, Tom. The Bishop's Boys – A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1989.

Jane's All the World's Aircraft, 1919 . London: Sampson Low, Marston and Co., 1919.

Millbrooke, Anne. Aviation History. Englewood, Col.: Jeppesen Sanderson, Inc. 1999, 2000.

Pattillo, Donald M. Pushing the Envelope - The American Aircraft Industry. Ann Arbor, Mich.: The University of Michigan Press, 1998.

"The Man, His Machines, and the Company He Built." Vought Heritage Museum. http://www.vought.com/his_index.html

Educational Organization

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Content of Standard

International Technology Education Association

Standard 6

Students will develop an understanding of the role of society in the development and use of technology.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 7

Students will develop an understanding of the influence of technology on history.