The American Aerospace Industry During World War II

A nearly completed B-17 Flying Fortress at the Boeing aircraft plant in Seattle, Washington.

Production of B-24 bombers and C87 transports at Consolidated Aircraft Corp. in Fort Worth, Texas.

View of the B-25 final assembly line at North American Aviation’s Inglewood, California, plant.

Assembling B-25 bombers at North American Aviation in Kansas City, Kansas.

P-51 Mustang fighters being prepared for test flight at the field of North American Aviation in Inglewood, California.

Woman working on an airplane motor at North American Aviation in California.

Girls on roller skates expedite aircraft production as they deliver interdepartmental messages at Douglas Aircraft in El Segundo, California.

This famous poster of “Rosie the Riveter” was created by J. Howard Miller and produced by Westinghouse for the War Production Coordinating Committee.

The U.S. aircraft industry experienced huge growth during World War II. Moreover, its achievements, some claim, were as important to Allied victory as the military successes on the battlefield. American industry was fortunate in that it could operate without threat of air bombardment or other military damage to factories and without shortages of critical materials. And the industry used those advantages fully.

The statistics are remarkable. During 1939-1945, the industry became the largest single industry in the world and rose from 41st place to first among industries in the United States. From 1939, when fewer than 6,000 planes a year were being produced, the industry doubled production in 1940 and doubled it again in 1941 and 1942. In the first half of 1941, it produced 7,433 aircraft, more than had been produced in all of 1940. From January 1, 1940, until V-J Day on August 14, 1945, more than 300,000 military aircraft were produced for the U.S. military and the Allies—with almost 275,000 after Pearl Harbor. In the peak production month of March 1944, more than 9,000 aircraft came off the assembly lines. By the spring of 1944, more aircraft were being built than could be used and production began to be curtailed.

By the end of 1943, 81 production plants were in operation for aircraft bodies (airframes), engines, and propellers, with another five plants in Canada. Total factory space, including engine and propeller production, was 175 million square feet (16 million square meters). Peak workforce, reached at the end of 1943, was 2,102,000. The dollar value of the industry’s 1939 output rose from $225 million to some $16 billion for 1944.

The aircraft industry also became national. In 1940, 87 percent of airframe manufacturers, measured in square feet of floor space were located in five states, with 65 percent along or near one of the coasts. California alone had 44 percent. Close to three-quarters of engine and propellers producers were concentrated in just three states. In contrast, in 1944, 12 states shared 85 percent of airframe floor space, and California had dropped to 24 percent. Engine and propeller manufacturing had also decentralized. Most wartime expansion took place inland due to concerns over coastal attacks.

Although neutral, the United States slowly started gearing up for war after the November 1938 Munich Conference. President Franklin Roosevelt ordered a preparedness program and an Air Force of some 10,000 planes. From 1939, both the Air Corps and Navy began expanding. Legislation passed in 1939 authorized the Army Air Corps to develop and procure 6,000 new planes, increase personnel to 3,200 officers and 45,000 enlisted, and appropriate $300 million.

A large portion of early aircraft production was exported. On March 25, 1940, U.S. industry was authorized to sell freely to friendly nations. During the spring of 1940, British and French orders totaled more planes than the U.S. government had authorized for its own military in all of 1939. Lend-Lease, from 1941, also increased the number of aircraft going abroad.

In May 1940, President Roosevelt stated that he wanted the U.S. aircraft industry able to turn out at least 50,000 planes a year. This involved expanding from little more than 2,000 planes per year to 4,000 per month.

The government developed programs to expand production capacity. First the Emergency Plant Facilities program and then the Defense Plant Corporation (DPC) were established to help construct new plants. The DPC, established in August 1940, built, equipped, and held title to several aircraft assembly plants, which then were leased to the manufacturers. These included new plants for Fisher Body, Douglas, and Bell companies, all located inland, and eightfold expansion of the Curtiss-Wright St. Louis plant. Engine plants were financed as well.

The automobile and related industries accounted for a major portion of aircraft production. The Automotive Council for War Production, formed at the end of 1941, coordinated and fostered cooperation within the industry relating to aircraft production. Automobile production was suspended entirely in 1942, and the industry’s total capacity went to the war effort, with a major part of that to aircraft.

Automobile manufacturers assumed that automobile assembly-line methods would translate to aircraft manufacturing. They soon learned, however, that these techniques needed to be modified. Aircraft required large open-bay factory layouts, since they extended physically in all directions. Aircraft were also more complex to produce and required far more precision than motorcars.

There was also the problem of reconciling standardization of parts and the need for large production volume with necessary design changes. Designs were often frozen to expedite production and many aircraft were completed with flaws, which had to be fixed before aircraft could be used. To deal with this, manufacturers operated major modification centers. Changes were also needed based on front-line experience and the armed forces had centers to refit planes. Even so, additional changes were often made when planes reached front-line bases.

After much effort, aircraft production largely succeeded in shifting from the “job shop,” where parts were built in batches, to assembly line production. The Ford Willow Run plant near Detroit, Michigan, was the largest and most successful example. Eventually, the enormous plant reached remarkable levels of production, turning out 5,476 B-24 bombers in 1944-45. In 1944, Willow Run alone produced 92 million pounds of airframe weight—more than half of Germany’s total annual production and nearly equal to Japan’s 12-month total.

Perhaps the industry’s greatest achievement after the sheer quantities produced was its ability to design, produce, and service new combat aircraft after the war had begun. The B-29 Superfortress, A-26 Invader, P-51 Mustang, P-61 Black Widow, F6F Hellcat, and P-47 were newly designed and produced during the war. One example, the P-51 Mustang, resulted from a proposal by North American Aviation in 1940 for an entirely new plane designed to British specifications. And when the Merlin engine replaced the Allison engine, the plane became arguably the outstanding U.S. fighter of the war.

Organizing production also was critical. The Office of Production Management succeeded the National Defense Advisory Commission in 1941, and had responsibility for plant site selection. Its Aircraft Division’s first task was to involve the automobile industry in aircraft production. In January 1942, the War Production Board was established, succeeding the Supplies, Priorities, and Allocations Board. The Air Technical Service Command (ATSC), formed on September 1, 1944, merged the Materiel Command and the Air Service Command and combined procurement and production, removing several layers of management in the process. Its Procurement Division managed all aircraft production.

West and East Coast manufacturers each set up their own organizations to coordinate production. In April 1943, the National Aircraft War Production Council was established to share technical reports between the two regional groups. It also effectively maintained communication among the War Production Board and the War and Navy departments.

Finding enough workers was difficult. Industry and the armed forces competed for the same men. One result was that women aircraft workers—idealized by the image of “Rosie the Riveter”—were employed in large numbers for the first time. Tens of thousands were hired, helping to swell the aircraft industry labor force to 2.1 million workers by the end of 1943.

Beginning in the spring of 1942, factories ran 24 hours a day, six to seven days a week. Aircraft production became more efficient. In 1941, 55,000 individual work hours were needed to turn out a B-17. By 1944, this had dropped to 19,000 hours.

Most light aircraft producers shifted over to war production. They worked as subcontractors, produced aircraft designed by other companies, and built military versions of their civilian designs. The industry produced flight trainers for crews of larger transports and bombers. They also produced drab olive versions of light planes for transporting officers and important wartime personnel. The wartime “Grasshopper” fleet used versatile and maneuverable planes like the Piper Cub J-3 for front-line service in liaison work, observation, artillery spotting, and evacuation of the wounded.

The wartime achievements of the aircraft industry rank among America’s most notable accomplishments. From a rather small beginning, the industry, aided by a huge governmental effort, grew to become the largest industry in the world and was a major factor in Allied victory.

—Judy Rumerman


Bilstein, Roger E. The American Aerospace Industry. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.

________. Flight in America. rev ed. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Cunningham, William Glenn. The Aircraft Industry: A Study in Industrial Location. Los Angeles: Lorrin L. Morrison, 1951.

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

Simonson, G.R. The History of the American Aircraft Industry – An Anthology. Cambridge, Mass.: The M.I.T. Press, 1968.


Courtesy Centennial of Flight web site